Photo Gallery: Salvaging the Costa Concordia

Foto: AP/ Vigili del Fuoco

Salvaging the 'Costa Concordia' Doomed Cruise Ship Prepares for Final Voyage

Disposing of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Tuscany in January 2012, will be the most spectacular salvage operation in the history of seafaring. The pressure on the team is huge: If anything goes wrong, the ship's operator will have another disaster on its hands.

Withered potted palms hang upside down over the rusty railing. Chairs lie scattered across the deck and devastated banquet tables can still be recognized under glass roofs. Viewed up close, from one of the coast guard's inflatable boats, the cruise ship Costa Concordia resembles a city that has been hastily evacuated.

The clock over the children's pool stopped at 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, the night that the ship ran aground.  By that time, captain Francesco Schettino  had long since abandoned ship, but passengers and crew were still fighting for their lives.

Nicholas Sloane, 51, a red-haired, freckled South African with hands like bear paws, is steering the rubber boat around the wreck. Before him looms the gaping gash in the large hull, many meters long, where part of the rock that caused the shipwreck was still embedded until recently. Above him, workers are hovering in a steel cage suspended from the swivel arm of a floating crane. He jokingly shouts to welders who are hanging against the sloping wall of the bow like mountain climbers.

Sloane is the senior salvage master for the Costa Concordia. He studied nautical science, and with his master's certificate he could command a luxury ocean liner like the Queen Mary 2 or a supertanker, but that kind of career has never interested him. Sloane doesn't steer ships -- he gets rid of them. For the past three decades, he has been working as a clean-up man on the world's oceans, raising sunken oil rigs and cutting up ships underwater. But his job on Giglio Island is to return the wreck to an upright position and tow it to a mainland harbor -- in the best possible condition and ideally still in one piece.

Then the TV camera crews will produce new images that his employers hope will overshadow the old ones that have been indelibly etched in our minds: the images of people desperately clambering down ropes on the side of the ship to reach the lifeboats. Thirty-two people died that night, including 12 Germans.

Like a Sea Dog and His Lover

The phone call from Florida-based company Titan Salvage reached Sloane while he was removing a freighter from a reef in New Zealand. He had never heard of Giglio, the so-called enchanted lily island, located between Elba, Montecristo and the coast of Tuscany. He thought of Italian red wine, pinot noir, which he highly appreciates. He called his wife and asked her if she wanted to meet up in "good old Europe." Forget it, his wife said. She had seen the horrific images from Giglio on TV. A few weeks ago, though, she changed her mind and visited him with their three children.

Sloane speaks tenderly and lewdly about the ship, like an old sea dog referring to his lover. He describes how he intends to bed her on a cement mattress -- how he plans to dress her in nappies, attaching floating pontoons to her flanks. His work uniform, a white polo shirt, is emblazoned with the mission's motto: "Determination & Love."

Sloan is acting on behalf of Costa Crociere, the Italian shipping company that owns the Costa Concordia. He currently commands some 100 engineers, 24 divers and roughly 100 additional specialists. If the salvage operation is a success, he says with a grin, he will stand triumphantly on the upper deck next to the pool. The plan is for the Costa Concordia to float again in the spring, albeit only for a brief final voyage -- and a great deal can happen in the meantime.


Graphics Gallery: How the Costa Concordia Will Be Raised


On the island of Giglio, they are currently preparing the most spectacular shipwreck towing maneuver in maritime history. Never before has such a colossal cruise ship been raised to an upright position. The vessel is 290 meters (951 feet) long and 36 meters (118 feet) wide. It has a displacement of 50,000 metric tons. To make matters worse, it's lying in a precarious position on a rocky slope and is in danger of sliding into deeper water. The salvage is expected to cost at least €300 million ($387 million) and will set new technical and environmental standards.

Indeed, the idea is to give a clean image to a tainted industry, to make a grand gesture after the grand fiasco. It's also hoped that, if the pleasure vessel can be salvaged in an exemplary fashion, it will send a strong signal to those who criticize the trend in the industry to build ever more enormous cruise ships. For Costa Crociere, the future is at stake; the shipping company has to win back trust. As part of its bid to do so, the company took a SPIEGEL team to view the wreck and presented details of its work for the first time.

No Plan B

A hotel in the harbor of Giglio serves as an organizational hub for the salvage crews. The windows of the "salvage room" on the ground floor are covered with blue curtains. Fans whir in the background. Young men wearing caps and rugged boots sit at laptops and chase away anyone who has no business being here.

Before the salvage operation can begin, a lot of purely mathematical work is required. Hundreds of files have been sent back and forth between Giglio and the Hamburg-based marine engineering company Overdick. The work involves complex calculation models to determine whether the ship has the structural strength to be rolled upwards. At the moment, the plan appears feasible and the hull should be able to withstand the lifting forces. But what happens if the critical area along the edge where the ship is rotated breaks apart? No one can say with absolute certainty that it will work -- and there is no plan B.

In early May, four months after the ship ran aground, a technical committee comprised of representatives of the shipping company, shipbuilding companies and additional experts awarded the contract to Titan Salvage and Micoperi, a company based in Ravenna, Italy that specializes in underwater constructions such as oil platforms. Six other companies had also bid on the project, including specialists working for Smit from Rotterdam, who until just a few weeks ago had been pumping the heavy fuel out of the wreck. The Dutch were so popular that Giglio residents performed a Mexican wave for them down at the harbor. Smit was also the company that achieved the feat in 2003 of cutting apart a sunken car freighter in the English Channel and removing it piece by piece.

The committee decided against cutting apart the Costa Concordia, and instead opted for the most expensive proposal -- the plan to bring the capsized ship to an upright position. To achieve this, they will use a kind of rolling maneuver called the parbuckling principle (see graphics gallery ). For the experiment, 33-meter high watertight steel boxes, or caissons, will be attached to the sides of the ship and used as floats. From an underwater platform deeply anchored in the bedrock, 36 steel cables, each as thick as a lamppost, will extend to the upper edge of the caissons. These cables will be used to almost silently rotate the ship out of its tilted position. It will have taken one year to painstakingly prepare the maneuver, but it will require less than two hours to perform it -- if all goes well.

Clash of Cultures

It has already become clear that the salvage operation with Titan Salvage and Micoperi has set the stage for the clash of two very different corporate cultures: One is a team of daredevil problem solvers who rope down from helicopters to the decks of stricken tankers and lasso abandoned ships on the high seas as if they were wild horses. The other is a group of designer engineers who work meticulously according to official guidelines, where each step is coordinated with the coast guard, the Environment Ministry, the region of Tuscany or the mayor of Giglio. In situations like this, Italy's bureaucrats can be very fussy. On numerous occasions, Micoperi engineers have urged their colleagues from Titan Salvage to show more respect for rules and regulations: "We are not in Bangladesh."

Captain Sloane often works in countries like Bangladesh. But he says this is the type of first-class salvage that only the industrialized world can afford.

There are certainly cheaper ways of dealing with wrecks. The most cost-effective solution is simply to leave it where it is. Blowing it up with dynamite is another solution. Sloane is an expert at doing that. He opens a folder on his laptop that he named "Blow Jobs" and shows films of stranded ships that collapse like high-rise buildings. "Blow jobs are always an option," says Sloane with a grin, "but not for Giglio."

The wreck is like a surprise package, he says, adding that you never know how much detergent and cosmetics, not to mention sheets and carpets, such an explosion would toss into the sea. And, of course, a demolition would show a lack of respect for the two corpses that are still presumed to lie within the ship's hold -- the bodies of a Sicilian passenger and a waiter from India.

Disaster Tourists Descend on the Island

During the day, on the balcony of the salvage room, the salvage engineers nervously puff on cigarettes. They glance out over beautiful tanned bodies, bikinis, parasols and children playing in the sand.

Directly under the balcony runs the well-beaten trail that leads to the rocks in front of the wreck, which shimmers in the sunlight only 200 meters away. Thousands of curious onlookers visit the island every day. Most remain for only a few hours. They walk to the rocks below the marine rescue center, picnic, rent beach chairs and swim out to the barrier in front of the wreck. And they take pictures of themselves in front of the gruesome backdrop, some even wearing masks of captain Schettino that they brought with them from the mainland.

The island used to be an insider tip, appreciated for its secluded location on the turquoise blue sea. French actress Brigitte Bardot used to come here, as did Italy's industrialist Agnelli family and the royal families from Greece and the Netherlands. But that was long ago. Now that Giglio has become world famous, the regular guests steer clear of the place. A type of cheap disaster tourism has descended on the island, although it has given the owners of local restaurants and bars the season of their life.

On this particular September morning, five cruise ship passengers from Mannheim, Germany are standing among the sunbathers on the rocks. They have just arrived on board the Liberty of the Seas; it is their 35th cruise. They have taken advantage of a few hours' landfall at Civitavecchia to race over here in a rented car. They say that they had to see the wreck with their own eyes because for a long time they simply refused to believe that such a ship could actually sink. Yes, they admit, there is the sensation-mongering aspect, plus the satisfaction of not being aboard that particular ship.

They listen to an explanation of the salvage operation. "Just let it sink? God forbid!" says one. "Cut it apart? Never! The ship may only leave the island with her head up high."

Saving Mussels

A professor has also pitched his camp on the tourists' trail that leads to the wreck. Giandomenico Ardizzone, 62, a gray-haired man in khaki shorts, is a marine ecologist from La Sapienza University in Rome. He is a quiet Italian man, and he cringes every time the tourists yell and splash. He would presumably rather be underwater among the sea creatures than on land among people.

Ardizzone's job is to ensure that the environment does not suffer from the removal of the Costa Concordia. He is working under pressure, seven days a week, and he has to give an account of his ongoing research results to commissions, the Environment Ministry in Rome and the inhabitants of Giglio at their weekly meetings. The environment is being given top priority during this project -- that much is clear.

Ardizzone says that he has never carried out research under such luxurious conditions. While his university is suffering from the economic crisis and Italy's austerity measures, he has a budget of €1 million. He finds that problematic.


Graphics Gallery: How the Costa Concordia Will Be Raised


The professor's laboratory is the seafloor in the area surrounding the wreck. He often dives down there and sends robots to scan every inch. He measures the amount of water pollution -- which is minor -- and monitors the degree to which the noises from the welding and drilling affect the flora and fauna.

Ardizzone's biggest coup to date was the transfer of Pinna nobilis. This mollusk, commonly known as the "noble pen shell," is a protected species that grows to a size of 80 centimeters (31 inches). He shows underwater photos of how he gathered the threatened mussels in the shadow of the wreck and settled them in rank and file a few hundred meters away. The area where they are standing upright in the sand and recovering from their ordeal resembles a cemetery, a monument in the sea.

Ardizzone sighs. Even he finds this initiative a bit ridiculous. He sees it as the token rescue of a mussel that hardly anyone has ever heard of. But when it comes to environmental protection, money is no object for the shipping company. It will go to any length to avoid the risk of criticism from environmentalists, such as the Greenpeace activists who have already been here and taken water samples.

Typical Islanders

The professor feels that the island has other problems, such as the blasting of granite cliffs that the inhabitants of Giglio used in the past to make expensive tiles. There is also the trash left by day-trippers, and the cigarette butts that they throw from the rocks into the sea. But Ardizzone is playing along. He's earning good money on this project. And he has a dream for the period after the wreck. He wants to create an underwater park. In his opinion, at least the platform should remain and not be scrapped like the wreck. The park would remind people of the accident, says Ardizzone, and they would learn something about nature conservation in the Mediterranean. That's the dream.

The shipping company doesn't want to hear about it -- and neither do the Giglio residents. Ardizzone says they are typical islanders, conservative and stubborn, and they want everything to be the way it was before: clean and calm. According to the professor, they would prefer to erase the disaster from human memory.

The shipping company would also like to forget about the ship's captain. Every time the name Francesco Schettino comes up, the press officer from Costa Crociere clears his throat and admonishes the engineers to answers questions "more diplomatically."

People are nervous at the shipping company. They and the parent company Carnival Corporation & plc are being sued for millions in compensation, and the trial of Captain Schettino is scheduled to begin on Oct. 15 in the town of Grosseto. As is often the case in Italy, the 270-page legal evaluation has been leaked to the press and is making the rounds before the proceedings begin. Italian newspapers are having a field day citing black-box excerpts of conversations on the bridge.

It appears that Schettino will remain the main defendant. But allegations leveled against the shipping company, involving their terrible crisis management that night and absurd linguistic problems on the bridge, have also been confirmed. The Indonesian helmsman reportedly did not correctly understand Schettino's commands on two occasions. It will also have to be clarified whether the shipping company had been informed of the so-called sail-by salute maneuver which the captain performed off the coast of Giglio -- an allegation that it vehemently denies. This is yet another reason why Costa Crociere is paying for a first-class salvage job; it cannot allow anything else to go wrong.

'I Would Tell Him to Go to Hell'

The priest on Giglio is free to speak his mind. Don Lorenzo, 62, a stout Milanese man, is not beholden to Costa Crociere, but rather only to God and the Gigliesi, as the locals are known. If Francesco Schettino came to him and wanted to make a confession, "I would tell him to go to hell," he says. But not before asking him a few questions: Why, for instance, did he leave his ship in the lurch and have nothing better to do than race to the Hotel Bahamas and change his clothes while, not even 10 meters away, the church was filling up with refugees from the ship?

Don Lorenzo is standing in front of his church and caressing the head of the hip-high Madonna statue that came from the ship's chapel on board the Costa Concordia. The shipping company gave it to him in gratitude for his actions.

Since that night in January, Don Lorenzo has been revered as one of the heroes of Giglio. It was shortly before midnight when the first passengers banged on the church door. They implored him to let them in. They were soaking wet and shivering; it was barely above freezing outside. Some were still in their evening clothes, others were wearing pajamas.

Before long, the church nave resembled a refugee camp, and the priest served tea and handed out blankets. People kept flowing in. There were 3,200 passengers on board and roughly 1,000 crew members, and he didn't know what to do. He called his bishop on the mainland and was told: "Don't give up, Jesus would have acted the same way."

When the passengers became panicky, Don Lorenzo grabbed a megaphone from a sobbing crew member. He managed to come up with a few words in German and English: "You are on the lily island, Tuscany, you have been saved, and I will take care of you." Then he took the last Christmas cookies from the parsonage, put one in each passenger's hand and gave them a hug.

The church now contains thank-you letters from around the world along with shoes and blankets that they sent back to him. The priest says that the season will soon be over and he hopes that even the disaster tourists will find a special place in their hearts for the island, not because of the ship, but because of the good people of Giglio. In a few months, he will join the bishop in sprinkling holy water on the bow of the ship. He is going to bless the Costa Concordia before it departs on its final voyage.

Creeping Away

If everything goes according to plan, the ship will leave Giglio on May 28. This date is printed in bold letters on the work schedule in the salvage room. But it will be difficult for the ship to sail with its head high, as cruise ship aficionados and the shipping company would have wished for. The buoyancy of the towering caissons will not be enough to lift the ship much higher than the waterline. The ship will have a draft of 18 meters, instead of its former 8.2 meters. On its last voyage, the giant will resemble a fishing cutter on crutches that is creeping away from the scene. With a speed of 2 knots, the Costa Concordia will be as slow as a pedestrian.

During the crossing to the mainland, senior salvage master Sloane will stand right at the top of the ship. The clean-up man of the oceans will have a temporary bridge built on the upper deck, in special glass enclosures near the pool. The ship will probably be dismantled and scrapped in the harbor of Palermo. In any case, Sloane will certainly be the last one to disembark.

He won't be wearing a white uniform festooned with golden epaulettes, nor will he ask anyone to join him for dinner at the captain's table, nor will he perform a "salute" maneuver off the coast. He sometimes imagines what kind of life it would have been to be the captain of a cruise ship.

"It must be hell," he says.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen