GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy – Salvage workers in Italy on Monday prepared to work through the night to drag upright the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its watery grave before bad weather strikes in an unprecedented and delayed operation.
Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy’s civil protection agency which is overseeing the U.S.-Italian project, said he expected the operation only to be completed early on Tuesday.
He said there had been a delay as the lifting was expected to finish by 1900 GMT on Monday. He also warned there was now “great concern” about a forecast of high winds and waves on Tuesday.
The 290-meter (951-foot) vessel – longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy – could be seen gradually emerging from its resting place close to the tiny port of Tuscany’s stunning Giglio island.
The side of the 114,500-ton ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown after 20 months in the sea, contrasting with the white of the exposed side.
The salvage is the biggest ever for a passenger ship.
After nine hours of hoisting, supervisors of the Italian-U.S. project said the vessel had lifted by an angle of around 13 degrees towards the vertical axis.
Once it has risen by 24 degrees, the ship will begin righting itself thanks to gravity and to the giant tanks welded onto one side which will fill with water.
Work had to be suspended for an hour as salvage workers moved spare cable that was getting in the way of four of the 36 giant cables hoisting up the ship.
The project has cost 600 million euros ($800 million) and insurers, who are picking up the bill, estimate it could run to $1.1 billion once it is completed.
Salvage coordinators meanwhile played down environmental fears of toxic waste pouring into the sea, saying there had been no spillages so far.
The man giving the orders from a control room on a barge is Nick Sloane, a South African with years of experience on some of the world’s biggest shipwrecks.
Giglio islanders whose lives have been turned upside down by the wreck said they were relieved that the time when the ship will finally be removed was drawing closer.
They will have months more to wait, as the towing away is not planned until spring of next year at the earliest when the ship will eventually be scrapped.
Some 400 journalists witnessed the event and the island’s tiny port was swarming with officials, rescuers and curious onlookers since the early morning.
“All the inhabitants are hoping and waiting,” said Giovanna Rum, owner of a shop for maritime clothing.
The 14-deck Costa Concordia was once a floating pleasure palace with a casino, four swimming pools and the largest spa centre ever built on a ship.
It struck rocks just off Giglio after veering sharply towards the island in a bravado sail-by allegedly ordered by its captain, Francesco Schettino.
Dubbed “Captain Coward” and “Italy’s most hated man” for apparently abandoning the ship while passengers were still on board, Schettino is currently on trial.
Four crew members and the head of ship owner Costa Crociere’s crisis unit have received short prison sentences for their roles in the crash.
The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board when it crashed on Jan. 13, 2012, claiming 32 lives.
It keeled over in shallow waters within sight of Giglio’s port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later – a fatal delay.
By that time, lifeboats on one side of the ship were virtually unusable because of the tilt and there was panic as people rushed for the remaining ones.
Hundreds were forced to either jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Two bodies – that of an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger – were never recovered from the wreck and are believed to be still stuck under the ship.
Newspaper columnists said the righting of the ship was a chance at “rehabilitation” for Italy after the damage it suffered from tales of Schettino’s alleged antics.
“What is left of Italy’s reputation and credibility is playing out on this chunk of rock,” said Enrico Fierro, a columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.