Grounded Costa Concordia cruise ship is ready to roll, literally

5:15 PM, Aug 22, 2013   |    comments
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Giglio, Italy (CBS NEWS) -- The biggest engineering feat ever to be attempted on a ship of its size is a few weeks away. After months of planning, design, fabrication and installation, the 114,000-ton Costa Concordia cruise ship, which ran aground off the island of Giglio on January 13, 2012, is practically ready for parbuckling or rotation to an upright position. 

Months of work for close to 500 salvage operators have suffered some delays caused by weather conditions and by complications in efforts to drill and level the uneven granite seabed.

The Costa Concordia is now expected to be raised in the month of September but no official date has been announced yet by the Italian authorities or by the two companies - Titan Salvage from the United States and Micoperi from Italy - that were awarded the recovery project. The man in charge of coordinating all of the operations is a 52-year-old South African captain and salvage master called Nick Sloane who has worked on some of the world's major maritime disasters during his career.

The final phase of works on the ship, completed during this third week in August, involved the installation of two massive tanks, known as the "blister sisters" on the bow of the ship.

"The blister tanks are like a large cervical collar you put on a patient with a spinal injury, like a neck brace, that will stabilize the whole bow during the parbuckling and reduce any chance of further damage", Sloane told CBS News as the massive tanks stood on one of the many salvage rigs and barges that now surround the Costa Concordia.

Aside from the blister tanks, which provide 6,000 tons of buoyancy, 11 other tanks or "sponsons" have been attached to the port side of the ship. When the ship is rotated, if all goes according to plan, it will come to rest on six steel platforms that have been placed on the sea bed, on the offshore side. Because the ship is lying on two underwater reefs with a valley in between, salvage workers and divers had to pump 18,000 tons of cement into grout bags that were used to fill the gap to support the ship's hull.

"One of the bigger challenges was dealing with the granite slope of mountain underneath the water where we had to cut into the rock and set the anchor blocks which have chains attached to them going underneath the ship", said Sloane. "On the inshore side there are 11 towers and a strand-jack system that has been installed on both sides of the ship. Each one of these strand-jacks can be individually controlled and these will also help support her belly during parbuckling."

Salvage workers will be placing microphones and cameras in at least five different areas of the ship for constant monitoring of the operation, which is expected to take between eight and 10 hours.

"There will be a lot of noise and it's important that we listen to the different sections," said Sloane. "We can take measures and make adjustments depending on any twist and tortion on the ship. We are confident the ship will be coming upright and know the first 20 degrees of rotation are critical. It's going to be a long, nerve-racking day."

Once the parbuckling is complete, the next phase -- removing the ship from its present location and towing it to a mainland port for dismantling -- will have to wait another eight to 10 months for winter to pass.

One of the first priorities after the ship has been turned upright will be very high-definition survey of the whole starboard side, to assess its condition and decide how much more floatation will be needed to move the stricken vessel. The hope is that, with the addition of some further sponsons, the ship will float again.

To many residents on Giglio, the island will never be the same. Even when the ship is no longer casting its shadow on their coastline, there will still be work to be done to ensure the waters are returned to the pristine conditions they were known for prior to the maritime disaster.

Two of the 32 people killed when the Costa capsized are still missing and authorities hope to recover their bodies after the parbuckling. Officials also still need to empty the safe deposit boxes in the passenger cabins and return belongings to their legitimate owners.

Meanwhile, the trial of the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is due to resume in the Tuscan town of Grosseto on Sept. 23. He has been charged with manslaughter, causing the shipwreck by steering the Costa into rocks, and abandoning ship as a senior officer. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter.

Five other members of the Costa Concordia staffer were convicted of manslaughter in July and sentenced to less than three years each.

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