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Giglio, Italy - Salvage crews are working against time to remove the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship, which is steadily being crushed under its own weight on its granite seabed off the Tuscan island of Giglio. Officials said Monday that if this attempt fails, there won't be a second chance.
Nick Sloane, the leader of the operation, said the Concordia has compressed some 10 feet since it came to rest on the rocks Jan. 13, 2012 after ramming a jagged reef during a publicity stunt allegedly ordered by the captain; 32 people were killed.
Sloane, an engineer for U.S.-owned company Titan Salvage, said experts would have one chance to pull the ship upright and float it away to the mainland for demolition. The attempt will probably take place in mid-September. "We cannot put it back" down and start over, Sloane said.
Sloane spoke aboard a work boat as he accompanied journalists for a close-hand look at the wreckage on the eve of the trial of Capt. Francesco Schettino, who is charged with manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all passengers had been evacuated. The trial, which was supposed to get underway July 9, was postponed until Wednesday due to a lawyers' strike.
The timetable to remove the Concordia has also suffered delays. The original timetable envisioned removal before start of this summer, but harsh weather undermined those plans.
"We had a rough winter," said Sloane, explaining that winter's rough sea conditions made it risky for diving teams to install cement-filled bags that would provide a more stable base on which to roll the ship upright.
Sloane said the granite seabed also proved more resistant to drilling than planned, "like trying to drill through glass at a 45 degree angle."
Pressure to make the unprecedented operation succeed is high because the difficulties will only grow with time.
"Another winter and we might not be able to parbuckle," Sloane said, using the nautical term for righting a ship. He explained that the ship might compress even further, making it more difficult to right it.
The project calls for dozens of crane-like pulleys flanking the ship to slowly start tilting the vessel upright at a rate of 3 meters per hour.
On Monday several welders moved like Spiderman on the now horizontal hull, securing the steel pieces which will function like hooks to fasten the 17,000-ton steel chains looped under the wreck to help pull it upright. So far 18 chains have been laid, with the remaining four to be put in place over the next few days.
To work on the tilted wreck, the welders were given five days of climbing training on nearly sheer granite rocks on the island by instructors from Italy's Dolomite mountains.
Crews are also attaching caissons, or tanks, to the exposed flank of the Concordia. The caissons will be filled with water to add weight and help pull the ship upright. Identical caissons will be attached to the submerged side of the ship once it's righted. The caissons on both sides will then be filled with air to float the ship up off the rocks so it can be towed away.
The 70-meter-long gash on the Concordia's hull has been largely covered with metal plates, though an exposed 10 foot wide hole remains, resembling a truck garage entrance. Crews said there was no need to patch that remaining hole.
Right above the gash was the passenger dining room, whose big picture windows gave diners a view of the lights of Giglio as the Concordia tried to glide close the coast in the blackness of a winter's night.
The ship, though, slammed into the reef off Giglio and then drifted into port, where it capsized. Passengers described a frantic and delayed evacuation, with the bridge initially insisting to inquiring coast guardsmen that the ship had merely suffered a blackout.
Bodies of two of the victims - an Italian passenger and of a Filipino waiter - were never found.
Every day, divers "see mattresses and towels hanging from balconies. Every time they see it, they are very aware ... there are still bodies" possibly under the wreck, Sloane said.
Franco Porcellacchia, coordinator of removal plans for Costa, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., estimated that the removal would cost about 500 million euros, paid for by insurers.
While Giglio fretted about losing tourists because of the wreck, the island's port bustled with vacationers Monday. And the removal has brought new business: Two hotels overlooking the wreck are booked year-round by crews.
At cafes near the port on Monday, welders in work jumpsuits and rubber boots rubbed elbows with sunbathers in shorts and flip-flops.