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All the superlatives apply to the marine salvage operation about to unfold off the Italian island of Giglio: largest, most expensive, most complicated. And first of its kind.
In an unprecedented feat of engineering that could make history or fail catastrophically, teams will begin Monday morning to hoist the wrecked Costa Concordia, which has been resting on its side atop two rocks near an ocean cliff for the last 20 months. The project's anticipated price tag: nearly $800 million.
Called "parbuckling," the job involves a complicated system of 56 enormous cables, 58 pulling machines, 11 multistory flotation tanks, six undersea platforms and 1,180 grout bags full of cement. Weather permitting, the process is scheduled to begin at first light on Monday in Italy, or roughly 1 a.m. Eastern time - 16 months after the initial work at the site began, and 20 months after the shipwreck in which 32 people died.
"If it doesn't work, then I don't think anybody can say it's because we did this wrong or that wrong," said Mark Hoddinott, general manager of the London-based International Salvage Union. "They've done everything right. Now they're going into this area where this has never been done with a ship this size before."
While the action will take place some 5,000 miles from Florida, the state's ties are strong: Carnival Corp., with headquarters in Doral, owns Italian cruise operator Costa Cruises. And Titan Salvage, one of the two firms awarded the contract for the salvage job, is based in Pompano Beach. The company is working with Italian marine contractor Micoperi.
Nick Sloane, Titan's senior salvage master, has been overseeing the operation on Giglio that involves more than 500 workers and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"It's a full-time operation; you can't afford to stop for anything," he said.
Initial plans called for the wreck to be removed by May 2013. In retrospect, Sloane called that timeline "unrealistic," highlighting the complication of bad weather during the winter and the difficulty of drilling into granite underneath the ship.
"Basically, the plan's modified quite a bit," he said in a telephone interview from Giglio. "We're already on Plan C or D . We've been adapting this the more we learn about her. We think we've got it just about right now."
Officials say the rotation of the ship, a tense balancing act, could take 10 to 12 hours.
"There will be a lot of noise, there will be a lot of minor steel parts that are going to break apart," Sloane said. "It's going to be quite a slow operation."
While parbuckling as an engineering concept has been historically used to right ships, it has never been tried with one so large. There is no option to start over or change gears if something goes awry.
First, the ship must be pulled free of the rocks, a difficult task because the hull has wrapped itself around the reef where it rests. Then, the winches will continue to pull the ship until the flotation tanks, called sponsons, reach sea level and can be filled with water. The water will help push the ship down to the platforms that await on the sea floor.
All the while, crews aboard a nearby barge will be monitoring the ship and making fine adjustments to the operation as needed. No one will be allowed to come onto the island or leave during the process, and nobody will be allowed in the water around the ship or on the vessel itself.
There will, however, be a huge audience. As of Friday, more than 300 members of the media had registered to cover the parbuckling from Giglio.
Tim Donney, head of marine risk consulting for Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, said that if the operation fails, the consortium would have to submit new plans to authorities - one of which could include cutting the vessel up on-site.
"But whether that would be approved, I don't know," he said. "You're doing everything possible to try to minimize the damage to the environment."
Allianz, which insured about 5 percent of the ship's hull, has estimated the total loss including ship, salvage, environmental damage and third-party claims at $1.7 billion.
Given the amount of preparation the companies have done, Donney said he believes "there's certainly a very good chance" of success.
"The critical question is how badly damaged is the hull structure," he said. "Can it withstand parbuckling? That's the big unknown."
The upcoming operation is a key step in the ultimate removal of the 950-foot vessel, though certainly not the last. Once the ship is upright, the state prosecutor will send divers in to look for the two missing victims. Only after that will the salvage crews be able to assess the damage to the ship's starboard side and determine the best way to move forward.
For now, plans call for attaching four more sponsons to the port side and 15 to the starboard side, which Sloane says he hopes to be able to do by spring. Major work cannot be done during the winter because of harsh weather.
Ultimately, the 30 sponsons bracketing the ship will be pumped full of air, acting like a child's water wings, which should refloat the vessel and allow it to be towed to a still-unnamed port so it can be cut up for scrap. Even if all goes according to plan, the ship will likely remain in the environmentally sensitive waters off Giglio's shore until early next summer.
With more than 4,200 people on board, the 114,000-ton cruise ship struck rock on the evening of Jan. 13, 2012, when its captain, Francesco Schettino, allegedly veered on an unauthorized path too close to land. In the chaotic aftermath, the ship took on water and listed on its side; frantic passengers scrambled for lifeboats or jumped into the cold waters and swam ashore.
The bodies of 30 passengers and crew were recovered. Two are still missing and expected to be found once the ship is raised.
Five Costa employees have reached plea bargains for charges including manslaughter and negligence, but the manslaughter and abandonment trial for Schettino is expected to resume at the end of the month. He could face up to 20 years in prison.