Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of the tiny, idyllic island of Giglio, about 12 miles off Italy’s Tuscany coast, has become a maritime salvage expert since the massive Costa Concordia cruiseliner crashed onto his island’s shores the night of January 13, 2012. The island’s permanent population is just under 900, and when the Concordia capsized with 4,229 passengers and crew on board, the wave of humanity that poured onto the island sent the residents into a state of shock they have not yet recovered from.

Since then, more than 500  salvage workers have taken over the place, in an 18-month scramble to reinforce the damaged hulk, free it from the underwater rocks it is snagged on and float it away. They are scheduled to pull the ship free in the next few weeks. If the operation goes well it will be the greatest success in the history of maritime salvage. But if a single thing goes wrong, the boat will tear apart or sink whole, causing an environmental disaster (see "Refloating the Wrecked Costa Concordia Cruise Ship Could Ruin Marine Sanctuary"  ). Either way, the island and its people will never be the same, because the bloody night of the accident and the occupation since then have left an indelible mark. “How can we forget the survivors who looked to us for help, or the families who came to get the bodies of their loved ones?” Ortelli asks.

A Terrible Night

At 9:42 p.m. on that infamous Friday the 13th night, the Concordia, under the questionable navigational skills of Italian captain Francesco Schettino, hit an outcropping of rocks just 450 feet from Giglio’s shore. The ship had just left the port of Civitavecchia, north of Rome, two and a half hours earlier. Schettino was doing a fly-by, essentially diverting the massive liner from its safe sea route between Giglio and the Tuscan mainland, cutting close to the island to blow the horn three times in a maritime salute to a former Costa captain who had retired there. The partially submerged rocks—clearly marked on maritime maps—tore a 165-foot gash in the port side of the hull, compromising three of the ship’s seven lower compartments, which quickly filled with water.

The Concordia was traveling 15 knots at the time of impact. The momentum created a force strong enough to break an 80-ton chunk of rock off the seabed, which became embedded in the ship’s hull. Powerless and rudderless, the Concordia skimmed past the harbor towards open waters before either a force or nature or Schettino’s good luck allowed the ship to make a slow, 360-degree turn, so it could head south back toward the island. But at 10:44 p.m. the ship capsized in 60 feet of water, hung up on an underwater cliff just a few feet from the island’s rocky shore. Six minutes later, at 10:50 p.m., when the ship was listing 70 percent off center, the captain called for passengers to abandon ship. Had the vessel sank into the deep water off the cliff, the catastrophe would surely have been much worse. But the weight of the boulder and the uneven distribution of the water through the hull acted as a counterbalance, keeping the top-heavy ship precariously perched on the edge of the cliff, swaying with each wave that hit it, like a child’s toy in a bathtub.

 Ortelli remembers the night vividly. He was having dinner when suddenly saw the ship leaning to its side, still lit up, out of his living room window. He knew immediately that something extraordinary was about to happen. He ran to the harbor as the first lifeboats were coming in and quickly called the island’s hotel proprietors, the local bus company and quay-side café owners, asking them to come down to the port and open their businesses for the thousands of passengers who would be making their way to shore. Word got around quickly. The townspeople came en masse with warm blankets, dry clothes and food. Survivors of the wreck slept in the pews of the local church and on the floors of the coffee bars until daylight, when ferries could shuttle them to the mainland. More than 40 people slept in the mayor’s office that night, many of them freezing in thin blankets, still in their wet clothes after swimming ashore. Thirty-two people died in the disaster and 60 were seriously injured, most from hitting the side of the ship as they jumped to safety. “People were bleeding and swimming with broken arms and legs,” Ortelli told Scientific American in his port-side office, motioning to the window that now perfectly frames the rusting shipwreck like a portrait on the wall. “It was like a scene from a movie, but it wouldn’t stop. The people just kept coming.”

Get Rid of the Oil

Since the accident, Ortelli has had to guide his island through a bizarre trauma that has no precedent. A passenger ship as big as the Concordia had never shipwrecked before—let alone on an island as tiny as Giglio. Today, the picturesque coastline is marred by the rotting carcass of the ship, and the islanders are scarred for life. Their once-tranquil haven has been taken over by a burly, 460-strong multi-national salvage crew, a steady stream of global media and nosey tragedy tourists who day-trip over from the Italian mainland to gawk at the ship.

The Concordia rests precariously on two underwater rocks that are neither flat nor necessarily stable. Environmentalists were immediately worried that the ship would break apart from its uneven weight on the uneven seabed, or worse, that she would slip about 200 feet into deeper waters with full fuel tanks that would burst under the water pressure. Cleanup crews put oil booms in place even before the last live passengers were rescued three days after the crash.  The booms have since been reinforced to create a double barrier in case something goes wrong.

Environmental worry is intense because the island is tucked inside the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, a protected haven for scores of water mammal species—the largest park of its kind in Europe. On a clear day, dolphins and whale calves can be spotted in the tranquil deep waters off the coast. The island is just eight square miles in area, and is only 10 percent inhabited. The rest is covered with lush flora, which makes a perfect landscape for hikers. Lavender and heather bushes grow wild, and giant strawberry plants imbue the air with a perfumed scent in the springtime. Naturalists dive and explore the world-renowned Posidonia underwater meadows and snorkel among the unique coral reefs. Giglio also draws bird watchers who come to see the cormorants, red partridges, woodcocks and kestrels that nest there. But now only a fraction of the birds are nesting, chased away by seagulls that have been attracted to the floating food of the shipwreck.

The salvage operation has been a multi-phase and multi-million dollar thorn in Ortelli’s side that began just days after the ship crashed. The first priority was to remove 2,500 metric tonnes of heavy bunker oil the ship had just loaded in Civitavecchia for its seven day cruise around the Mediterranean, without spilling a drop into the pristine waters.

The Dutch salvage company SMIT set to work to extract the fuel from the 17 partially submerged tanks. Workers slowly heated the tanks with steam to soften the gelled substance in order to siphon it out. As the oil came out they pumped seawater into the empty tanks to maintain the ship’s perilous equilibrium. Once the fuel was unloaded, a tanker shipped it back to the Italian port town of Genoa to be reused in Costa’s fleet, docked at the Costa headquarters there.

The potential for a fuel spill was by far the most dangerous environmental threat of the salvage operation, but it involved other complications. Scientists knew, for example, that the sea life would suffer from the constant hum of heavy machinery; shortly after the defueling operation began, SMIT  lowered tubes into the water to pump in compressed air, creating a barrier of bubbles that would insulate the marine park water outside the site from the noise, shielding the dolphins and porpoises. Many sections of coral have been temporarily repositioned.  And 200 pinna nobilis, or pen shelled clams, that were at risk of being destroyed in the salvage operation, have been relocated to nearby waters until the ship is gone.

Float It, Don’t Blow It

Even with the fuel out of the way, the Concordia still represented serious environmental issues. Costa had to find a salvage company to remove it as quickly as possible. The project, worth an estimated $400 million, is the largest-ever attempted maritime salvage. Ships that big are usually blown up or sunk. But Italy’s environmental ministry backed the people of Giglio to pressure Costa to find a company that would refloat the ship rather than destroy it or break it up and haul away on barges. Given its precarious location and the time it would take to dismantle—not to mention the pollution, noise and risks to the environment—the only option was to remove the ship in one piece. That would be a daunting task. The Concordia is 955 feet long and 126 feet wide at the beam. It weights just over 114,000 tonnes. More than 65 percent of it is submerged under water, balancing above a seabed that is made up of coral reefs and sand bars.

Six major international salvage companies bid on the project but it was awarded to Titan Salvage in Pompano Beach, Fla. Titan teamed with Italian firm Micoperi, which specializes in underwater engineering and construction. The Titan-Micoperi group then hired a 51-year-old freelance salvage master from South Africa named Nick Sloane, a charismatic sea captain who is not exactly risk-adverse. Sloane is well known in the salvage industry. He has worked on some of the largest cargo ship accidents in the world. He has a file of photos and videos on his iPhone depicting all the ships he’s blown up in his long career. His favorite is one where he is hanging perilously on the hook of a crane above a burning vessel.

Sloane moved to Giglio last June to oversee the operation. He has become somewhat of a legend on the island, and an unlikely ally of Mayor Ortelli. The two speak in Ortelli’s broken English and Sloane’s remedial Italian, but they both have the same goal: to get the Concordia off the island as soon as possible. “Nick is an optimist,” says Ortelli, who busies himself with memorizing the evolving plans and watching movies like Titanic. “Maybe too much so. It will take more than optimism to remove the boat.”

The people of Giglio want nothing more than to get the twisted wreckage off their tranquil paradise as soon as possible, but they have to rely on the temperament of the sea and the resolve of the rugged salvage masters to see their wish come true. Sloane and his crew can do whatever they want to the outside of the vessel, but they cannot go into the ship’s inner core without approval because it is a crime scene. There are still two bodies that have never been recovered; Sloane believes they are trapped between the ship and the rocks below. If Sloane finds them, officials will halt operations to bring in the coast guard to carry out recovery. The Concordia’s erstwhile captain, Francesco Schettino, and several crew members are facing manslaughter charges related to negligence in causing the accident and their poor judgment by delaying the call to abandon ship. During a solemn ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster, Sloane freed up a barge to drop the boulder that had been dislodged from the Concordia’s hull back into the sea where it was hit. “Not a day goes by when we don’t think about why we are here and the lives that were lost,” he says. “The ghosts of this ship are a constant reminder.”

Eight Torturous Hours

Sloan’s crews have been working for 18 months, all leading to a single day that will prevent or cause disaster.

From sea level, the ship does not look like a ship at all. Instead it looks like a portside building—until one catches a glimpse of the deck chairs balancing precariously high above the faded, empty swimming pools that are now perpendicular to the sea. Tablecloths and curtains still float among chairs and tables, bumping up against the ship’s half-submerged windows. Giant barges and cranes docked near the sunken vessel have dwarfed it. Dive teams have set up sophisticated launch pads on smaller barges attached to the shipwreck’s edge. A floating dormitory where more than 400 salvage workers live lights up the night sky like a carnival. A constant drone emanates from underwater drilling, and subtle vibrations from the work causes water to lap up against the ship’s hull. A less-subtle stench comes from breezes that catch the inside of the ship and its putrid soup of kitchen oils, cleaning chemicals and rotting food. The vessel was equipped to feed 4,229 people for 10 days when it left Civitavecchia just three hours before it sank. Much of that food is still in sealed freezers in the ship’s pantry; no one wants any of it to escape into the water.

Sloane and his team will employ a procedure known as parbuckling, a technique using ropes and pulleys to upright the colossal vessel. They hope to tip the ship sometime in August. Because the ship is so heavy and its weight so awkwardly dispersed with marble spas and tiled swimming pools and gilded restaurants still intact, it has to be reinforced before it is lifted or it will break into pieces under its own weight. “Nothing like this has ever been attempted before,” Sloane told Scientific American on a private tour around the shipwreck and the salvage rigs. “But the more you plan and prepare, the luckier you get.”

The first phase of preparation for the parbuckling procedure was to secure the ship, quite literally, to the island using giant chains and turrets wrapped around the vessel to keep it from slipping. The turrets are fitted with computer-enhanced strandjacks attached to thick cables that will cradle the ship and keep it steady as it is tipped upright. Once steady, the team poured 18,000 tons of cement into thousands of removable grout bags to fill the space between the two underwater mountain tops the ship is stuck on, to further stabilize it. The cement was poured in bags with eyelets so they can be efficiently removed after the Concordia is gone. The salvage contract includes returning the environment back to its original state, which means removing every single structure built to move the ship and filling every hole made in the sandy seafloor to secure those structures. Sloane would have liked to see the structures turned into an artificial  reef or a salvage school, but he has little hope that Ortelli or the environmental ministry will agree.

Six massive platforms made of more steel than was used to build the Eiffel tower were then lowered onto pre-drilled underwater holes to create a bed on which the ship will eventually rest. The bed is the most crucial element in the entire operation. It has to hold the ship in place or the hulk  will sink to the bottom of the sea. When drilling the holes to fit the platforms, the team struggled against rough winter seas and sandy soil, losing valuable time.  There have been several injuries and one diver perished shortly after he surfaced, though his autopsy showed he died of natural causes.  At one point, Sloane had to hire two additional deep-sea drill teams to stay on schedule. Fifteen sponsons, or giant caissons the height of a 10-story building, were then welded to the above-water side of the ship, creating an exoskeleton that will help balance the ship and keep it intact. If all goes well, the ship will be pulled upright in a slow and steady motion, using the cables attached to the strandjacks to control its movements. Sloane estimates that the parbuckling will take around eight hours, during which time they will have control up to a certain point. “Then gravity will take over,” he says. “If we’ve done this right, the ship will right herself and rest on the platforms.”

If the ship holds together, if gravity cooperates and if the platforms hold, Concordia will come to rest. If not, it will break apart or it will sink, spilling its guts and destroying the fragile aquatic ecosystem that supports the marine life protected in the Pelagos Marine Sanctuary. If it sinks it will also scrape away the entire sea wall on its way down, destroying acres of seagrass and wiping out the coral reef beds.

Once upright, the ship will still be almost half submerged. Crews will weld sponsons onto that side as well. But Sloane warns that the underwater side of the ship will be a shocking sight when it comes up. Aside from the dark algae and rusty shell, the weight of the vessel has embed it onto the rocky bottom; the salvage team estimates that the wreckage on the underwater side extends about six meters into the inside of the ship. Sloane also predicts a deafening noise from twisting metal and crumbling walls as the interior of the ship contorts and turns during the parbuckling procedure. “Once she comes up she’s going to look nasty,” Sloane says. “It will look like a high-impact car accident.”

After the sponsons are attached to the previously submerged side, the contaminated water inside the boat will be pumped out into a tanker and disposed of. Then the ship will be refloated and towed to the mainland, where it will eventually be scrapped. A successful refloat will set the standard in salvage operations, and Sloane and his team will be heroes both on Giglio and in the industry. Sloane, who originally hoped to float the ship on the 4th of July complete with fireworks, says he plans to be standing on the front bow of the ship as it is towed away, “smoking a cigar” and making sure everything happens just the way it should.  Weather delays and drilling complications in the sandy seabed have pushed the original date back to August.

Because the ship is a crime scene—Schettino is charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship—the Italian authorities will first get possession of the ship for at least 60 days to complete their investigation. Then the cabins will be emptied out and the individual room safes returned to the passengers who were on the cruise that fateful day.

Wracked By Time

Until the Concordia is raised, Mayor Ortelli can only wait and hope. He spends his time pacing up and down the port and studying project charts, as well as keeping a watchful eye on Sloane’s salvage operation through binoculars. He counts the days the salvage crews have lost to weather, marking them off on his desk calendar. “We can never really move on as long as the wreck is out there,” Ortelli says. His computer is filled with intricate illustrations of the massive operation outside his window. He has memorized the details of the elaborate plan, able to sketch illustrations of the technical procedures on a napkin at the local coffee bar when residents ask for an update about what is happening on the ship. Ortelli lives and breathes the wreck of the Concordia, and he insists that the salvage team hold bi-weekly meetings with the townspeople to apprise them of the evolving situation. Sloane gladly obliges. Many of his crew members have taken up residence on the island, and more than a few salvage men are dating Giglio women.

Indeed, Giglio has largely given itself up to the process. The port’s main hotel, the Demos, has been taken over to house the operational center for the Costa cruise company and the entire salvage operation. Costa has rented every room in the hotel until the ship is out of the harbor—however long it takes. Ironically, Ortelli used to own the hotel but sold it a dozen years ago since it only made money in the summer months.

Ortelli doesn’t believe the ship will be gone any time soon. He predicts the salvage team is at least six months behind schedule, despite Sloane promising that he will be home in South Africa by September to go golfing. After that Sloane will go on another job, but Ortelli doesn’t know how the island will ever recover. “We are now synonymous with the worst passenger shipwreck in modern history. It is not possible to return to life before this happened. ”