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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 2

Crippled Cruise Ship, Costa Concordia, Haunts Italians of Giglio

Island residents cannot forget "the families who came to get the bodies of their loved ones"

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.”

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