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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"

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.

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