At more than twice the size of the Titanic, the Costa Concordia was the largest passenger vessel ever to sink when it capsized off Italy's northwest coast on January 13. So far, Italian authorities say of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board, at least 18 are confirmed dead and 14 unaccounted for, and the insurance costs may reach $1 billion, according to Moody's Investors Service. Now salvage companies around the world are gearing up for the mammoth task of recovering the ship, a challenge made all the more complicated by its precarious spot. "The wreck's on the edge of deep water, and can drop another 200 feet [60 meters] or more," says Mike Lacey, secretary general of the International Salvage Union.
The Costa Concordia was the flagship of Costa Cruises and was christened only in 2006. The luxury vessel cost roughly $600 million to build and had an internal volume of about 112,000 in gross tonnage—the Titanic, in comparison, only had a gross tonnage of about 46,000. It now lies on its starboard side partially submerged in shallow water after hitting a reef near the island of Giglio. ((Last week, more than 1,000 passengers and crew members on another Costa Cruises ship endured unpleasant conditions for three days after a fire broke out on board and knocked out the ship's power. The Costa Allegra was adrift for several hours on February 27 before receiving a tow that brought all on board to the Seychelles where they disembarked on March 1.)
Dutch salvage firm Smit began pumping fuel out of the wreck on February 12 to keep it from polluting the water. In all, the company will have to remove about 2,400 metric tons of bunker oil from 17 separate tanks. The viscous fuel can get thick, making it hard to pump, so Smit is piping in steam to warm and loosen it. It is also pumping in seawater to replace the extracted fuel and keep the wreck from shifting on the seabed.
After the tanks are emptied, salvagers can haul the wreck away. Ten companies are now in the bidding to do that and will present their proposals the beginning of March. The cleanest and most straightforward solution would be to set the ship upright and tow it to a scrapyard, Lacey says. "That way you can get rid of the ship all in one piece," he explains.
One idea for righting the wreck would involve giant inflatable bags placed under the ship to prop it up. Lacey is less than enthusiastic about the notion: "Everyone keeps talking about the damn inflatable bags, but there aren't any big enough to do the job. They might contribute, but they won't be enough to do the job on their own."
An exotic solution would involve pumping air-filled polystyrene balls into the Costa Concordia to make it float to the surface, an idea tried in the past in Iceland and Kuwait. (A similar concept, using ping-pong balls, was actually first mentioned in a 1949 Donald Duck comic, and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke invoked a similar idea in The Ghost from the Grand Banks, suggesting billions of glass bubbles could raise the Titanic.) Lacey doesn't think much of this idea, either. "I haven't heard of them being used in years and years—they make a hell of a mess, since you can't control them, and they get all over the sea and every damn place," he says. "They're a real problem to clean up, so I don't think the authorities would take too kindly to their use here."
More likely, salvagers would rely on cranes. It would not be easy—the wreck is far too massive for any single crane, Lacey says. The cranes not only would have to turn the ship upright, but hold it in place to keep it from sliding downward. To make their task easier, salvage teams would want to pump out as much water as possible, which would mean patching the massive gashes in its hull so that water does not rush back in, says Peter Tromp, manager at Dutch wreck removal company Euro Demolition.
Tromp doubts it could be done. Euro Demolition and Texas-based salvage firm T&T Bisso are partnering on a proposal to cut up the ship. "We think there's too much weight and too much damage to refloat it," Tromps says. Using cranes armed with metal shears capable of slicing five-centimeter-thick steel, the companies would carve the wreck into liftable chunks 200 to 300 metric tons in weight. Afterward, they would use electromagnets three meters in diameter to clean the seafloor of debris.
Towing, if it can be done, would be faster. "I've heard it's feasible to do it within six months," Lacey says. If Tromp and his colleagues do end up doing a chop job on the Costa Concordia, they estimate they can have it done in eight to 10 months.
Even if the Costa Concordia can be brought back to port in one piece, it seems very unlikely that it will be repaired and put back into service. "No one would want to travel on it," Lacey says.