Salvagers in Italy Say Costa Concordia Wreck May Be Gone by Summer's End

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GIGLIO, Italy -- One year after the luxury liner Costa Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan coast, taking 32 lives, its wreck still lies there, a giant hulk of metal enclosed by floating salvage platforms, creating an incongruous industrial landscape amid the pristine waters of a marine sanctuary.

On Saturday, salvage companies announced at a news conference that the ship could be removed by the end of the summer, just a few months behind schedule. But they made it clear that setting an exact date would be "both misleading and unrealistic."

"We are worried, of course, for the overlapping of the removal phases with what is our main economic activity," said Sergio Ortelli, the mayor of the tourism-dependent island of Giglio, which attracts thousands of visitors annually to its uncontaminated beaches.

"We are thinking how to mitigate the effects of a working site this year, which has had an even larger impact than the wreckage itself," he said.

The island is preparing to commemorate the disaster on Sunday, the anniversary of the wreck, with a Mass for families of victims and survivors. Officials plan to place a plaque on the rock struck by the ship and release 32 lanterns into the sky. The ship was carrying 4,229 passengers and crew members on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise when it went aground, just as passengers were just sitting down to a late dinner.

Life on the island, with a population of 1,500, has been defined by the wreck off its coast, and not just because of the 30 percent to 35 percent drop in tourism last summer, which many blame both on the Costa Concordia and on Italy's economic crisis.

"I used to wake up in the morning and guess the winds from the way trees moved on those rocks," said Giuseppina Ferraro, 66, whose apartment overlooks the ship. "Now, at any time of day and night, all you see are drilling chimneys, barracks and that haunting wreck. We wake up with the noise of the energy generators and can even switch off the lights at night because you can see clearly, thanks to the lighting system of the platforms."

The efforts of 430 professionals working round the clock to right the Costa Concordia have come up against the complex reality of what has been called the most challenging salvage operation ever performed, the granite rocks underneath the ship and the rough seas.

Salvage teams have managed to stabilize the ship, which is anchored to underwater granite with blocks and wires able to withstand a thousand-ton force. Welders are working to reinforce the hull of the Concordia on the sea side, where the wires and sponsons -- hull projections used for stability and to pull up the vessel -- will be attached.

Workers are drilling holes in the granite to support six undersea platforms, which should arrive in February. On the sea side, between the platforms and the rocks, salvagers will build an artificial bottom of 18,000- to 20,000-ton cement bags -- about the size of three-quarters of a football field -- to create an even surface on the slanting seabed.

"In all honesty, when I saw the project, I didn't have doubts about the fact that it could be delayed -- I was sure about it," said Emilio Campana, the director of the research institute for naval and maritime engineering at Italy's National Research Council. "An operation of such a scale has never been done before, and they are trying to solve a never-tackled issue."

The project, designed by Titan Salvage, which is based in Florida, and Micoperi, an Italian underwater construction and offshore contractor, originally scheduled the installation of undersea platforms by November, with the wreck ready to be floated by this month. The floating was later postponed until May.

But many worry that the longer the delay, the greater the risk to the environment. Italy's environment minister, Corrado Clini, wrote in a recent letter to the liner's operator, Costa Cruises, that the delays were a major concern.

"Our main worry relates to the hull's condition and the safety measures needed to guarantee that the ship removal and the sheltering take place under safe conditions without generating further risks and emergencies," Mr. Clini wrote.

Once it is sea-ready, the ship will be pulled to a large and deep harbor a convenient distance from the shipwreck site, although few harbors in Italy fit that description.

Some environmentalists doubt that such a complicated project will work, and argue that there is no contingency plan should the ship slip into deeper waters. And, as time elapses, concerns grow about the possibility of fluid spills from the Concordia.

"They avoided the worst -- the oil spill -- but we are not safe at all yet," said Sebastiano Venneri, who works on sea protection for the Italian environmental association Legambiente.

Over all, the water around the half-submerged ship has not been significantly polluted, according to Tuscany's Regional Agency for Environmental Protection, which is in charge of monitoring the site. A fluid spill from the ship's engine room last month is not of great concern, the agency said.

The shipwreck has led to new laws affecting cruise ships. The Italian government passed a law that prohibits large ships from sailing closer than two miles to marine sanctuaries, like the sea-life park around Giglio Island. At the global level, the International Maritime Organization agreed in November to make safety drills mandatory before departure or immediately thereafter, rather than within the first 24 hours of navigation.

Investigators are expected to seek indictments next month of the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, and eight other crew members and Costa Cruises officials. Charges could include committing manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship before passengers were evacuated and causing environmental damage.

Kevin Rebello, 39, whose 33-year-old brother is one of two victims whose bodies have not been recovered, came back to Giglio for Sunday's commemoration.

"I came because my brother is still here," he said. "I know he is under the ship. When they remove it, I will finally have some closure with this."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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