The "unprecedented" operation to refloat and remove the sunken Costa Concordia cruise ship will be the most ambitious effort of its kind ever attempted and will cost at least $300 million, it was announced Friday.
The operation is due to start in the next few days and is expected to take a year. Once refloated, the giant liner will be towed to an Italian port and then dismantled for scrap.
"This is the largest ship removal by weight in history," said Richard Habib, president of Titan Salvage, the American company that will raise the 305-metre-long, 116,337-tonne cruise liner.
"The magnitude of the job is unprecedented. But we feel confident that we can do it and do it safely, with the least disturbance to the environment and the economy of Giglio."
The Concordia has been wedged on rocks and semi-submerged a few metres off the coast of Giglio, an island off Tuscany, ever since it ran aground on Jan. 13. During the panic-stricken evacuation of its 4,200 passengers and crew, 32 people lost their lives.
Thirty bodies have been recovered, but the remains of two people - an Indian and an Italian - are still missing and may be inside the wreck.
Its captain, Francesco Schet-tino, is under house arrest and has been accused of sailing the ship too close to Giglio, smashing it into a rocky reef and tearing a huge gash in its hull. He faces charges of manslaughter and of deserting the ship before the evacuation had been completed. The next court hearing in the case is set for July.
The scale of the ship's removal is "gigantic," said Silvio Barto-lotti, the manager of Micoperi, an Italian marine contractor that will collaborate with Titan.
The plan for removing the wreck involves extracting the huge chunk of rock embedded in its side and patching up the torn hull. Engineers and divers will then construct a platform beneath the ship and fix steel compartments or "caissons" to the side of the liner that is out of the water.
Two cranes will pull the ship upright so that it rests on the submerged platform. The caissons will be filled with water to help the cranes lift the massive weight.
Once the vessel is upright, more chambers will be attached to the other side of the hull. All the caissons will then be filled with air, which will stabilize the ship in preparation for it being towed to a nearby port for demolition.
Habib conceded that the operation entailed significant risks and said if it went wrong there was no "plan B."
"There are two critical stages - to roll the vessel onto the platform and then to safely refloat it. We think our plan is going to work and that we will be successful," he said.
Costa Cruises, the Italian owners of the cruise liner, said the operation, "the likes of which have never been attempted," would cost at least $300 million.
By Nick Squires, Daily Telegraph