GIGLIO ISLAND — Two and a half years after it crashed off this pristine Italian island — killing 32 passengers — the cruise ship Costa Concordia will be finally refloated and towed away for its final journey to the scrapyard.
If successful, the removal operation will be yet another feat of engineering.
The cruise liner shipwrecked in January 2012 off Giglio, and island in the Tyrrhenian Sea. A massive salvage operation has since been launched by Italian authorities since the accident that left 32 people dead.
Last September the shipwreck was rolled upright in a spectacular maneuver, bringing back to the surface a starboard side that had turned into a ghostly mass of rusty iron after resting on an underwater cliff for almost two years.
Beginning on Monday, the refloating operation will be just as delicate and difficult.
Before it can be towed away, the Concordia will now have to be refloated by 12 meters before it can be towed away for scrapping. Thirty giant hollowed steel tanks have been fitted on the two sides of the ship, and were later filled with water to keep it pressed on the man-made platform it was rolled upon.
"On Monday it will be the first time she floats since she went to ground."
In the coming days a pneumatic system will slowly pump the water off the tanks, creating air pockets that will give the ship the buoyancy it needs to stay afloat.
"It is a complex operation never attempted before, but we know we can count on the best technicians in the world,” Costa Crociere CEO Michael Thamm said in a statement. "I wish them all the best for the success of this great challenge."
When on Monday the Concordia will be raised by the first two meters, the hull could crack open and spill out the toxic soup made of rotten food, chemicals and debris that has remained trapped in the ship for more than two and a half years.
"On Monday it will be the first time she floats since she went to ground. That's when all our assumptions will come home to roost." Nick Sloane, the removal's operation Salvage Master tells NBC NEWS. "There are a lot of cracks, she doesn't look pretty underwater. We know that some of them will get worse when we refloat her. We hope the cracks will stop when we think they will. By 10 a.m. Monday we will know if our calculations were right."
If the first re-floating is successful, the ship will be moved by 30 meters eastwards by tugboats. Then, for the next three to four days, it will be refloated, stopping when each deck emerge to check that no toxic substances leak into the sea.
"It is a complex operation never attempted before, but we know we can count on the best technicians in the world..."
Provided everything goes according to plan, the Concordia will finally be ready to be towed to the port of Genova, 150 miles north, at a speed of 2 knots (2.3 mph) where it will be finally cut to pieces and scrapped.
But not before it plays a last, echoing foghorn across the bay of Giglio, which has been waiting for more than two, long years, to go back to being the natural paradise it was before the Concordia crossed its path.
First published July 13 2014, 1:01 PM