Operation starts to refloat ill-fated Italian cruise ship

Operation starts to refloat ill-fated Italian cruise ship
Over two and a half years after it crashed off the island of Giglio in a nighttime disaster which left 32 people dead, the plan is to raise and tow away the 114,500-tonne vessel in an unprecedented and delicate operation for its final journey to the shipyard where it was built in the port of Genoa.

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy - A mammoth operation to refloat the shipwrecked Costa Concordia began Monday in Italy, with salvage workers attempting to raise the rusty liner from its watery grave on the shores of a rugged Tuscan island.

"I am a bit nervous," said Salvage Master Nick Sloane as he headed out to the wreck to oversee the first-ever operation to float a ship of such size, two and a half years after it sank in a nighttime disaster that left 32 people dead.

"Today we'll see whether our calculations were correct," the sandy-haired mariner said.

Media crews from around the world crowded onto the port to see off the globe-trotting South African, who was dressed in his trademark casual blue jeans with a red life jacket over a black T-shirt.

The liner - twice as big as the Titanic - will be refloated over a six-to-seven day period and then be towed away for scrapping to a port in Genoa in northern Italy, where it is expected to arrive later this month.

The 114,500-tonne vessel will be raised two metres (6.5 feet) on Monday off the artificial platform on which it has rested since it was righted in September.

"The first phase this morning was to ease the ship and reduce the weight on the platform," Michael Thamm, chief executive of ship owner Costa Crociere told AFP, as giant yellow cranes took a load of around 8,000 tonnes off the vessel.

Lifting the wreck will then begin from the stern, he said, as navy officials and the head of Italy's civil protection agency scrutinised the latest operation details on a terrace dotted with palm trees in front of the ship.

Fears of a bad turn in the weather forcing a halt to the operation before it began were quelled as the rain cleared at dawn and tug boats carrying divers and engineers sped out to the Concordia to be on hand for emergencies.

Air will slowly be pumped into 30 tanks or "sponsons" attached to both sides of the 290-metre Concordia to expel the water inside and raise the ship.

It will then be towed away from the shore and moored using anchors and cables. Thirty-six steel cables and 56 chains will hold the sponsons in place.

"The risks are that the ship could bend as it is raised, or the chains underneath it could snap," Sloane told AFP before the operation.

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