Italy cruise ship wreck expected to be raised Monday

ROME - Salvage workers will attempt to raise Italy's Costa Concordia cruise ship on Monday, weather permitting, in an unprecedented US$1.0-billion (S$1.26b) operation, officials said.

"If weather conditions allow, the operation will start at 6:00 am (0400) GMT on September 16," Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency which is overseeing the operation, said on Thursday.

"This is an operation that has never been attempted before," Gabrielli said in a press conference.

The 114,500-ton luxury liner has been lying on its side just off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio ever since it hit rocks and keeled over with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board in January 2012.

The night-time disaster claimed 32 lives.

Using giant cement sacks and a custom-made metal platform, the salvage operation has so far secured the rusting hulk, which was threatening to slip off an underwater rock shelf into deeper waters.

The plan is to drag it up using ropes and pulleys - a complex and delicate operation since the hull of the ship has been badly dented and could split open.

Italy's civil protection agency said the official go-ahead would be given only on Sunday afternoon and based on the weather forecasts for the following day.

The operation is expected to be completed in a single day and officials have said they will block all maritime traffic in the area until it is over.

Salvage workers have already removed the fuel from the ship in order to prevent an environmental disaster in the area, a marine sanctuary for dolphins.

But environmentalists have warned of the potential danger of toxic chemicals from the ship pouring into the sea as it is rolled over in what is known in shipping terminology as a "parbuckling".

The island's economy depends hugely on tourism and local residents complain the ship has brought down visitor numbers in the past two summers.

Giant metal tanks have been welded onto the exposed side of the ship and the plan is to fix them onto the side that is now underwater once it has been raised.

The plan is for the tanks to act as giant flotation devices to allow the 290-metre (952-foot) vessel to be towed away for scrapping, probably early next year.

The salvage operation is the biggest ever attempted for a passenger ship and has been delayed repeatedly, mainly because of the difficulty of drilling holes in the granite seabed to install the platform intended to keep the ship upright before it is towed away.

The project is being financed by insurance for ship owner Costa Crociere, Europe's biggest operator and a part of US giant Carnival.

Four crew members and the head of Costa Crociere's crisis unit were handed short prison sentences after negotiating plea bargains over their role in the crash.

The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is currently on trial accused of manslaughter and abandoning the ship before all its passengers had been evacuated.

Costa earlier admitted limited responsibility as Schettino's employer and was ordered to pay 1 million euros (S$1.68m) in a controversial ruling that has excluded it from criminal proceedings.