GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy – Engineers declared success on Tuesday as the Costa Concordia cruise ship was pulled completely upright during an unprecedented, 19-hour operation to wrench it from its side where it capsized last year off Tuscany. The remarkable project now allows for a renewed search for the two bodies that were never recovered from the 32 dead, and for the ship to eventually be towed away.
The Concordia's submerged side suffered significant damage during the 20 months it bore the weight of the Concordia on the jagged reef, and the daylong operation to right it stressed that flank as well. Exterior balconies were mangled and entire sections looked warped, though officials said the damage probably looks worse than it really is.
The damage must be repaired to stabilize the ship so it can withstand the coming winter, when seas and winds will whip the liner, and be towed to be turned into scrap sometime in 2014.
Shortly after 4 a.m., a foghorn boomed off Giglio Island and the head of Italy's Civil Protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, announced that the ship had reached vertical and that the operation to rotate it – known in nautical terms as parbuckling – was complete. It was a dramatic operation that unfolded in real time as TV cameras recorded the final hours when the rotation accelerated with gravity pulling the ship into place.
“We completed the parbuckling operation a few minutes ago the way we thought it would happen and the way we hoped it would happen,” said Franco Porcellacchia, project manager for the Concordia's owner, Costa Crociere SpA.
“A perfect operation, I must say,” with no environmental spill detected so far, he said.
For Italy, it was a moment of pride after the horror and embarrassment of the Jan. 13, 2012 collision. The Concordia slammed into a reef off Giglio Island after the Italian captain brought it too close to shore in an apparent stunt. He earned the public's contempt when he abandoned the ship before everyone was evacuated, and then refused coast guard orders to go back on board.
The Concordia drifted, listed and capsized just off the island's port, killing 32 people. Two bodies were never recovered. Now that the ship is upright, a new attempt can be made to locate the bodies, though Gabrielli stressed that the wreckage must be secured again before divers can go in.
“We hope that will happen in the next few days,” he said.
Other recovery efforts were also possible now that the ship is upright: Officials can now go cabin to cabin to open the safes and return whatever was stowed inside to their rightful owners, officials said.
Premier Enrico Letta phoned Gabriele to congratulate him. “I told him that all those who are working there are a great pride,” Letta tweeted.
Nick Sloane, the South African chief salvage master, received a hero's welcome as he came ashore from the barge that had served as the floating command control room for the operation, embraced and cheered by residents who have come to appreciate the work of his team, dubbed the “Magnificent 11.”
“Brilliant! Perfetto,” Sloane said, using some of the Italian he learned during a year on Giglio preparing for the operation. “It was a struggle, a bit of a roller coaster. But for the whole team it was fantastic.”
The operation to right the ship had been expected to take no more than 12 hours, but dragged on after some initial delays and maintenance on the system of steel cables, pulleys and counterweights that were used to roll the 115,000-ton, half-submerged carcass of steel upright.
Parbuckling is a standard operation to right capsized ships. But never before had it been used on such a huge cruise liner.
The Concordia is expected to be floated away from Giglio in the spring. The aim was to right it intact, to prevent the leakage of potentially toxic waste into the pristine waters around Giglio, which is located in a marine sanctuary.
Sloane said an initial inspection of the starboard side, covered in brown slime from its 20 months under water, indicated serious damage that must be assessed and fixed in the coming weeks and months. But Sloane seemed confident: “She was strong enough to come up like this, she's strong enough to be towed.”
The starboard side of the ship, which was raised 65 degrees in the operation, must be stabilized to enable crews to attach empty tanks on the side that will later be used to help float the vessel away. Currently, the ship is about two-thirds submerged, engineers said.
Such tanks were affixed to the exposed, port side of the ship and were filled with water in the later phases of the rotation to help pull the port side down.
The ship must be made strong enough to withstand the winter storm season, when high seas and gusts will likely buffet the 300-meter (1,000-foot) long liner.
After receiving cheers, embraces and a kiss from his wife on shore, Sloane said he wanted to get some sleep, a beer “and maybe a barbeque tomorrow.” He was later seen celebrating in a harborside bar with members of the salvage team.
“I think the whole team is proud of what they achieved,” he said as he was mobbed by well-wishers and television crews, still wearing an orange life vest around his neck and carrying a South African flag that was handed to him by his wife.
Helping the Concordia to weather the winter and stabilize it is an artificial platform on the seabed that was constructed to support the ship's flat keel.
About an hour before the rotation was complete, observers said the ship seemed to suddenly settle down upon its new perch, with a clear brown-green line of algae drawn across its front delineating the half of the liner that had been underwater and the half that was exposed.
Mayor Sergio Ortelli said the island felt a wave of relief as soon as the Concordia was freed from the reef in the initial hours of the operation. But he said there was also the realization that two bodies still have yet to be found.
“While there is happiness today, there is no triumphalism,” he told The Associated Press.
The Concordia's captain is on trial for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship during the chaotic and delayed evacuation. Capt. Francesco Schettino claims the reef wasn't on the nautical charts for the liner's weeklong Mediterranean cruise. Five other Costa employees were convicted of manslaughter in a plea bargain and were sentenced to less than three years apiece.
Costa is a division of Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise company.