Costa Concordia

Raising the Costa Concordia

In one of the most audacious and dangerous salvage operations ever undertaken, the world's top engineers attempted to raise the wreck of the Costa Concordia. The Salvage Master was a South African, Nick Sloane of Titan Marine.

For more than a year, the Costa Concordia cruise ship sat half-submerged off the coast of Italy—a striking reminder of the disaster that befell it on 13 January 2012.

That night, 32 people died when the ship capsized near the tourist island of Giglio, which lies off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. The captain who fled the scene faces manslaughter charges. Twice the size of the Titanic—the British passenger line that sank in 1912—the Costa Concordia is the largest capsized passenger ship in history. The night it ran aground, it held more than 4,000 guests and crew members.

The project team tasked with recovering the partially sunken ship would undertake the world’s largest naval salvage project. But it wouldn’t be enough just to remove the ship—the team would have to do so with minimal impact on the Mediterranean waters and sea life.

During the planning phase, the project team identified three priorities: protecting the environmentally sensitive waters near Giglio, maintaining safety in the working environment and completing the removal as quickly as possible without compromising the other two goals. By March 2012, Costa Cruises had removed the ship’s fuel and sewage—crucial for the protection of the marine ecosystem.

For a country that draws the fifth largest tourist revenue in the world, that was not just an environmental concern but an economic one. So the team decided to remove the ship in one massive but contained piece rather than breaking it into smaller pieces that could more easily pollute the waters.

The ship would stay in one piece, but the team needed to break the project into three phases: first, cleaning and prepping the ship; second, rotating, or parbuckling, the vessel by 65 degrees to an upright position; and third, removing it from the ocean by mid-2014. This would be a first-of-its-kind engineering feat: The removal of a ship of this size—the 300-metre vessel weighs more than 100 million kilograms—had never before been accomplished.

The team benefited from a flexible budget. The project financiers, backed with funding from private insurers, prioritized success over cost. Indeed, of the six tenders submitted to Costa Cruises for the ship removal, the costliest one was chosen. Despite the initial projection of €220 million, the budget would swell to more than €600 million. Cost consideration played a limited role in the decision-making process.

Given the project’s high stakes, a panel of government agencies and the private entities involved approved every step of the engineering plan for the parbuckling operation. The local community, the Giglio municipality and a government-appointed commissioner also were involved with the project. In May 2012, the Italian government approved the plan.

In the months leading up to the parbuckling, more than 500 divers, technicians, engineers, biologists and other team members prepared the ship. They all brought the finest international expertise, with state-of-the-art technology at their disposal. They anchored the vessel to the sea bottom to prevent it from slipping off the rocks where it had rested since the accident. And they built an artificial seabed—steel platforms and 12,000 cubic metres of cement-filled bags—to rest the ship on after turning it upright.

While planning the parbuckling, the team identified the major risks: the wreckage shifting or splitting during the operation, equipment failure or a miscalculation in the engineering plans. The team conducted computer simulations that allowed it to test various responses in case any of those risks arose. And it relied on a continually updated shared document outlining environmental risks that was circulated among government authorities and other stakeholders.

But there was another, less controllable risk: bad weather. Inclement weather not only could delay the removal, but it could damage the structural integrity of the wreck itself—and thus jeopardize a core project objective. The parbuckling had been scheduled for completion by mid-2013, but 70 days of bad weather forced the project team to delay it. The team carefully evaluated meteorological and marine conditions and chose a date, 16 September, when they could expect calm waters. Still, an unpredicted storm the night before the operation pushed it back by three hours.

Yet thanks to its careful planning and risk management, the team felt confident enough to broadcast the parbuckling live as part of a public-relations effort to improve the area’s tarnished image following the disastrous crash.

At the start of the parbuckling, the team used jacks to dislodge the ship from the reef. These hours were the most uncertain, as they could not establish how much the hull was wedged. After three hours, this was completed.

Next, strand jacks attached to 11 towers anchored to the sea bottom pulled on cables connected to the ship to begin rotating it. Finally, sea water-filled projections, or sponsons, fixed to the ship’s hull exerted a downward force to assist with the rotation until the ship was upright and resting on the false seabed. If the rotation had to be halted due to equipment or component failure, engineers could remotely control the sponsons’ water intake valves to adjust water flow and manage the rotation.

In fact, the entire parbuckling operation was unmanned: Engineers remotely operated it from a barge near the cruise ship and used sonar imaging to detect any twisting, ready to adjust the process as needed. While special vessels remained on standby to collect any waste or debris, an onshore control room with multiple monitors showing footage from the highest deck of the Concordia allowed salvage masters to monitor progress.

After 14 months of planning and simulations—and 19 hours of rotation—the Costa Concordia sat upright.

Yet the project team couldn’t rest on its laurels for long; it still had to prepare the ship for the third and final phase: removal. In the weeks after stabilizing the wreck on the platforms, engineers weatherized the ship since they could not complete the remaining work, including a technical assessment and the installation of more platforms along the ship, before the cold months. In anticipation of frigid weather, the team members ensured the wreck’s stability with additional cement bags and tubular structures connected to the underwater platforms. They also conducted structural surveys to determine the needed repairs prior to refloating the ship and extracting it from the sea in one piece. The team surrounded the wreckage with oil-absorbing pads and put in place constant antipollution monitoring.

All along, the salvage masters aimed to maintain the water’s quality while restoring the seabed in the area surrounding the wreck to its condition before that fateful day two years ago. As it nears project completion by mid-2014, the team is on track for achieving that objective. South Africa is proud to have played a part in this fascinating and successful project.

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