The most spectacular salvage operation in shipping history is set to begin next week. Though all the pieces are now in place, the question remains whether the doomed Costa Concordia can be righted, or whether she will break apart in the process.
Franco Porcellacchia says the Costa Concordia was a challenge to build. The chief construction engineer still enthuses about the cruise liner's opulent features, including the "macro dome," a 50-meter (165-foot) sliding roof over the upper deck. "The ship was considered extremely innovative at the time," he says.
But the Costa Concordia didn't sail for long. On the night of January 13, 2012, barely six-and-a-half years after she was launched, Captain Francesco Schettino drove her into a rock off the Italian island of Giglio, then abandoned the sinking ship, cementing his legacy as the worst captain in cruise-line history.
Schettino is currently in custody in Naples awaiting the resumption of his case. Meanwhile the ship is still lying on its side on the seabed off Giglio, jutting high out of the water, waiting to be removed.
Today, the Costa Concordia is a challenging wreck, Porcellacchia confirms. The 60-year-old engineer is in charge of the ship for the second time. He's been tasked with coordinating the shipping company's side of the recovery. Disposing of the liner will be more expensive than building her. The original construction cost €450 million ($570 million). Righting, towing and scrapping her will undoubtedly cost far more.
If she can be set upright again, that is.
A Monument of Shame
Franco Porcellacchia is a slim, well-groomed gentleman. He explains the situation while sitting calmly on the terrace of the harbor-side hotel on Giglio that has served as the operational headquarters of the various salvage firms for more than a year.
The situation is resoundingly embarrassing, but not because of the cost. After all, the tab will be picked up by a consortium of English insurance companies. It's down to utter shame: 32 people are dead because an Italian captain just wanted to show off a little. Schettino's bungling has besmirched an entire industry. Today the wreck juts out of the water off the picturesque vacation island like a memorial to a leisure industry gone out of control. So it has to go -- the quicker the better.
Unfortunately, things aren't moving as quickly as some had hoped. Porcellacchio bristles when someone uses the word "delay." Still, the official word last summer was that everything would be finished by this summer. Now summer is drawing to a close, yet the wreck still hasn't even been righted. Publishing the timetables in the first place was a mistake, Porcellacchia admits.
A dark blue, four-story stack of portacabins on stilts stands between the coast and the Costa Concordia. These are the living quarters of more than 500 salvage workers, divers and technicians from 20 countries, the largest collection of experts ever assembled around a capsized ship. At night the site is brightly lit up like a town on the water. Porcellacchia insists everything is going according to plan -- just not to the initial timetable.
The Best Laid Plan