- POSTED: 16 Sep 2013 22:40
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Italy's Costa Concordia cruise ship began emerging from its watery grave on Monday in an unprecedented salvage operation that could create a toxic spill.
GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy: Italy's Costa Concordia cruise ship began emerging from its watery grave on Monday in an unprecedented salvage operation that could create a toxic spill.
The 290-metre (951-foot) vessel -- longer than the Titanic and twice as heavy -- could be seen slowly turning upright off Tuscany's stunning Giglio island.
The side of the 114,500-ton ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown after 20 months in the sea, contrasting with the white of the exposed side.
"The ship has lifted off the rocks," said Sergio Girotto, an engineer for the Italian-US salvage project, which has cost 600 million euros ($800 million) so far.
"The first hours were the most uncertain because we did not know how stuck the ship was," Girotto told reporters in the island's tiny port, although he said there were "major deformations" in the hull.
The salvage of the Costa Concordia was delayed by several hours because of storms on the island and is expected to be completed at around 1900 GMT.
Salvage coordinators have played down environmentalist fears of thousands of tons of toxic waste pouring into the sea, saying they are ready to clean up any spill.
The man giving the orders from a control room on a barge next to the Costa Concordia is Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master with years of experience on some of the biggest shipwrecks around the world.
Islanders whose lives have been turned upside-down by the wreck said they were relieved that the time when the ship will finally be removed was drawing closer.
They will have months more to wait, as the towing away is not planned until spring of next year at the earliest when the ship will eventually be scrapped.
Special prayers were held in a local church on the eve of the operation on Sunday for the salvage.
"The sooner it happens, the better," said the parish priest, Father Lorenzo Pasquotti, who opened his church to survivors on the night of the disaster.
Some 400 journalists witnessed the event and the island's tiny port was swarming with officials, rescuers and curious onlookers since the early morning.
"All the inhabitants are hoping and waiting," said Giovanna Rum, owner of a shop for maritime clothing.
The 14-deck Costa Concordia was once a floating pleasure palace with a casino, four swimming pools and the largest spa centre ever built on a ship.
It struck rocks just off Giglio after veering sharply towards the island in a bravado sail-by allegedly ordered by its captain, Francesco Schettino.
Dubbed "Captain Coward" and "Italy's most hated man" for apparently abandoning the ship while passengers were still on board, Schettino is currently on trial.
Four crew members and the head of ship owner Costa Crociere's crisis unit were handed short prison sentences earlier for their roles in the crash.
The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board when it crashed on 13 January 2012.
It keeled over in shallow waters within sight of Giglio's port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later -- a fatal delay.
By that time, lifeboats on one side of the ship were virtually unusable because of the tilt and there was panic as people rushed for the remaining ones.
Hundreds were forced to either jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Two bodies -- that of an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger -- were never recovered from the wreck and are believed to be still stuck under the ship.
"I am filled with hope. I am still hoping to find my wife," Elio Vincenzi, the widower of Maria Grazia Trecarichi, told Italian news channel SkyTG24.
Newspaper columnists said the righting of the ship was a chance at "rehabilitation" for Italy after the damage it suffered from tales of Schettino's antics.
"What is left of Italy's reputation and credibility is playing out on this chunk of rock," said Enrico Fierro, a columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.
Tito Boeri went further in La Repubblica, comparing the rising ship to the future of Italy's economy.
"If everything goes well... the Italian economy will stop sinking and will get back on track," he said.