The Costa Concordia has been freed from the rocks off the coast of Giglio in Italy, as the process of righting the 114,000 tonne cruise ship gets into full swing.
Previously unseen sections of the hull have begun to emerge, discoloured after months of submersion, amid fears about what engineers will find as the wreck is shifted. But engineers say that the up-righting process will not now be complete until tomorrow morning.
Thirty-two people died when the ship first ran aground in January 2012, and as two of the more than 4,000 passengers have never been accounted for, salvagers believe their bodies could be dislodged by the movement of the hull.
In addition, the ship’s log lists tonnes of perishable food items stored for the cruise, including 11,276kg of fish and 8,200kg of beef.
Civil protection chief Franco Gabrieli has previously warned that as the contents of the ship have been rotting away under the surface for 20 months, there is a danger that a build-up of hazardous hydrogen sulphide gases could be released as the wreck shifts.
Residents of Giglio are concerned that a stinking, poisonous cloud will coat the town in a smell akin to that given off by rotten eggs or volcanic springs.
As the movement of the ship was announced, Mr Gabrieli said that nothing has yet been picked up on their gas detectors or in the form of discolouration of the water, and he was happy things are proceeding safely.
Lead engineer Sergio Girotto said that there was an initial movement of up to 1.5/2 degrees of rotation before the ship actually lifted up off its side, as the shape of the hull was distorted.
Once 6,000 tonnes of force had been applied, he said, “we noticed that the ship freed from the bottom – I can confirm it has freed from the bottom now”.
The Costa Concordia is now described as resting on its “knee” rather than its side, but is some way from slotting into place on the specially-built platforms around its base.
The operation to salvage the wreck is estimated to cost around half a billion pounds, and finally began this morning after a storm caused delays of up to three hours.
The process of lifting the 114,000-tonne ship from its resting place on its side in shallow water was significantly delayed after a storm last night interrupted final preparations.
But at 9am this morning (8am BST), the sea and weather conditions were clear for engineers to begin engaging the series of cranes and hydraulic machines required to pull the wreck upright onto its underwater platform.
Speaking at a press conference this morning, Mr Girotto said: “ At 9am all the checks were completed and the ‘parbuckling’ operation was officially started.
“Everything is going smoothly; operators are now working in the control room along with several engineers.”
Mr Grotto said that the operation would proceed incrementally by steps of 4,000 tonnes, and that engineers and underwater cameras would monitor progress after each step.
The operation in full is scheduled to take approximately 12 hours, and once the wreck has been righted, commissioner Nick Sloane will give a press conference in which he will assess the success of the operation – and the scale of the pollution released from the shifting cargo.
If all goes well, the ship will be floated and taken away at some point in spring 2014.
The financial stakes for insurers in the recovery of the wreck on the island of Giglio are huge, with the ship's owner Costa Cruises last week estimating the cost of the salvage operation at €600 million (£500 million) “and rising” – thought to be more than the value of the ship itself.
By Adam Withnall