GIGLIO, Italy - More time and money will be needed to remove the Costa Concordia cruise ship from the rocks off Tuscany where it capsized last year, in part to ensure the toxic materials still trapped inside don't leak into the marine sanctuary when it is righted, officials said Saturday.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the grounding, environmental and salvage experts gave an update on the unprecedented removal project under way, stressing the massive size of the ship — 112,000 tons, its precarious perch on the rocks off the port of Giglio island and the environmental concerns at play.
The pristine waters surrounding Giglio are part of a protected marine sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales, and are a favourite for scuba divers. Already, tourism was off 28 per cent last year, thanks in part to the eyesore in Giglio's port.
Franco Gabriele, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, told reporters that officials are now looking at September as the probable date for removal, taking into account conservative estimates for poor weather and rough seas. Originally, officials had said they hoped to have it removed in early 2013.
In addition, Gabriele and Costa officials said the cost might now reach €400 million ($530 million), up from the €300 million ($400 million) originally estimated.
The Concordia slammed into a reef off Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012, after the captain took it off course in a stunt to bring it closer to the island. As it took on water through the 70-meter (230-foot) gash in its hull, the Concordia rolled onto its side and came to rest on the rocks off Giglio's port. Thirty-two people were killed.
The captain, Francesco Schettino, remains under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and leaving the ship before all passengers were evacuated. He hasn't been charged. Schettino maintains he saved lives by bringing the ship closer to shore and claims the reef wasn't on his nautical charts.
Salvage crews successfully removed some 2,100 tons of fuel last year from the ship's tanks without any major spill. But Maria Sargentini, president of the environmental oversight group for the Concordia, said sewage, remaining fuel and tons of rotten food remain inside.
"Sure, there are still some risks," she said Saturday. "Especially during the rollover and floating operations, there could be some leaking."
The complicated removal plan involves constructing an underwater platform and attaching empty cisterns on the exposed side of the ship. The cisterns will be filled with water, and cranes attached to the platform will be used to rotate the ship and pull it upright. Once upright, the ship will have cisterns attached to the other side. All the cisterns will be emptied of water and filled with air to help float the ship and free it from the seabed. Once it's properly afloat, it can then be towed to a nearby seaport for demolition.
On Sunday, relatives of the dead and survivors are expected in Giglio for a daylong commemoration to honour the 32 victims, those who rescued them and the residents of Giglio who opened their doors to the 4,200 passengers and crew who survived.
"Just seeing this boat has a powerful effect on me," said Albert Karianis, a 60-year-old cleaner from Marseille, France, who survived the shipwreck and returned Saturday to the island for the first time.
"I think about it every day, and I have nightmares," he said.
While groups of survivors were flocking to the island — some on specially organized ferries — others received a letter from Costa urging them to stay away, saying there wasn't room on Giglio and that the commemoration was primarily aimed at the families of those who died. They speculated that Costa simply didn't want disgruntled passengers speaking to the media.
Nevertheless, some such passengers were on hand.
Violet Morra, a 65-year-old from Marseille, said she had rejected Costa's initial settlement offer of €11,000 euros per passenger, offered in the immediate aftermath of the grounding. Many survivors rejected the offer and are pursuing legal action against the company and its Miami-based parent company Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise line.
Passengers recounted a harrowing and chaotic evacuation, with crew members giving contradictory instructions and the captain delaying the evacuation order for a full hour after impact. By the time he gave the order, the ship was at such a tilt that many lifeboats couldn't be lowered.
"It meant that our lives were only worth €11,000, just €11,000 euro for our lives," Morra said. "We are still facing psychological problems, and so we have rejected it."
Costa attorney Marco De Luca said the compensation procedures are going ahead "at a satisfactory pace." He said almost two-thirds of the passengers took Costa's compensation offer.
Costa is fighting legal efforts, particularly those in the United States, where damage awards are likely to be higher than in Italy. Costa is challenging the jurisdiction of U.S. courts to hear the cases, arguing among other things that in buying their cruise tickets, passengers entered into a contract with Costa that selects the courts of Genoa, Italy, as the exclusive forum for any claims against the company.
Winfield reported from Rome.
Information on the removal project is at www.theparbucklingproject.com
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