Salvage experts weigh options for Costa Concordia

While questions swirl around what really happened before the fateful crash of the Costa Concordia off the Italian coast, uncertainty also surrounds what will become of the half-submerged cruise ship.

Partly submerged Italian cruise ship could be righted and repaired or chopped up on spot

When the Costa Concordia was launched in 2006, the ceremonial champagne bottle did not shatter against its hefty hull.

Maritime lore would suggest that was not a good start to life on the high seas, and the $600-million ship now lies on its side in the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Giglio, part of a string of islands known as the Tuscan Archipelago off the northwest coast of Italy.

More than 4,200 passengers and crew members were on board when the vessel slammed into some underwater rocks off the shore of the island on Jan. 13, 2012. Eleven people have been confirmed dead, and 21 are missing.

'It's very unusual to find a ship on its side.'—Mike Lacey

While there remain many questions about what really happened before that fateful crash, uncertainty also surrounds what exactly will become of the half-submerged cruise ship, which weighs over 100,000 tonnes, or more than twice what the Titanic did.

Maritime disasters are hardly rarities, but this one has unique elements that present those trying to figure out the next move with particular challenges.

"It's very unusual to find a ship on its side," says Mike Lacey, secretary general of the London-based International Salvage Union.

Herald of Free Enterprise precedent

The only comparable incident Lacey can recall is the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise, a car-and-passenger ferry that ended up half-submerged on its side in the English Channel just off Zeebrugge, Belgium, in March 1987. Nearly 200 passengers and crew members died.

In that case, the ship — smaller than the Costa Concordia — was uprighted, lifted up, pumped out, towed away and scrapped.

There has been no indication yet about what the owners and insurers of the Costa Concordia intend to do, but Lacey says experts and consultants will be looking at all the possibilities.

Can you get the ship upright? If you do get it upright, will it stay there — given that its current position, on a reef ledge, is a bit precarious? If it could be floated and towed, could it be repaired and return to cruising? Or would it be better just to cut it up into scrap right where it now sits?

In any disaster such as this, the search for survivors, and then bodies, is a priority. Divers participating in that search have been blasting holes in parts of the Costa Concordia to more easily access hard-to-reach areas.

Get rid of the fuel

Next come efforts to avert any environmental disaster by getting rid of the fuel — more than 2,000 tonnes of it.

"It's in 17 different tanks, and the Dutch salvage company Smit, who have been engaged to remove the fuel, they'll know exactly where it is, where it's located," says Lacey. "This is a type of job they've done many many times before on different types of ships."

A Jan. 17, 2012, satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia lying on its starboard side just off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy. (Digital Globe/Associated Press)

The ship's sudden movement on the reef ledge this week postponed the start of the fuel extraction, an endeavour that involves warming the oil to make it easier to suck out using valves and pumps.

Italy's environment minister, Corrado Clini, has issued a warning about the implications if the ship shifts and any of the still-intact oil tanks break.

"We are very concerned [about the weather]," Clini told Mediaset television. "If the tanks were to break, the fuel would block the sunlight from getting to the bottom of the sea, making a kind of film, and that would cause the death of the marine system."

The area is very close to a marine sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Hope for good weather

The location and time of year also make that operation a bit tricky.

"All these operations are very weather-dependent," says Lacey. "You get bad weather, and you can't dive, you can't use lifting equipment, you can't necessarily put any other craft alongside and so on."

And with it being winter, it's not the best time for good weather. Still, the location where the ship now sits could offer some small relief.

"The position where the ship is is actually on the Italian coast side of the island, so it is, to that extent, sheltered and so they shouldn't get really heavy seas there," says Lacey.

Figure out if it can be uprighted

Experts considering the fate of the Costa Concordia will be reviewing possibilities for getting the ship vertical.

"There will be salvage companies perhaps offering views on how the ship might be uprighted, because the only way you're to float it is if you can get it upright where it should be," says Lacey.

"You need to patch all the holes in the ship, all the gashes, all the damage that's below the water, because if you don't do that, then when you start pumping it, all you're doing is circulating the Mediterranean."

'A matter of physics'

Inflatable air bags placed under the accommodation section of the ship might also come into play and could possibly provide some lift, says Lacey.

"It's a matter of physics," he said. "You've got something lying down. You've got to get it upright. You've got to provide a sufficient pull, and somebody can work out how many tonnes of pull is going to be needed."

Structures would have to be built alongside the ship. Barges with big winches would have to be brought in, and they would have to be held in position and secured to the seabed. Otherwise, they would just move toward the ship when the pulling started.

If the ship is turned upright, and can float, it could be towed to a repair yard or a scrap location if it's decided it's too badly damaged to be repaired. If the ship can't be uprighted, then it could be cut in pieces right there and hauled away for scrap.

Psychology at work

While physics will play a large role in the Costa Concordia's fate, psychology could also come to the fore.

"Many damaged ships are repaired," says Lacey, but this ship has a history some people might be concerned about, one that would make them reluctant to step aboard again.

"They can change the name, they can paint it different colours and so on and so forth, but it's not too difficult to find out what a ship's previous name was."

And that could prompt the owners to figure they just don't want the ship back.

Would it even be worth repairing?

Money could also come into play. Lacey compares it to being in a car crash and then having to figure out what to do with the vehicle.

"It may be insured for $20,000, but its market value may be only $10,000, and if it's going to cost $12,000 to repair it, it doesn't get repaired unless you want to repair it yourself," says Lacey.

"The underwriters will say, 'No, it's a writeoff, and we're just going to pay you so much; you do what you like'."

Lacey expects a decision will be made within 10 days or so about what to do with the Costa Concordia.

"I think the most likely thing is that she will be scrapped," he says.

"I think it will just be too psychologically demanding on anybody to expect them to go on this ship. That's another reason I think it might well end up being scrapped."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from The Associated Press