Rome - The Costa Concordia is set to be removed from the shoreline of the Italian island of Giglio by mid-2014, experts said on Tuesday, after the wrecked cruise liner was successfully prized from the rocks it had been wedged against for the past 20 months.
The operation to straighten the 300m, 114 000-ton vessel by 65 degrees took 19 hours and was completed at 04:00 (0200 GMT). Engineers had hoped it could be done in 10 to 12 hours, but always insisted that getting it right was more important that doing it fast.
"I am relieved and I am a bit tired. I will have a beer and go to sleep. I am sending a kiss to my wife," the South African-born chief salvage master, Nick Sloane, said as he emerged from the barge from which he commanded the operation.
The listing hull was lifted using steel cables and tanks attached to its exposed side, which were filled with water and used as counterweights in the effort to pull up the wreck, which was rested on a false sea bed.
Engineers were next planning to inspect the side that emerged from the waters, which was covered in brown mud and was heavily deformed. The idea is to attach tanks also on that side, and use them to refloat the ship by emptying them of water and filling them with air.
Early summer removal
Once refloated, the Concordia was expected to be towed away to a yet-to-be decided port for dismantling, but Franco Porcellacchia, an engineer overseeing operations for owners Costa Crociere, was confident it could all be done in the first half of next year.
"I think that all the conditions will be in place in late spring, early summer to think about taking it away," he said. Work cannot be done faster because of the difficulty of operating during adverse winter conditions.
The Concordia's rotation was a major engineering feat. The risk was that the rusting hull could snap or sink entirely, jeopardising the entire salvage operation and causing a likely environmental disaster.
"It could not have gone any better," Porcellacchia said, while Italian Civil Protection agency chief Franco Gabrielli attacked doom-sayers. He singled out a member of the Italian chapter of Greenpeace, who had predicted the spillage of vast quantities of sewage.
Instead, there was no release of toxic liquids. The Concordia was emptied of fuel two months after its shipwreck, but sea water inside its hull is thought to have been contaminated by residual fuel, chemicals and rotting food on board.
As the straightening was completed, salvage team members hugged and applause broke out in the press briefing room, while sirens in the port of Giglio, the tiny Italian island where the Concordia ran aground, blared in celebration.
All those working on the rescue "are a great [source] of Italian pride," Prime Minister Enrico Letta wrote on Twitter. He invited Gabrielli and others for a congratulatory meeting in Rome.
The sinking of the Concordia, attributed to the irresponsible behaviour of its Italian captain Francesco Schettino, has been a national shame. The image of the half-sunken ship was also associated with the crisis-stricken state of the country.
Insurers for Costa, an Italian subsidiary of the US-based Carnival, are footing the bill for the unprecedented salvage operation, estimated at over €600m, and employing more than 500 people from 26 nations.
The Concordia crashed against a reef on 12 January 2012. Thirty-two of the 4 229 people on board died and two victims - an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger - are still missing. Rescuers were expected to board the vessel to look for their remains.
Meanwhile, Schettino is being tried for manslaughter and other serious crimes, and was due to next appear in court on 23 September.
The disgraced captain is accused of having taken the ship dangerously close to the shore to perform a stunt, and to have badly mishandled emergency procedures on the night of the disaster. He left the Concordia before all passengers had been evacuated.
In July, four other crew members and a Costa Crociere executive were given suspended jail terms ranging from 18 to 34 months, in plea bargain agreements. Costa Crociere was fined €1m in another plea deal in April.