Wrecked Concordia finally headed for scrapyard after massive salvage operation

Wed Jul 23, 2014 3:21am EDT

* Costa Concordia to leave Tuscan island on Wed for scrapyard

* Whole operation to cost ship owners over 1.5 bln euros

* One of largest maritime salvage operations in history

By Eleanor Biles and Silvia Ognibene

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy, July 23 (Reuters) - Maneouvres began early on Wednesday to remove the rusty hulk of the Costa Concordia cruise liner from the Italian island where it struck rocks and capsized two years ago, killing 32 people.

A convoy of 14 vessels, led by the tug boat Blizzard, will start to tow the Concordia later on Wednesday to a port near Genoa in northern Italy where it is due to arrive on Sunday, before being broken up for scrap.

The once-gleaming white luxury liner sank off the holiday island of Giglio in January 2012 after sailing too close to shore. Its wreck has remained there ever since as engineers embarked on one of the largest maritime salvage operations in history.

Over the past week, salvagers have slowly lifted the 114,500-tonne ship from underwater platforms by pumping air into 30 large metal boxes, or sponsons, attached to the hull.

Franco Porcellachia, engineer in charge of the salvage, said on Tuesday that his team had done everything in their power to make sure the ship, which is around two-and-a-half times the size of the Titanic, was structurally sound.

"When we are in sight of the port of Genoa, we can declare victory," said Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's civil protection service, on Wednesday.

The whole salvage operation is set to cost the ship's owners Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp over 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion), its chief executive said earlier this month.

Bad weather delayed the process by two days, and salvage master Nick Sloane said on Wednesday that "forecasts are good" and "today is a big day for Giglio".

Probably before midday, the ship will take a route out of the port towards the east, before heading north at a rate of two knots, or nautical miles per hour, Sloane said.

DEPARTURE

The wreck's departure removes both the physical remains, which prompted worries about pollution on the picturesque Tuscan coastline, and the visual spectre of a chaotic evacuation of crew and passengers, some of whom jumped ship and swam ashore.

"At the beginning, this ship was a place where I saw tragedy strike, I saw death," said Italian Luciano Castro, a survivor of the tragedy. "Over time though, I thought this ship is also a place where a miracle occurred. It is true that unfortunately 32 people died but also 4,000 people were saved."

The ship's captain Francesco Schettino is fighting charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck as he tried to "salute" the port, and abandoning ship.

During court proceedings earlier this year, the cruise company's crisis coordinator said Schettino tried to persuade him to pretend an electrical blackout had caused the wreck.

One person who was on the ship when it sank is still missing. Salvage organisers have said the search for the body will continue once the Concordia has left Giglio.

The ship was righted in September in a complex "parbuckling" operation in which the huge hulk was slowly lifted off the rocks in an operation that took 19 hours and drew media coverage from around the world.

The demolition and scrapping will be done by a consortium including Italian oil services group Saipem and Genoa-based companies Mariotti and San Giorgio. ($1 = 0.7426 euros) (Reporting by Eleanor Biles and Silvia Ognibene, writing by Isla Binnie Editing by Steve Scherer and Susan Fenton)