ROME — Engineers started refloating the deformed hull of the cruise liner Costa Concordia on Monday, a crucial step before its final removal from the Tuscan island where it ran aground 30 months ago, taking 32 lives.
"It's a paramount engineering attempt not just for Italy, but for the whole world," said Emilio Campana, the director of the research office for naval and maritime engineering at Italy's National Research Council. "The first risk is that the vessel breaks apart as they lift it. Its structure is damaged and warped, it's impossible to calculate exactly how it will react."
Authorities said Monday that the first phase of the operation had been successful and that the ship was afloat for the first time since it hit a reef and capsized in early 2012.
On Monday, Italian authorities blocked the waters and air space around the island of Giglio, to ensure safety and prevent any interference to the refloating operation. In the first six or seven hours of the operation, the wreck will be lifted by about 7 feet using a pneumatic system, detaching the hull from the platform located nearly 100 feet underwater. The ship has been resting there since last September, when engineers managed to right the ship in a spectacular 19-hour long operation.
Nick Sloane, the senior salvage master for Titan Salvage, the Pompano Beach company in charge of the operation, said Monday that he was relieved the weather was cooperating after a night of light rain.
"Nervous? A little," Sloane said to reporters on Giglio, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. "Today we'll find out if the calculations are right, or at least how distant they are from our predictions."
"We hope that by tonight the ship will have stabilized," he added.
Over the past few months, workers have fitted 30 huge steel stabilizing containers known as sponsons on both sides of the Concordia that will function as floats. As pneumatic devices gradually empty the sponsons of water and fill them with air on both sides, the hull will be lifted upward.
The operation will also attempt to move the wreck 30 meters to the east. As the Concordia is anchored in the new location and balanced by three tugboats to keep it stable, the sponsons will be further secured with steel cables and chains to the vessel's structure. For the following week, the same pneumatic system will raise the ship deck by deck, until only 50 feet of the wreck remains submerged.
At that point, the Costa Concordia should be ready to be towed away by tugboats - two at the bow and two at the stern - for the nearly 200 nautical miles that separate Giglio from the port of Genoa.
"This operation will end only after the ship has been transported to Genoa," warned Gian Luca Galletti, Italy's environment minister. "We can't let our guard down."
An Italian official said Sunday that once the ship is lifted, it will be thoroughly searched for the only unrecovered body of the 32 known fatalities from the shipwreck.
Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Department, which is overseeing the wreck's removal, said it was a "great sorrow" that the body of an Indian waiter was never found, the Associated Press reported.
Costa Cruises, the ship's operator, has pledged to protect the local environment as much as possible during the salvage operation and has surrounded the wreck with rubber booms at different stages to try to prevent any leakage from contaminating the sea and shoreline. But environmental associations have voiced concerns.
"Of course we are worried about the refloating operation, as it is not entirely clear how possible leaks of the Concordia's toxic liquids will be handled," said Alessandro Giannì, campaign director at Greenpeace Italy. "But the weather conditions during the navigation are also a concern. Forecasts are accurate only four days in advance, and the wreck will start its navigation in the open sea about three days after leaving the port."
"This means that we can only be relatively certain of the sea conditions at the time when the wreck will be most exposed," Giannì explained, adding that a Greenpeace vessel will follow the Concordia's journey.
After the ship leaves the Tuscan island, workers will begin the environmental recovery phase, which should last several months. Under the current plan, salvage workers will attempt to clean the sea floor and replant the rare marine flora that attracted recreational divers. It is still unclear whether the underwater platform will be left on the island's sea bottom, and used as a diving facility, or will be removed.
Once the ship is docked in Genoa, workers will start removing the furniture and equipment from inside the 16-story cruise liner that once entertained more than 3,000 people. The Concordia will later be dismantled in an inner section of the port of Genoa.
The works are expected to create an estimated 700 jobs, an economic benefit that the Tuscan port of Piombino, the closest to Giglio, had long claimed.