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How could the Costa Concordia be salvaged?

The ship’s size, danger of leaking fuel and damage to the hull are all factors to consider when working out how to move the Costa Concordia.

The Costa Concordia lying off the Tuscan coast of Italy.
The Costa Concordia lying off the Tuscan coast of Italy.
Image: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia/PA Images

THE SEARCH FOR survivors aboard the grounded Costa Concordia cruise ship has resumed after being suspended yesterday when Italian officials discovered the ship was shifting in the water.

Plans to begin pumping fuel from the stricken vessel were also put on hold.

Concern for the more than 20 passengers and crew who remain unaccounted for is growing, and there are fears that the ship will begin leaking fuel.

What methods could be used to salvage the ship?

According to the International Salvage Union, the fundamental concept of salvaging is the recovery of property or a ship while saving lives and preventing pollution. It says that salving operations have become increasingly focused on the limitation of environment damage in recent years.

A salvage company has not yet been awarded the contract for the salvaging of the Costa Concordia, but one of the frontrunners is the Dutch company SMIT, which has been involved in major ship salvage operations including cruise ships and the salvage of the Russian nuclear submarine the Kursk.

There are two main options for salvaging a ship: refloating it as a single unit, or cutting the ship into smaller liftable pieces.

Refloating

In February 2004, SMIT used a combination of pumps and counterweights to refloat a 290-metre (950-foot) Norwegian Cruise Line ship which was being built in the port of Bremerhaven. The Pride of America had capsized in a storm. It was successfully refloated and construction later completed.

Former SMIT executive Hans van Rooij says that refloating the ship is the cleaner of the two options in terms for the Costa Concordia, however refloating would require patching up the 50-metre (160-foot) gash in the ship’s hull.

Pulling barges anchored to the seabed could attach cables to the side of the ship to right it. Cables would also likely be placed along the land side of the ship to prevent it sliding while being righted.

Although refloating is likely the preferred option, the ship’s size, weight and damage are serious factors to consider and may rule refloating out.

Cutting it up

In 2005, SMIT  was contracted to salvage the Royal Pacific which capsized in the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung. There were no casualties the ship’s sinking.

Before removing the wreck, the company cut the ship into nine sections which were lifted out of the water by a 1,000-tonne sheerleg (or floating) crane. Each section was loaded onto a barge and transported to a scrapyard.

Cutting the Costa Concordia would mean risking the release of contaminants into the water. This area off the Tuscan coast is a sanctuary for whales, dolphins and porpoises, and Italy’s environment minister has already voiced concerns that the ship may begin leaking fuel.

Removing the fuel before cutting would mean penetrating the Costa Concordia’s 17 fuel tanks and warming the oil so that it becomes easier to pump out (the oil is thick and viscous in the cold). Air or water would be pushed into the tanks to help push the oil out and fill the resulting vacuum.

Italian authorities have indicated that the ship has to be removed but that it’s up to the owners and the contractor to determine the method. SMIT officials said earlier this week that any contractor involved in the salvage operation would likely try to remove it in one piece first.

- Additional reporting by Susan Ryan

Read more: Hopes of finding more Costa Concordia survivors fading >

As cruise ships get bigger, are they getting safer? >

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