Crippled Ship To Remain Off Italy's Coast For Months

Rough seas over the weekend again forced the suspension of recovery operations at the cruise ship that capsized off the coast of Italy. Officials estimate it will take 10 months to remove the ship. In addition to the loss of human life, there is fear there will be an environmental disaster.

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Every day now, people at an Italian port look out on the water and see the wreck of an ocean liner. Every day, tourists come to see it, too. While divers are still pulling bodies from the wreck, including the 17th over the weekend. Residents are eager for the ship to be safely removed. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Costa Concordia lies on its side, soaring like a giant carcass out of the sea just outside the small port of the island of Giglio. This fishing village usually hibernates in winter. Not now. It's bustling with tugs, barges, coast guard vessels, cranes and oil booms. The ferry from the mainland disgorges hundreds of day-trippers. Taxi driver, Adriano Pini, fears life here has changed forever.

ADRIANO PINI: (Through translator) Take that ship away. Seal it up and remove it as fast as possible, they lost two weeks of calm seas. Now we're flooded with day-trippers who come to look at the relic. This is disaster tourism.

POGGIOLI: The great fear is a marine environmental disaster. Giglio is part of Europe's largest marine sanctuary. It's a delicate eco-system. Underwater coral reefs are home to rare species of fish and mollusks. The area is also a nesting place for migratory birds.

The first task is removal of 500,000 gallons of fuel. The Dutch salvage company, SMIT, says weather permitting, removing some 50 percent of the fuel will take at least three weeks. Salvage master Bart Huizing says this vessel poses specific challenges

BART HUIZING: Basically, what we have here is a vessel listed 66 degrees. During the drilling operations, the (unintelligible) operations, we also need to work under an angle and we need to drill, actually, avert. In case, to do this, the divers need to really work hard, and it costs a lot of energy for the divers.

POGGIOLI: The 1,000-foot long ship was a floating village for more than 4,000 people. It also contains large quantities of chlorine for swimming pools, machine oils, lubricants, and even 5,000 liters of olive oil.

SCOTT SMITH: Olive oil dumped in the water is just as damaging as bunker fuel oil, because it disrupts the natural process of getting oxygen in the water.

POGGIOLI: Scott Smith has invented Opflex, what he calls a snare mop to absorb leaking oil. Smith has come to Giglio to offer his product that he says was used in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill.

So far, authorities here insist all toxic substances are well-sealed and nothing has leaked into the sea. But the shipwreck has already disgorged floating debris, rotting food, and human waste. Local health authorities declared parts of the submerged vessel off-limits to rescue divers as a precautionary measure.

The entire salvage operation is daunting. Franco Gabrielli, the emergency commissioner, announced a tentative timetable. The ship owners will take about two months to choose a company to remove the wreck, either by floating it away or breaking it up into pieces.

FRANCO GABRIELLI: (Through translator) Once everything is decided for the full removal of the vessel - with all the necessary caveats about weather conditions, etcetera - we're talking about a period from seven to ten months.

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POGGIOLI: The Gigliesi wonder, can full-scale salvage operations co-exist with their summer season? They re afraid this pristine reserve for nature lovers will be transformed into a gawkers' Mecca.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, on the island of Giglio.

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