STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The most complicated part of the largest maritime salvage in history gets underway in Italy today. It's the re-floating of the 1,000 foot long wreck of the Costa Concordia - a luxury liner capsized in 2012.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from an island off the Tuscan coast.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So, what have you seen?
POGGIOLI: Well I came in early this morning by ferry, and the ferry went right by the wreck. What you can see is that it's got these huge tanks attached to it. And there are a lot of tugboats. There was an enormous amount of activity - cranes, cables, etc. But it's going to be a long process, a slow process.
INSKEEP: So, you said large tanks attached to it. How does this operation actually work?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, the Concordia's sitting on huge custom-made underwater platform at a depth of 90 feet. It's been fitted with these airtight metal tanks called sponsons, filled with water. Today, they're gradually being pumped full of compressed air to give it buoyancy, to lift the ship. But today on this first day, only by about six feet. This is the most dangerous part, because the hull could crack and fall apart, and spill into the sea everything that's been inside the ship for 30 months - tons of rotting food, mattresses, toxic chemicals, you name it. It would be an environmental disaster in Europe's biggest marine sanctuary, which is also a refuge for some of the Mediterranean's last surviving monk seals.
INSKEEP: Hm. So the fear is this, ship breaks apart. The hope is that it sticks together as it's slowly righted. Assuming it does stick together, what happens then?
POGGIOLI: Well, with the help of tugs it'll be moved off the platform by about 90 feet and it'll be anchored to the sea bed. Then over the next six to seven days, the ship will gradually be floated a little bit higher, one deck at a time. That's to give technicians time to check each deck and remove any toxic substances that might be inside. Once it's all up, the submerged section of the ship should be about 56 feet, and the Concordia will be towed some 150 miles to the port of Genoa over five days. There, the dismantling operation could take up to two years. The ship owners, Costa Crociere, which is a unit of Carnival Corporation, is paying for the entire salvage operation, which is now estimated at over $2 billion.
INSKEEP: You know, it's interesting, Sylvia when you say that you saw this on a passing ferry. I'm assuming that's a regularly scheduled ferry between populated areas. This is a populated zone by the coast there. How are local people responding to this salvage operation?
POGGIOLI: Oh, there's great joy. The Costa Concordia has been an unwelcome presence for the great majority of residents. Of course, hotels and restaurants did a booming business with of hundreds of salvage technicians who've been working here around the clock.
But, this island, Giglio, lives off a loyal environmentally-conscious kind of tourism, and the Concordia and that. It became a magnet for hundreds of day-trippers who came to gawk, and what one taxi driver described to me as, disaster tourism.
INSKEEP: Meanwhile, there's a trial going on, is there not, for the captain of this ship?
POGGIOLI: Yeah. Captain Francesco Schettino was charged with manslaughter, abandoning ship, and causing the shipwreck. He could face up to 20 years in prison. It was an apparent act of maritime bravado. He tried to give passengers a close up view of Giglio, and he rammed the vessel into a reef. He abandoned the ship before all the passengers were evacuated, and because of the poorly trained crew, many passengers had to jump overboard into the cold water. Now, many Italians see Schettino and the Concordia disaster as a metaphor for everything that's wrong with the country. If you saw the movie, the Oscar-winning movie The Great Beauty, that's how the image was used in that movie. So, you know, the successful removal of the Costa is really crucial to restore a little bit of Italian's self-esteem.
INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks, as always.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. This is NPR News.
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