What do you do with a 1,000-foot wreck that's full of fuel and half-submerged on a rocky ledge in the middle of an Italian marine sanctuary? Remove it. Very carefully.
The wreck of the cruise liner Costa Concordia, which ran aground last week, is not unlike a car accident. The first order of business is determining whether it's worth repairing or it gets junked. Then there are the questions of how best to go about it – and who pays.
Stuck on a rocky shoal off the Tuscan island of Giglio, the ship is in Italy's territorial waters, so the country will likely have a major say in deciding the Concordia's fate. But leaving the wreck where it is probably isn't an option, says Martin Davies, the director of Tulane Maritime Law Center.
"I think it very unlikely that the Italian government would regard that as a viable option," Davies says.
Removing a massive ship that's run hard aground and incurred major damage to the hull, however, involves logistical and environmental issues that are just as large.
'Hot Tap' In Delicate Waters
That's where Netherlands-based SMIT Salvage comes in. SMIT, one of the largest marine salvors in the business, has been hired by the ship's owner, Carnival Corp, to survey the damage to the Concordia and remove more than half a million gallons of fuel.
A fuel spill could wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem – the ship is smack in the middle of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Marine Mammals, the largest such protected area in the Mediterranean. There's also lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid that could harm the environment if the salvage or removal of the ship isn't handled delicately.
"There's a lot of risk. The ship is full of fuel. But so far, all the fuel is inside the ship," says Marco Costantini, head of the Sea Program at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Italy .
But Costantini says his group is confident the salvors will do everything they can to prevent a spill.
In removing the fuel, salvage experts say the best option would be to use a hose to pump out the fuel through the Concordia's own plumbing if it's intact. But with the ship on its side, that might not be possible because access could be difficult.
"The biggest problem right now is accessing these points where you can get to the fuel safely and making sure the vessel is stable, not going to shift, move or roll over," says Tim Beaver, president of the American Salvage Association, which represents marine salvors.
Instead, SMIT may need to go in from the side using a special drill to cut through the fuel tanks in a process called "hot tapping."
"You fasten a flange with a valve on it, you drill through, access the tank, pull the drill back out, close the valve and then attach a pumping apparatus to that," Beaver says.
"It's a difficult task, but it's doable," he says, adding that the process is not 100 percent effective. "There will always be a little left."
Once the fuel and fluids are emptied, the salvor would move to the next phase: figuring out the best way to remove the cruise ship. There are essentially two options, experts say, but it's too soon to tell which is more viable.
Raise The Concordia
If it's determined that the Costa Concordia can be saved, then SMIT, or whichever company is eventually selected as the salvor, could try to refloat the ship and tug it back to dry dock for refurbishing. But it's not as easy as it sounds.
On a smaller vessel, a giant inflatable bag is sometimes attached to the outside of the hull to, say, lift the ship off a shoal or bring it upright. That probably won't work for the Concordia because of its size, says Bob Umbenstock, director of planning at Resolve Marine Group, a Florida-based salvor that specializes in large vessels.
Instead, the job will likely require "a combination of barges equipped with winches and cranes" to pull the cruise liner off its side, Umbenstock says. Or the salvor could choose to selectively ballast the ship — taking the water out of some parts of the ship and putting it into other areas to roll the ship upright.
Once the Concordia is off the rocks, "they are going to have to fight to keep it afloat, just like you would a battle-damaged ship," Umbenstock says.
That said, he doubts it will be salvaged.
"If by 'salvage' you mean returning it to service, I would say it's highly unlikely," Umbenstock says. "Once the survey is complete, you can only expect that they're going to find even more damage than is visible now."
The ASA's Beaver says choosing whether to salvage or scrap the approximately $525 million luxury vessel is a numbers game that will need to be sorted out.
"Rebuilding a vessel that's been sunk like that is a big deal," he says. "All the electrics have to come out, all the finishes, carpets, fixtures. You can imagine."
Slice And Dice
If the decision is made to junk the Costa Concordia, the salvor would likely remove it by cutting the vessel into smaller, manageable parts – though with a 1,000-foot ship like the Concordia, manageable is a relative term — and hauling them off piece-by-piece.
In past removals, SMIT has used a giant cutting wire coated with a material as hard as diamonds that is suspended beneath the vessel and then raised to slice it through.
"The Dutch call it a cheese wire," Umbenstock says.
The method was used to dismember the 55,000-ton Norwegian-flagged MV Tricolor after the nearly 625-foot tanker collided with another ship and rolled on its side at the edge of a congested shipping lane in the English Channel.
"They sliced it up just like a salami and cut it into pieces that could then be removed," Umbenstock says. The nine pieces were hauled off on barges for scrap at the end of the operation, which took more than a year and cost an estimated $30 million.
Regardless of how the Concordia is removed, it's going to be a difficult, expensive and drawn-out process.
"I don't see it taking much less than a year, and I think it could take longer," Umbenstock says. But he's confident it can be done.
"It's going to take some innovative thinking, but that's what salvage guys do," he says with a touch of bravado. "We find solutions for poorly defined problems."