GIGLIO ISLAND, Sep 17 – The Costa Concordia cruise ship was hoisted upright from its watery grave off Italy’s Giglio island on Tuesday following the biggest ever salvage operation of its kind, 20 months after it ran aground.
The 290 metre (951 foot) long, 114,500 ton vessel longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy emerged from the sea as horns sounded across the water in celebration, mixing with applause and cheers from onlookers in the port the climax to a 19 hour operation.
One side of the ship had lain underwater since the January 2012 tragedy in which 32 people died, and emerged a rusty brown contrasting with the brilliant white on the exposed side.
Nick Sloane, the South African salvage master who gave the orders from a control room on a barge next to the ship, said his team was “proud to have risen to such a challenge, all the more so because many people thought it couldn’t be done.
“Without the shipbuilders and all the equipment which was delivered in time, we wouldn’t be here today,” the 52 year old said, kissing his wife, who handed him a South African flag to celebrate a triumphant end to more than a year’s work.
After final checks to secure the ship, the search will begin for two bodies that are still missing.
Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency and project overseer, said the search for the corpses of Indian waiter Russell Rebello and Italian passenger Maria Grazia Trecarichi would start “in the next few days at the latest”.
“When the ship toppled, corridors became deep wells. Now she is upright, we can get to areas previously off limits,” he said, adding that there would likely “still be areas it is difficult to access and search.”
The missing victims’ loved ones were expected on Giglio later Tuesday.
Trecarichi’s husband Elio Vincenzi said: “I am still hoping to find my wife. This is a tense wait for me and for my daughter.”
Gabrielli said the newly exposed side of the ship, with hundreds of crushed balconies, would require “major repairs” before it can be towed.
Removal of the doomed vessel to an Italian port for scrapping is planned only for the spring of next year at the earliest.