GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy – Salvage operators in Italy lifted the Costa Concordia cruise ship upright from its watery grave off the island of Giglio on Tuesday in the biggest ever project of its kind.
The ship's horn sounded for the first time since the January 13, 2012 tragedy, its sound mixing with applause and cheers in the port in a dramatic climax to the massive salvage operation.
The 290-metre, 114,500-ton vessel – longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy – rose from the sea like a ghost ship.
The side of the ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown after 20 months in the sea, contrasting with the white of the exposed side.
"The parbuckling operation has been completed," said Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency and project overseer, using the technical term for the rotation.
Gabrielli said the newly exposed side of the ship would require "major repairs" and removal of the ship for scrapping is planned only for the spring of next year at the earliest.
Franco Porcellacchia, an engineer for the 500-person Italian-US salvage team on Giglio, said: "It could not have gone better than this."
Local residents and survivors spoke of an eerie feeling as the ship rose, saying the sight reminded them of the tragedy that claimed 32 lives.
"Seeing it re-emerge is emotional for me," said Luciano Castro, a survivor who travelled to the picturesque island to witness the salvage.
"I could not miss it. That ship could have been my end and instead I am here to tell the story," he said.
The salvage is the biggest for a passenger ship ever undertaken and the position of the ship posed unique challenges to salvagers.
They have also had to take special care againt spillages since Giglio is in the heart of one of Europe's biggest marine sanctuaries.
The ship was dragged up with 36 giant cables across the hull and tanks the size of 11-storey buildings welded on the side of the ship which were filled with water to act as ballast.
The project has so far cost 600 million euros (US$800 million) and insurers, who are picking up the bill, estimate it could run to $1.1 billion once it is completed.
The man who gave the orders from a control room on a barge next to the ship was Nick Sloane, a South African with years of experience on some of the world's biggest shipwrecks.
Giglio islanders said they were relieved that the time when the ship will finally be removed from their sight was drawing closer.
"All the inhabitants are hoping and waiting," said Giovanna Rum, owner of a shop for maritime clothing.
The 14-deck Costa Concordia was once a floating pleasure palace with a casino, four swimming pools and the largest spa centre ever built on a ship.
It struck rocks just off Giglio after veering sharply towards the island in a bravado sail-by allegedly ordered by its captain, Francesco Schettino.
Dubbed "Captain Coward" and "Italy's most hated man" for apparently abandoning the ship while passengers were still on board, Schettino is currently on trial.
Four crew members and the head of ship owner Costa Crociere's crisis unit have already received short prison sentences for their roles in the crash.
The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.
It keeled over in shallow waters within sight of Giglio's port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later – a fatal delay.
Hundreds were forced to either jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Two bodies – that of an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger – were never recovered from the wreck and could be still stuck under the ship.
Kevin Rebello, the waiter's brother, and Elio Vincenzi, the passenger's husband, were expected to arrive on Giglio on Tuesday as prosecutors launch a new search for the bodies.
"I am still hoping to find my wife. This is a tense wait for me and for my daughter," Vincenzi said. AFP