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A toxic soup of rotting food, chemicals and other debris is expected to spew out of the Costa Concordia when the giant cruise ship is hauled upright tomorrow.
There are fears that the operation could pollute the pristine waters of Giglio, the Italian island where the ship capsized last year.
The Costa Concordia was at the start of a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean when it crashed and its larders and freezers were packed to capacity with vast quantities of fresh food, dried goods, drinks and other supplies for its 4,200 passengers and crew.
Trapped inside the upturned hull are more than 24,000lbs of fish, nearly 5,500lbs of cheese, 1,500 gallons of ice cream in tubs, 24,000lbs of pasta, 2,000lbs of onions, more than 2,000 pots of jam and nearly 17,000 tea bags.
Rotting beneath the waterline are more than 17,000lbs of raw beef, nearly 11,000 eggs, 2,346 hot dog buns, 815lbs of rabbit meat and more than 1,000 gallons of milk.
Some of the food and drink is sealed, presenting less of a pollution risk, including 18,000 bottles of wine, 22,000 cans of Coca-Cola, 1,000 bottles of extra virgin olive oil, 46,000 miniature bottles of spirits and 10 bottles of communion wine for the ship’s chapel.
Much of the meat and vegetables is contained in giant fridges and freezers deep inside the bowels of the ship.
In addition to the rotting food, there are oils, lubricants and other chemicals inside the vessel, including 65 gallons of paint and 10 gallons of insecticide, as well as thousands of items such as mattresses, clothing, shoes, crockery and plastic sun loungers.
The whole lot is swirling around in a giant stew of debris, with an estimated 29,000 cubic metres of contaminated water expected to gush out of the vessel as she is hauled upright.
The ship’s engine oil and diesel has, at least, been removed – 2,400 tons was extracted from fuel tanks in the months after the disaster by a Dutch salvage firm.
The bodies of a middle-aged Italian woman and an Indian waiter were never recovered and may also be inside the Concordia.
Underwater submarines known as Remote Operated Vehicles or ROVs will search for human remains, with salvage chiefs saying the recovery of the bodies is a priority.
Elio Vincenzi, 64, a maths teacher from Sicily whose wife Maria Grazia Trecarichi died in the disaster, said: “I don’t feel hate or rancour. I just want to find my wife’s body, to bury her at home in Sicily and to know what happened in those last minutes.”
The ship is lying at an acute angle and it was considered not possible to try to extract the food stuffs and other materials, as divers, engineers and other experts worked over the last year to prepare the massive salvage operation.
“The removal of the products concerned from the wreck in situ would have brought more risks than benefits to the salvage operators. Therefore it was decided to wait until the wreck is upright again and then reassess the situation,” Costa Cruises, the Italian company that owns the ship, said in a statement.
The ship, which capsized in Jan 2012 with the loss of 32 lives, is due to be raised on Monday with the help of a complex system of winches, cables and giant hollow compartments, in the biggest operation of its kind in maritime history.
The official go-ahead for the operation was given on Sunday. At a press conference on the island, officials were repeatedly pressed as to how confident they were that the ship would withstand the huge stresses of the operation and that it would be raised successfully.
“One hundred per cent,” said Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection agency.
At 114,500 tonnes, the Concordia is twice as big as the Titanic, which capsized and sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1912.
Salvage experts have said that loud cracks and bangs will be heard when the ship is pulled upright, as windows blow out and internal steel structures buckle and snap.
Salvage experts and officials from Costa Cruises are confident that the dirty water will be contained by absorbent booms on the surface of the sea and nets extending under the water towards the seabed.
“They will act like a giant underwater skirt,” said Nick Sloane, the South African engineer in charge of the salvage operation.
The first four to five hours of the operation will be crucial and will determine whether it has been successful.
“That’s when we will start to feel relieved,” he said. “There are still a lot of unknown factors about the ship.” The nightmare scenario is that the 950ft-long, rust-streaked cruise liner breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the sea.
The containment plan has been drawn up by Arpat, Tuscany’s environmental protection agency, which said that the quality of the water surrounding the wreck would be monitored 24 hours a day, after the salvage operation gets under way at 6am local time.
Andrea Orlando, Italy’s environment minister, last month demanded greater clarification on the “plan to manage the liquids present in the hull, the plan for the management of solid debris and the plan for dealing with any environmental emergency”.
After living with what one local newspaper called “the white whale” at the entrance to Giglio’s main port for 20 months, islanders are praying that the salvage operation goes according to plan.
“We’re optimistic, although we know that there are risks. But we can’t wait for the ship to be raised and towed away,” said Aldo Bartoletti, from the Giglio council.
More than 400 journalists from around the world have been given accreditation to cover the event, which is unprecedented in its scale and ambition.
While Giglio has been buffeted by strong winds in recent days, forecasters say weather conditions on Monday should allow the operation, which is expected to take 10-12 hours, to go ahead.
“The wind and the sea conditions should be well within the limits set by the experts to be able to proceed with the removal. The wind will be below 15 knots and the sea swell will be less than 1.5 metres,” said a statement from Centro Epson Meteo, a weather forecasting service.
The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, is on trial in the Tuscan city of Grosseto, accused of multiple counts of manslaughter and abandoning ship.
He has denied the charges, claiming that the rocks that the ship smashed into as it passed close to the island in a “salute” were not marked on his nautical charts.