Italy cruise wreck turned upright in unique salvage

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.

Ship horns sounded across the water in celebration, mixing with applause and cheers in the port in a climax to the 19-hour operation.

The 290-metre (951-foot), 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 giant ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown 20 months on from the January 13, 2012 tragedy, contrasting with the brilliant white on the exposed side.

After final checks to ensure the ship is secure, the search will begin for two bodies still missing after the tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency and project overseer, said divers would search for the corpses of Indian waiter Russell Rebello and Italian passenger Maria Grazia Trecarichi "as soon as the ship is stabilised, in the next few days at the latest."

The missing victims' loved ones were expected on Giglio later Tuesday.

Elio Vincenzi, Trecarichi's husband, said: "I am filled with hope. I am still hoping to find my wife. This is a tense wait for me and for my daughter."

Gabrielli said hundreds of crushed balconies on the newly exposed side of the ship "makes it look even more damaged than it is", but added that it would still require "major repairs" before it can be towed away.

Removal of the doomed vessel to an Italian port for scrapping is planned only for the spring of next year at the earliest.

Local residents and survivors spoke of an eerie feeling as the ship rose, saying it reminded them of the way it looked on the night of the tragedy.

"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 hulk posed unique challenges to the 500-person international salvage team.

They also had to take special care since Giglio is in the heart of one of Europe's biggest marine sanctuaries.

The ship was dragged up with 36 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.

It is now sitting on a vast underwater steel platform and the next step will see tanks fitted to the side of the ship which was on the rocks.

Water will then be drained from the tanks on both sides in order to float the ship.

The project has so far cost 600 million euros ($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 experience on some of the world's biggest shipwrecks.

"I'm relieved. It was a bit of a rollercoaster," a smiling Sloane said as he was mobbed by dozens of journalists and well-wishers in the port before a celebratory drink.

"The scale of it was something we've never seen before," he said.

Giglio islanders said they were happy at the prospect of the ship finally being refloated and towed away.

The Costa Concordia 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" in the tabloids for apparently abandoning 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 been handed short prison sentences for their roles in the crash.

The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.

It keeled over within sight of Giglio's port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later and hundreds of people were forced to jump into the freezing water or lower themselves to waiting boats.