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Italy cruise wreck upright after massive salvage

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

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 could not 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 arrived on Giglio on Tuesday afternoon, and were driven away by police without passing comment.

Gabrielli said the newly exposed side of the ship, with hundreds of crushed balconies, would require "major repairs" before it can be towed.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta looked relaxed as he held a press conference in Rome and posed for photographs with Gabrielli, sporting rolled-up sleeves and a loosened tie.

"We have turned the page on the public image of our country, which at the time of the accident was synonymous with abdication of responsibility and echoed around the world," Letta said.

Removal of the doomed vessel to an Italian port for scrapping is planned only for early next year, or even lateer.

'A bit of a rollercoaster'

The salvage was the biggest ever undertaken for a passenger ship and the position of the hulk posed unique challenges for the 500-strong 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 estimate it could run to $1.1 billion once it is completed.

"I'm relieved. It was a bit of a rollercoaster," 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.

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.

The order to abandon the vessel was delayed and problems with launching lifeboats saw some people forced to jump into the freezing water.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130917/italy-cruise-wreck-upright-after-massive-salvage