Salvage work to remove the capsized Costa Concordia cruise ship from its rocky perch off Tuscany, where 32 people died, will begin early next month and is expected to take a year, the Italian owner announced on Saturday.
The U.S.-owned company Titan Salvage won the bid to remove the ship, which struck a reef off the tourist-dependent island of Giglio on January 13, after the captain veered off course and steered the liner carrying 4,200 people close to shore in an apparent stunt. Thirty-two passengers and crew members died in the frantic and delayed evacuation. Two of those remain missing.
The salvage plan, which still needs approval by Italian authorities, foresees removing the ship in one piece and towing it to an Italian port, Costa said.
Workers completed the removal of fuel from the Concordia on March 24, and Costa said environmental protection will be a "top priority" during the ship's removal. The island of Giglio is in fishing grounds and falls within a sanctuary for dolphins.
Islanders have expressed concern that the ship's presence and salvage work will disrupt tourism, Giglio's main economic driver.
"As was the case with the removal of the fuel, we have sought to identify the best solution to safeguard the island and its marine environment and to protect its tourism," Costa CEO Pier Luigi Foschi said in a statement.
Titan Salvage, based in Pompano Beach, Florida, has performed more than 350 salvage and wreck removal projects since 1980, according to its website. It will partner with Microperi, an Italian marine contractor that specializes in underwater construction and engineering. Titan was one of six companies bidding for the salvage job.
Salvage crews and their equipment will be based at the nearby port of Civitavecchia in a move aimed minimizing the impact on Giglio's port activities, Costa said.
Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of abandoning the ship in the middle of a confused evacuation that saw passengers and crew members jump into the water and swim to shore after the ship's tilt made it impossible to lower lifeboats.
Schettino, who is under house arrest and denies wrongdoing, faces possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. Other top officers and Costa officials also face possible charges. Schettino has claimed that the reef, which appears on many tourist maps, wasn't on his navigational charts.
The ship's owner, Costa Crociere SpA, has distanced itself from Schettino, contending he made an "unauthorized" maneuverer that took him perilously too close to the island. It has said that only once, in August, was the cruise ship allowed to sail close to Giglio, because of a special occasion on the island.