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GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy (AP) — A complex system of pulleys and counterweights on Monday began pulling upright the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its side on a Tuscan reef where it capsized in 2012, an anxiously awaited operation of a kind that has never been attempted on such a huge liner.
Engineer Sergio Girotto said the operation began at about 9 a.m. (0700GMT) Monday, three hours late.
The delay was due to an early morning storm that pushed back a floating command room center from its position close to the wreckage. There, engineers using remote controls were guiding a synchronized leverage system of pulleys, counterweights and huge chains looped under the Concordia's carcass to delicately nudge the ship free from its rocky seabed perch just outside Giglio Island's harbor.
The goal is to raise it from its side by 65 degrees to vertical, as a ship would normally be, for eventual towing.
The operation, known in nautical parlance as parbuckling, is a proven method to raise capsized vessels.
The USS Oklahoma was parbuckled by the U.S. military in 1943 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the 300-meter (1,000-foot), 115,000-ton Concordia has been described as the largest cruise ship ever to capsize and subsequently require the complex rotation.
The Concordia crashed into a reef on a winter's night Jan. 13, 2012. Thirty-two people were killed after the captain steered the luxury liner too close to the rocky coastline of Giglio, part of a chain of islands in pristine waters.
The reef sliced a 70 meter long (230 foot) gash into what is now the exposed side off the hull, letting seawater rush in. The resulting tilt was so drastic that many lifeboats couldn't be launched. Dozens of the 4,200 passengers and crew were plucked to safety by helicopters or jumped into the sea and swam to shore. Bodies of many of the dead were retrieved inside the ship, although two bodies were never found and might lie beneath the hulk.
The Concordia's captain is on trial on the mainland for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship during the chaotic and delayed evacuation. Capt. Francesco Schettino claims the reef wasn't on the nautical charts for the liner's weeklong Mediterranean cruise.
Asked how long it would take for people on shore to see the ship making significant movement toward the vertical, Girotto said that "after a couple of hours, you should be able to see something visible from a distance."
The first couple of hours will be critical, engineers predicted. Pieces of the granite seabed are embedded in the submerged side of the hull, which divers haven't been able to fully inspect.
The entire operation should take between 10-12 hours.
Parbuckling was supposed to begin before dawn, but daylight broke even before the barge carrying the engineers close to the ship could leave shore. After the storm blew away, seas were calm.
Engineers have dismissed as a "remote" possibility the chance that the Concordia might break apart during rotation and no longer be sound enough to be towed to the mainland to be turned into scrap.
Costa Crociere SpA, the Italian unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp., is picking up the tab for the parbuckling and its intricate preparation. The company puts the costs so far at 600 million euros ($800 million), though much of that will be passed onto its insurers.
Project is at www.theparbucklingproject.com
The cruise ship terminal in Mobile, Ala., was raucous late Thursday as passengers streamed off the Triumph.
What was supposed to be a pampered voyage changed for the worse when an engine fire Sunday knocked out primary power to the ship.
After, the trip was marked by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.
Carnival said passengers have the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Some also can stay in Mobile.
All passengers had disembarked by 1:00 a.m. Central Time.
The Associate Press posted video of interviews with some of the passengers as they left the ship.
The company announced its plan late Wednesday as the Triumph was being towed to a port in Mobile, Ala., with more than 4,000 people on board, some of whom have complained to relatives of uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. The company has disputed the accounts.
The Triumph is expected to arrive this afternoon, but passengers' stay will be short. Carnival says passengers can board buses to Galveston, Texas, or Houston, or spend the night in New Orleans. Those staying in New Orleans will be flown Friday to Houston. Carnival said it will cover the transportation costs.