By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Though the search for survivors or, more likely, bodies on the Costa Concordia goes on, attention is turning to what to do with the hulk of wrecked Italian super-liner - and who will win the rich contract to break it up or salvage it.
Startling though it may seem, it could be only be a matter of months before the beached carcass is once more ready to shuttle tourists, over 3,000 of them per voyage, around the Mediterranean.
"My guess is they will try to salvage the ship intact," said Ted Thompson from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a body that promotes the industry in North America.
"If you go back to Pearl Harbor, most of those ships were salved and not cut up," he said of the U.S. warships sunk by the Japanese in 1941. "Many were raised intact and refurbished and sent to war. So it is possible to salvage a ship intact."
Less than 48 hours after the Costa Concordia hit a rock last Friday, the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio was hosting not only rescue teams but also Dutch and American salvage experts assessing how to refloat the 114,000 vessel, which is twice the size of the Titanic and the biggest liner ever wrecked.
The decision on how to remove the ship, which lies half-submerged on its side less than 50 meters (yards) offshore, will be made jointly by its owner Costa Cruises, a unit of Florida's Carnival Corp, insurers and specialists in salvage techniques.
A tender will then be held and the world's foremost salvage companies are positioning themselves to bid. Having cost some half a billion dollars to build in 2006 - rather more than a jumbo jet - there is plenty of value remaining in the wreck.
"The ship is definitely re-floatable, but it's a question of cost-benefit about whether that is worth it," said a salvage expert appointed by Royal Sun Alliance, one of a group of insurers for the ship.
Speaking at the quayside on Giglio, he said companies likely to bid include Smit Salvage, an arm of Dutch group Boskalis-Westminster, Titan Salvage, owned by U.S. group Crowley Maritime Corp and Denmark's Svitzer, owned by Maersk.
Like many of those directly involved in the future of Concordia, he declined to be identified by name, a measure of the sensitivity of the operation and high financial stakes.
Pier Luigi Foschi, the head of Costa Cruises, said this week that removing the ship from its resting place would be "one of the most difficult things in the world." He said large holes in the hull below the waterline would have to be sealed and then it could possibly be lifted by giant balloons and towed away.
He also did not rule out that it may need to be cut into pieces, once fuel tanks have been pumped out to limit pollution.
Salvage companies eyeing the potentially huge contracts are confident it can be put back on the water.
Smit Salvage, which was first on the island with a sizeable team of workers in distinctive yellow and blue uniforms, will pump the 2,300 tonnes of fuel from the ship, and have made clear they are also ready for the bigger task of salvaging it.
"Our involvement is limited to fuel extraction and does not pertain to the eventual removal of the vessel, but our track record shows we are also capable of doing that," said spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer.
A smaller team of five experts from Titan salvage arrived on Giglio close on Smit's heels.
"We're here to look at how it can be raised," a Titan expert told Reuters, again speaking anonymously. "It could definitely be done, with balloons, cables. There are various techniques."
A spokesman for Svitzer, which is currently trying to salvage the cargo ship Rena off New Zealand, told Reuters it might also bid on the Costa Concordia.
Smit, together with Dutch heavy lifting and transport company Mammoet, successfully lifted Russian nuclear submarine the Kursk from the bottom of the Barents Sea, where it sank with all hands in 2000.
At less than 10,000 tonnes, the Kursk was a midget compared with the Costa Concordia. But it lay at a depth of 108 meters, while the Italian cruise liner is only half submerged.
A Mammoet spokesman also said the company might make a bid to salvage the Costa Concordia if and when a tender is held.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London and Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)