GIGLIO ISLAND - They have dubbed him a hero, "the legend of Giglio."
Salvage master Nick Sloane, tasked with raising the Costa Concordia cruise ship upright from its watery grave off Italy's Giglio Island, emerged triumphant Tuesday after a 19-hour operation, the biggest of its kind ever attempted.
"It was a bit of a roller coaster ride. I'm relieved," a bleary-eyed but grinning Sloane said as he left the control room to cheers and applause after pulling off what he had described as his "most challenging" task yet.
The South African -- who has worked with some of the world's biggest shipwrecks -- headed up an 11-man team of experts who controlled the righting of the 114,500-ton ship from a floating barge near the wreck.
The squad joined Sloane and members of the 500-strong international team of divers, welders and engineers who have worked on the project at a port-side bar for celebratory drinks, toasting their success with rounds of beer as the sun came up.
Dubbed "the magnificent 11," the control-room force was made up of British, German, Belgium and Italian specialists in everything from piloting remote control underwater robots to hydraulic engineering.
Together, they kept the vast system of steel cables, pulleys and counterweights in check.
Lifting the Eiffel Tower...Four Times
"The entire team is proud to have risen to such a challenge, all the more so because many people thought it couldn't be done," Sloane said, kissing his wife, who handed him a South African flag to celebrate a triumphant end to more than a year's work.
"Without the shipbuilders and all the equipment which was delivered in time, we wouldn't be here today," the 52-year-old said, adding that "very few countries in the world could have kept to the timetable on such a job."
More than 30,000 tonn of steel were used -- equivalent to four times the weight of the Eiffel Tower -- in the operation to lift the 290-metre (951-foot) vessel, which is longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy.
The "parbuckling" operation by which the ship was rotated had never been performed on a vessel that size and tensions rose in the hours before the operation was due to start on Monday when a storm delayed the kick-off by three hours.
For nearly 24 hours, all eyes in the control room were glued to vast computer screens transmitting images from both above and below water as the ship crept upright.
The delicate maneuver was put on hold for an hour midway through while technicians trained in mountain climbing scaled the ship for a maintenance check on the 36 giant cables pulling the vessel into place.
The final phase went incredibly quickly as gravity did its work and pulled the ship upwards and into a vertical position.
Strong Enough for Towing
Sloane told journalists an initial inspection of the side of the ship which has been underwater for 20 months indicated serious damage and said the team would "have to do a really detailed inspection" to determine how it can be repaired enough to withstand towing.
But, he said, if "she was strong enough to come up like this, she's strong enough to be towed."
It was Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency and project overseer, who dubbed Sloane "the legend of Giglio," a nickname quickly employed by the inhabitants of the island, who cannot wait to see the doomed Concordia removed.
The ship, which crashed off the Tuscan island Jan. 13, 2012, left 32 people dead.
For now, however, sleep and celebration are the only things on Sloane's mind.
"First a beer, then bed. And maybe a barbecue tomorrow," he said, heading off to the port after one last look at the wreck now sitting sedately in the sea behind him.
Laure Brumont, AFP
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013