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Costa Concordia cruise ship salvage begins in Italy

Giglio, Italy (CNN) — Delayed by three hours because of strong thunderstorms, the unprecedented operation of salvaging the massive Costa Concordia cruise liner began Monday morning off the coast of Italy, near the island of Giglio.

The giant vessel ran aground and tipped over in January 2012, killing 32 of the 4,200 people on board.

Righting the ship could take up to two days but engineer Sergio Girotto said he’s an optimist, expecting the operation to take about 12 hours.

“I don’t think we will continue into the night,” he said. “After we start pulling, we should see something.”

At midday in Italy, the ship had been raised 3 degrees, or a few meters (6 to 10 feet), Girotto said.

The process

It sounds counterintuitive, but in order to salvage the Costa Concordia, crews will sink portions of it deeper underwater.

The ship will then be pulled off the seabed and rotated onto giant platforms 30 meters (about 98 feet) below the water level.

Areas of the ship that have been dry for months will be submerged and filled with water.

It’s a process known as parbuckling, and it’s become a household term in Giglio, the tiny island that was transformed when the Costa Concordia ran aground off its coast in January 2012.

A ship this large and this heavy, weighing 114,000 tons, has never been parbuckled before.

It is the largest maritime salvage operation ever, according to the cruise line, expensive too, costing nearly $800 million so far.

Normally, crews would blow up the ship or take it apart on site, that would be the cheaper route.

But officials say that’s not an option with the Costa Concordia because the ship is filled with noxious substances and because there are two bodies still believed to be either trapped between the ship and its rocky resting place or somewhere deep in the ship’s hollow hull.

The ship contains a mix of chemicals that would be devastating for the environment if leaked into the water, which would happen if the ship breaks apart or sinks.

According to the Costa Concordia’s inventory list published in the Italian press and confirmed by Costa, thousands of liters of thick lubricants, paints, insecticides, glue and paint thinners were on board before it set sail three hours before it crashed.

There are also 10 large tanks of oxygen and 3,929 liters of carbon dioxide.

That’s not all.

Refrigerators filled with milk, cheese, eggs and vegetables have been closed tight since the disaster.

And the freezers that have not burst under the water pressure are still locked with their thawed, rotting contents sealed inside, including 1,268 kilograms of chicken breasts, 8,200 kilograms of beef, 2,460 kilograms of cheese and 6,850 liters of ice cream.

MORE: Complete coverage from CNN