The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

As the attempt to finally right the enormous Costa Concordia begins off the Italian island of Giglio, all sorts of superlatives are being bandied around to describe the operation. The general consensus is that there has never been a salvage operation on this scale.

That consensus is wrong.

In February of 1942, the giant French luxury liner, Normandie, caught fire and capsized at her berth in the middle of New York harbour, at the foot of her berth at Manhattan’s 48th street. The big liner was in the final stages of conversion into a troop ship- the USS Lafayette- when she was ruined in a set of circumstances every bit as farcical, needless and incompetent as those that were to wreck the Concordia, almost exactly seventy years later to the day.

Statistics are interesting to compare here; Concordia was 114,000 tons, with a length of 952 feet. Normandie was smaller in terms of gross tonnage- 83,000- but was a full 1,029 feet long. In terms of bulk, she was every bit as impressive as her Italian counterpart.

It took a full eighteen months to raise the Normandie; without the benefit of today’s cutting edge technology, the capsized French leviathan was first lightened by cutting away all her upper works, her masts, and her three huge funnels. The hull, flooded by a catastrophic ingress of water from forty three fire engines and her subsequent partial immersion in the Hudson river, took months to make sound and pump dry.

However, it was fully intended that the Normandie would not only be salvaged, but repaired and returned to service as a troopship. But the liner capsized on her port side and, as she did so, part of her keel was twisted on a rock ledge near the pier. In addition, her port side engines were ruined beyond any economic repair and, by the time of her amazing resurrection in November of 1943, the need for troopships in general had began to recede in any event. So, instead of returning to service, the Normandie was eventually towed to a New Jersey shipyard and scrapped.

Yet despite the apparent waste of time, effort and resources, the raising of the Normandie was an unparalleled, Herculean effort. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before; and valuable lessons were learned that have  often been applied in similar situations since. That includes the current efforts to raise the Costa Concordia.

Of course, the Costa Concordia capsized in partially open waters off the coast of western Italy, whereas the Normandie went over in the middle of New York’s Hudson river. The need for haste in the case of the Italian ship is heightened by the looming inevitability of another Mediterranean winter; storms could finish off the seriously weakened hulk of the Concordia if she is not raised in the next few days.

Sadly, there is no hope that she will ever sail again. Like the Normandie, she has already been shorn of her funnel and masts; her last destination is not in doubt.

The raising of the Concordia also coincides with the curtain opening on the trial of her former master, the hapless, wretched Francesco Schettino.  And you don’t have to be an expert to form the idea that both are ultimately bound for the scrap heap.


Costa is currently considering bids for the final disposal of the remains of the Costa Concordia. Some twelve shipyards have bid for the work, including Middlesbrough in the UK. A decision on the favoured contractor is slated for announcement at the end of February/early March. The wreck is expected to be removed from it’s current location off the island of Giglio in June, either by tow, or by heavy lift ship. Demolition is expected to commence in September.

Currently, the wreck has been stabilised and secured to protect it from the worst of the winter weather. The environmental impact of the sinking has been apparently- and thankfully- negligent.

Meanwhile, the ongoing trial of the former captain, Francesco Schettino, has ground to a halt at Grosetto as the result of a nationwide strike by Italian lawyers. No definite resumption date has been announced.

Some thirty-two people were lost as a result of the sinking in January, 2012. All the missing bodies have now been recovered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s