GIGLIO ISLAND : Salvage workers in Italy slowly dragged upright the Costa Concordia cruise ship from its watery grave in an unprecedented operation that was proceeding far slower than expected amid worsening weather conditions.
The 951-foot vessel -- longer than the Titanic and twice as heavy -- gradually emerged from the sea just off Tuscany's stunning Giglio island. The side of the 114,500-ton ship that had been underwater was rusty and brown after 20 months in the sea, contrasting with the white of the exposed side.
After seven hours of hoisting, supervisors of the Italian-US project said the ship had lifted by an angle of around 10 degrees towards the vertical axis. Once it has risen by 24 degrees, the ship will begin righting itself thanks to gravity and to the giant tanks welded onto one side which will fill with water.
Officials had estimated the complex operation could be completed by 1900 GMT on Monday but the delays mean it could now drag on into early Tuesday morning.
The project has cost 600 million euros ($800 million) and insurers for ship owner Costa Crociere, who are picking up the bill, estimate it could be $1.1 billion.
Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency which is overseeing the operation, said there was "great concern" about the weather forecasts, since winds and wave heights are expected to pick up.
The start of the salvage was already delayed by several hours because of storms on the island.
Salvage coordinators have played down environmentalist fears of thousands of tons of toxic waste pouring into the sea, saying there had been no spillages so far.
The man giving the orders from a control room on a barge is Nick Sloane, a South African with years of experience on some of the world's biggest shipwrecks.
Islanders whose lives have been turned upside-down by the wreck said they were relieved that the time when the ship will finally be removed was drawing closer.
They will have months more to wait, as the towing away is not planned until spring of next year at the earliest when the ship will eventually be scrapped.
Special prayers were held in a local church on the eve of the operation on Sunday for the salvage.
Some 400 journalists witnessed the event and the island's tiny port was swarming with officials, rescuers and curious onlookers since the early morning.
"All the inhabitants are hoping and waiting," said Giovanna Rum, owner of a shop for maritime clothing.
The 14-deck Costa Concordia was once a floating pleasure palace with a casino, four swimming pools and the largest spa centre ever built on a ship.
It struck rocks just off Giglio after veering sharply towards the island in a bravado sail-by allegedly ordered by its captain, Francesco Schettino.
Dubbed "Captain Coward" and "Italy's most hated man" for apparently abandoning the ship while passengers were still on board, Schettino is currently on trial.
Four crew members and the head of ship owner Costa Crociere's crisis unit were handed short prison sentences earlier for their roles in the crash.
The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board when it crashed on January 13, 2012.
It keeled over in shallow waters within sight of Giglio's port but the order to abandon the vessel came more than an hour later -- a fatal delay.
By that time, lifeboats on one side of the ship were virtually unusable because of the tilt and there was panic as people rushed for the remaining ones.
Hundreds were forced to either jump into the water in the darkness and swim ashore or lower themselves along the exposed hull of the ship to waiting boats.
Two bodies -- that of an Indian waiter and an Italian passenger -- were never recovered from the wreck and are believed to be still stuck under the ship.
"I am filled with hope. I am still hoping to find my wife," Elio Vincenzi, the widower of Maria Grazia Trecarichi, told Italian news channel SkyTG24.
Newspaper columnists said the righting of the ship was a chance at "rehabilitation" for Italy after the damage it suffered from tales of Schettino's antics.
"What is left of Italy's reputation and credibility is playing out on this chunk of rock," said Enrico Fierro, a columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily.