Cover Story

Raising the Costa Concordia

Insurance foots the bill for the largest marine recovery project in history.
By: | September 1, 2013 • 13 min read

The plan to raise the Costa Concordia — the largest and most expensive wreck removal operation in maritime history — is a marine engineering marvel. But a successful outcome is far from assured and the cost is approaching $1 billion.

When the massive Costa Concordia passenger ship ran aground on Jan. 13, 2012, claiming 32 lives, it entered the marine insurance record books.

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Hull insurance on the vessel, at more than $500 million, is now paid off by insurers, which include XL, Generali and RSA.

But the removal of the wreck of the Costa Concordia, the largest such project ever attempted, is driving costs onto additional insurers that could reach $1 billion. Those carriers include P&I (protection and indemnity) clubs, which are, in essence, marine mutual insurers owned by ship owners and related interests.

Those charged with righting the decaying ship and plucking it off the reef are in a bind. Each day on the reef weakens the ship’s hull. Magnifying the ship recovery risk is the size of the Costa Concordia. The ship measures about the length of three football fields and weighs 114,500 gross tons.

By far, the biggest complication is the fact that the ship is wrecked in the environmentally sensitive Tuscan Archipelago National Park, a protected coral reef as well as a popular tourist destination.

The wreck must be removed whole in order to avoid releasing a swamp of debris and pollutants into the waters. For this reason, the Italian government is paying close attention to the project.

The need to remove the wreck in one piece left only the most expensive recovery option open: parbuckling and re-floating. Parbuckling, which refers to the process of rolling the ship back up to an upright position, is not a new invention. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. military recovered the capsized USS Oklahoma in much the same way. For the Concordia though, the costs involved in such an undertaking would be extraordinary.

“The instructions are ‘Get it off [the reef] and we’ll worry about costs later,’ which is the worst thing for an underwriter to hear,” said Steven Weiss, vice president, Marine Engineering and Project Cargo with Liberty International Underwriters.

Just as troubling as the cost, the shadow hanging over the plan is that a parbuckling operation has never been attempted on a ship anywhere near the size of the Costa Concordia. Even now, some still have doubts about whether it can really be done.

Getting Ready To Roll

From the moment the Costa Concordia came to rest on the reef, the race was on to avoid an environmental catastrophe. The ship was still carrying 2,300 tons of diesel fuel.

Dutch salvor Smit Salvage was brought in to pump out Concordia’s 17 fuel tanks — not as straightforward a task as it might seem. Draining the tanks would shift the vessel’s equilibrium, likely causing it to topple off the reef and sink, hemorrhaging fuel in its wake.

Smit used a process called hot-tapping, a painstaking method of pumping hot water into the vessel at the exact same rate that fuel is being pumped out, in order to keep the weight constant.

The fuel removal process alone took a team of 100 experts from around the world, with the aid of 20 platforms, tugs, transport ships, crane barges, tankers and oil spill response vessels. However, the 31-day operation was just a warm-up for the work that would soon begin.

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The contract to remove the wreck was awarded to a team comprised of Florida-based salvor Titan Salvage and Italian marine engineer Micoperi. The Titan-Micoperi plan has engaged 450-plus crewmen and divers from 19 countries, working around the clock for more than a year, with a menagerie of least 25 marine vessels and crafts operating at any given time.

“The number of engineers and amount of computing time they’ve used on this was probably equivalent to the first moon landing,” said John Phillips, vice president, Marine Hull, Liability & Cargo, Liberty International Underwriters.

That’s probably not far from the mark — it took three supercomputers running for weeks to model the wreck removal plan.

Work on the project began in June 2012, but parbuckling remained a distant goal. Every day that the ship lay on its underwater perch, it remained in danger of sliding down the steep seabed and sinking into 230-foot deep water, likely breaking apart in the process. Divers spent months stabilizing the vessel, securing it with chains, cables and anchor blocks to prevent it from becoming dislodged prematurely.

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About 65 percent of the ship lies beneath the water, its interior almost completely flooded. Therefore, the ship can’t float on its own and it will need a stable floor to support it before it can be refloated. Titan and Micoperi constructed a six-part subsea platform, aligned precisely so that the Concordia will land squarely on it once its rotation is complete.

Simultaneously, enormous airtight boxes called sponsons are being welded to the exposed side of the ship. The 15 sponsons, most around 10 stories high and weighing up to 500 tons, will be filled with seawater initially. They will act as a cantilever, adding weight and assisting in the rotation.

The main event — the parbuckle — will be a slow and tense operation, lasting at least two days. With a network of strong cables, the team must apply enough force to rotate the vessel, while being careful not to put too much stress on the hull.

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“There are a couple of big assumptions you’ve got to make,” explained Capt. Rich Habib, vice president and managing director of Titan Salvage.

“The amount of force you have to apply depends on the weight of the thing you’re going to rotate, where it’s going to pivot, and the center of gravity. It’s a simple physics problem if you knew all of the variables … but you don’t always know.”

The more force, the more risk. And for a ship that’s been languishing in the water this long, the risks are intensified. The Concordia’s hull is now covered in rust and is significantly weaker than it was 20 months ago.

“The water that it’s in is relatively warm temperature and that leads to more rapid corrosion,” said LIU’s Weiss. “The hull integrity of the vessel would become even more compromised.”

There’s no question that the parbuckling will be a nail-biter of an event. The ship is already in a stressed condition, lying in a position that the designers didn’t intend it for, said Habib.

“Now I’m going to add force to it. So I’m going to have a lot of distortions and things breaking and popping and so forth. It’s not a clean operation.”

After the ship has been rotated, most of it will be underwater. A matching set of 15 sponsons will be welded to the other side of the ship.

Hydraulic pumps will be used to force the seawater out of the sponsons and fill them with air, displacing water to create enough external buoyancy to lift the ship.

Slowly, the Costa Concordia will rise. But even then, a high degree of risk remains. The “what ifs” abound, said Michael Brown, area executive vice president, Marine, at Arthur J. Gallagher and Co.

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“The wreck could slide off the table while they try to pump air into the sponsons, or a sponson could fail or come loose, and it could sink.”

If that were to happen in deep water, some might consider it a blessing. But if it re-sank in shallow water, it would be a whole new ball game.

Either way, this operation is getting expensive, very expensive.

“With a lot of salvage events, the contract is bid with a [fixed] number. In a situation like this, it’s an open ended cost — there’s not an upper limit on it,” said Weiss.

“Because of the restrictions being placed by the government, the bottom line is they’ve got to remove the wreck. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, they’ve got to get it out of there.”

Salvors will continue to attempt the removal of the wreck until the limits of liability of the clubs is reached, said Brown.

And there’s the rub: “It’s an interesting fact that P&I clubs usually write vessels with unlimited liability except in the case of pollution,” said Brown. “So we’re talking mega potential loss. It could get worse or it could start all over again.”

The Titan-Micoperi plan has been vetted repeatedly, but challenges, or worse, surprises, may remain.

“We refloat things all the time, but we may not know the extent of the damage 100 percent beforehand so we have risk there too,” said Habib.

The team will have people and equipment in place “to ensure that once we float it, we can hold it.”

A Foundation That Flexes to Fit

Every salvage project, from a small capsized craft to a shipwrecked luxury cruise liner, carries its own unique circumstances and set of risks. Salvors need to rely on insurance programs that allow them to adapt to whatever comes their way.

Titan Salvage executives are keenly aware that their insurance program is the difference maker, giving the company the security it needs to operate in a risky industry. But it goes deeper than that. A dynamic insurance program gives salvors the freedom they need to be able to bid on any project quickly. It also becomes part of the overall value that the salvor has to offer its clients. Habib said the strength of the company’s insurance program helps set Titan apart.

“My insurance covers are not a cost to me; they’re a tool that I use to do my business. My underwriters are my partners,” said Habib.

Dwight Menard is vice president, risk management for Crowley Maritime Corp., the parent company of Titan Salvage.

“Crowley relies heavily on its core insurance program that is both well established, but also very flexible,” said Menard. “It has the ability to quickly respond to either a $1,000 job or a multimillion dollar job. Salvors’ insurance is a different animal — it’s unique and very specialized.”

Salvors’ protection and indemnity coverage must be broadly worded to cover regularly assigned employees as well as additional crew that may be hired for any given job. It also has to adapt to the intricacies of employment classifications.

“Salvage jobs may occur anywhere in the world, so you could have jurisdictional issues — are salvage workers seamen? Are they considered longshore and harbor workers? Or do they fall under a foreign employment scheme for injuries on the job? The P&I coverage for the salvage crew is extremely broad and allows the flexibility to cover any of those scenarios should an injury occur on a salvage job. It’s a very unique but absolutely essential type of cover for us.”

Salvors’ liability covers the operations of the salvor while undertaking the salvage project. In a situation like the Costa Concordia’s, where the vessel has already been declared a constructive total loss, the issue of damage to the vessel is moot. But a salvor still requires cover for damage to third parties, or any legal damages that may occur as a result of the operations of removing the wreck.

“Usually those types of covers are obtained at relatively low limits — low levels being $5 million — for a primary layer,” explained Menard. “So, in addition we have a very well structured bumbershoot and excess liability program to conceivably respond to much larger exposures and liabilities.”

Large scale salvage projects tend to be equipment intensive, but it’s not always possible to have equipment readily available when incidents occur in isolated parts of the world. That’s why some salvors find it more prudent to lease equipment locally, which typically means the salvor will have to provide cover for any physical damage to the equipment — some of it highly specialized as well as high priced.

Menard said that Crowley uses a captive to manage much of its equipment exposure.

“That’s included in the type of risk that we either self insure in the captive, or else cover through reinsurance for values in excess of aggregate deductibles. If it’s an extraordinarily high risk or an unusual piece of equipment, then specialized cover might be the best method of dealing with it. But for the most part, we’re able to cover these exposures through our captive and reinsurance program.”

Size in Perspective

The meter is still running on the financial toll of the Concordia wreck.

The ship’s safe removal remains the concern of The Standard Club and The Steamship Mutual, the lead P&I insurers for the ship, and the rest of the clubs in the International Group of P&I Clubs.

The vessel is reinsured through the International Group’s pooling system and reinsurance program with the London and international reinsurance markets. Costs from intense governmental oversight and the engineering required to safely remove the ship from the reef have pushed the P&I loss reserve to $1.17 billion.

Such eye-popping numbers for the wreck of a single ship have left some questioning whether marine vessels are simply getting too big — big enough for underwriters to start asking at what point a vessel is too risky to insure.

The Costa Concordia, put in service in 2006, was the first of five Concordia-class vessels, built for $570 million and measuring in at 114,500 GT (gross tonnage). But the Concordia’s sister ships are no longer the biggest behemoths afloat. Costa launched the Carnival Dream in 2009, a $741 million, 128,000 GT vessel. There are three Dream-class vessels currently in service, and a fourth 132,500 GT vessel being built.

But of course, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Or sink, as the case may be.

It seems logical to ask if there might be a tipping point — the point at which the size of the vessel would make a salvage operation so expensive that insuring it would become too big a risk.

“It’s a valid question,” said Tim Donney, global head of Allianz Risk Consulting, Marine. “The truth is the international maritime salvage industry may not be able to keep up with the requirements of disasters such as the Costa Concordia.”

But Titan’s Habib is circumspect on the subject. Contrary to what the perception may be about the Concordia, he said, the project is actually moving at a brisk pace.

“Here, you have the largest passenger vessel in history, by weight — the largest salvage job ever accomplished, and we’re ready to parbuckle it in 14 months. I could name 10 projects that went on for two years or more — five years in one case — and you wouldn’t know one of those names if I rattled them off. There’s this perception that these large vessels are vastly more complex in the way that they have to be done. But it’s still a salvage job and it still has all the risks and variables of floating a 600-foot tanker.”

Bigger doesn’t necessarily change the equation, said Habib. Projects are more expensive for a variety of reasons — and they’re not all related to size.

“The salvor’s tool bag hasn’t changed much over the years,” he said. “What we’re doing on [the Concordia] is bigger than what’s been done before, but we’re using standard techniques. It’s really the requirements being placed on us from the outside that are driving the costs up.

“There’s a spotlight on the job, and that brings to bear all kinds of complications. The bigger the job, the more that’s perceived to be at stake, the more the underwriters and the consultants and the authorities want certainty. That drives the price up exponentially. Certainty comes at a pretty high price in salvage.”

Barring unforeseen disruptions, the Concordia will be parbuckled in late September. Any delay at this point could hurt the odds of a successful removal.

“The longer the job goes on, the greater the risk,” said Habib. “Time is our enemy. Always is, always has been, always will be.”

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]