GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy - The rusting hulk of the Costa Concordia cruise ship rose erect from its watery grave off Italy’s Giglio island Tuesday after the biggest ever salvage operation of its kind.

The 290-metre long, 114,500-ton vessel - longer than the Titanic and more than twice as heavy - emerged from the sea like a ghost behemoth as horns sounded across the water in celebration, mixing with applause and cheers from onlookers in the port - the climax to a 19-hour operation. The side of the giant ship that had been underwater was a rusty brown 20 months on from the January 13, 2012 tragedy, contrasting with the brilliant white on the exposed side.

After final checks to secure the ship, the search will begin for two bodies still missing after the tragedy that claimed 32 lives. Franco Gabrielli, head of the civil protection agency and project overseer, said the search for the corpses of Indian waiter Russell Rebello and Italian passenger Maria Grazia Trecarichi would start “in the next few days at the latest.”

“When the ship toppled, corridors became deep wells. Now she is upright, we can get to areas previously off limits,” he said, adding that there would likely “still be areas it is difficult to access and search.”

The missing victims’ loved ones were expected on Giglio later Tuesday. Elio Vincenzi, Trecarichi’s husband, said: “I am still hoping to find my wife. This is a tense wait for me and for my daughter.”

Gabrielli said the newly exposed side of the ship, with hundreds of crushed balconies, would require “major repairs” before it can be towed. Removal of the doomed vessel to an Italian port for scrapping is planned only for the spring of next year at the earliest.

Local residents and survivors spoke of an eerie feeling as the ship rose, saying it reminded them of the way it looked on the night of the disaster. “Seeing it re-emerge is emotional for me,” said Luciano Castro, a survivor who travelled to the picturesque Tuscan island to witness the salvage. “I could not miss it. That ship could have been my end and instead I am here to tell the story,” he said. The salvage is the biggest ever undertaken for a passenger ship and the position of the hulk posed unique challenges for the 500-person international salvage team.

They also had to take special care since Giglio is in the heart of one of Europe’s biggest marine sanctuaries.

The ship was dragged up with 36 cables across the hull and tanks the size of 11-storey buildings welded on the side of the ship which were filled with water to act as ballast. It is now sitting on a vast underwater steel platform and the next step will see tanks fitted to the side of the ship which was on the rocks. Water will then be drained from the tanks on both sides in order to float the ship.

The project has so far cost 600 million euros ($800 million) and insurers estimate it could run to $1.1 billion once it is completed.

The man who gave the orders from a control room on a barge next to the ship was Nick Sloane, a South African with experience on some of the world’s biggest shipwrecks. “I’m relieved. It was a bit of a rollercoaster,” a smiling Sloane said as he was mobbed by dozens of journalists and well-wishers in the port before a celebratory drink. “The scale of it was something we’ve never seen before,” he said.

The Costa Concordia 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” in the tabloids for apparently abandoning 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 have already been handed short prison sentences for their roles in the crash.

The ship had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board. The order to abandon the vessel was delayed and problems with launching lifeboats saw some people forced to jump into the freezing water.

Gabrielli said once it was safe to access the cabins, the passenger safes would be removed in the hope of recovering some of the lost belongings.