ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands, Aug. 6 - Smit Salvage has been besieged with calls ever since a Norwegian-registered ship with thousands of luxury cars on board sank late last year in the English Channel.
The callers - used car salesmen, junkyard dealers and modern-day treasure hunters - guessed correctly that the Rotterdam company was the likeliest candidate to raise the sunken ship, the Tricolor, and its cargo of 2,871 BMWs, Volvos and Saabs, worth about $40 million.
What they did not fully consider was the corrosive effect of eight months of being under saltwater; but neither were they aware of demands by the cars' manufacturers that not so much as a stray nut or bolt find its way from the sea floor to a store shelf. The carmakers feared possible liability claims.
Sitting in his office overlooking the Erasmus bridge here, Smit Salvage's managing director, Hans van Rooij, said there was not much one could salvage anyway. Everything, from the cars' engines to their electronics, was lost, most of all that new car smell.
"It's gone," he said with a smile. "It's long gone."
Smit, a division of one of the world's largest maritime services companies, Smit Internationale N.V., and several partner companies are just days into a 35 million euro, ($39.7 million) three-month salvage of the 20,000-ton Tricolor, one of the most complex and difficult operations in the company's history.
Smit is the same company that two years ago raised the Russian submarine Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 with two nuclear reactors and 22 Cruise missiles on board. Its crew of 116 sailors and two civilians died.
There was no human tragedy in the Tricolor's sinking; almost miraculously, its entire crew survived despite the ship's quick descent into dark, wintry waters.
With everyone safely ashore, the Tricolor's demise left something else hanging in the balance: the fragile images of luxury car companies.
Smit said the manufacturers were concerned that pictures of their smashed vehicles, sparkling with saltwater, could become public. Try as it did, Smit was unable to prevent just that from happening.
"When we are in the middle of the ocean, we can control things," Mr. van Rooij said. That proved more difficult in the Belgian port where the first section of the Tricolor now rests.
"We can't put curtains up and stop people from making photographs," he said.
In the early hours of Dec. 14, the Tricolor sank about 20 nautical miles off the coast of Belgium, in French waters, after a collision with the Kariba, a container ship. The Tricolor's 24-member crew was rescued.
"It's actually amazing that they got off the vessel because it happened very quickly," said Ivar Brynildsen, claims manager for Wilhemsen Insurance Services, a division of the company that leased the Tricolor. "They were swimming around in the water," he said, referring to the night as "cold and dark."
The Tricolor - the size of a 10-story apartment building - quickly sank, and has been lying on its side in about 130 feet of water. The wreck - 623 feet long and 105 feet wide - was subsequently hit by two other ships, further damaging its already weakened hull. Making matters worse, oil began leaking from the vessel, ending up on nearby beaches.
Smit realized early on that the Tricolor - damaged and twice as heavy as the Kursk - could not be raised whole. So it set about devising a plan to cut the ship into nine sections, each weighing from 2,000 to 3,000 tons.
The company erected two, four-legged platforms on either side of the Tricolor and then ran a saw cable or cutting wire between them. The first section - containing the propeller - was sawed off last Sunday.
Before a section is hoisted, about 40 holes are drilled into its side, allowing two cranes to hoist it onto a pontoon ship, which then transports it and the remnants of the cars it was carrying to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
The challenges of the Tricolor salvage are compounded by its location: a crossroads of one of the world's busiest sea lanes, between the Belgian and English coasts.
Sea traffic and strong currents limit the salvage effort to eight hours a day compared with the Kursk wreck, on which Smit worked around the clock. Smit has from 150 to 200 people at the Tricolor site.
"It's an enormous, busy place," Mr. van Rooij said. "Lots of vessels are passing day and night. Small vessels, big vessels. And we are in the middle of it."
Smit's assignment from the car manufacturers is a tough one: find every possible part. The companies prefer that not a single screw remain on the sea floor.
The reason is simple. Should a car part salvaged from the Tricolor wreck ever find its way into a car in the United States and malfunction, its manufacturer could conceivably face liability claims.
BMW, which lost about 300 cars in the Tricolor wreck, is adamant that that not happen.
That is why Smit - in conjunction with the carmakers and insurance companies - decided against a burial at sea for all of those BMWs, Volvos and Saabs that sank.
They are slated for the shredder.