PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (AP) — Survivors from a luxury cruise ship that ran aground and tipped over, leaving at least three dead and 69 people still unaccounted for, described Saturday a chaotic evacuation, as plates and glasses crashed and they crawled along upended hallways trying to reach safety.
Three bodies were recovered from the sea after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the tiny island of Giglio near the coast of Tuscany late Friday, tearing a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in its hull and sending in a rush of water.
The ANSA news agency quoting the prefect’s office in the province of Grosseto as saying that authorities have accounted for 4,165 of the 4,234 people who had boarded the liner.
By morning Saturday, the ship was lying virtually flat off Gigio’s coast, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull.
Passengers described a scene reminiscent of “Titanic”, complaining the crew failed to give instructions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many of them to be released.
Helicopters plucked to safety some people who were trapped on the ship, some survivors were rescued by boats in the area, and witnesses said some people jumped from the ship into the dark, cold sea. Coast guard rescuers were continuing to search the ship for passengers.
Authorities still hadn’t counted all the survivors by the time they reached mainland 12 hours later.
The evacuation drill was only scheduled for Saturday afternoon, even though some passengers had already been on board for several days.
“It was so unorganized, our evacuation drill was scheduled for 5 p.m.,” said Melissa Goduti, 28, of Wallingford, Connecticut, who had set out on the cruise of the Mediterranean hours earlier. “We had joked ‘What if something had happened today?'”
“Have you seen ‘Titanic?’ That’s exactly what it was,” said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents on the first of two cruises around the Mediterranean. They all bore dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells, trying to reach rescue boats.
“We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing,” her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61 said. “We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls.”
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She choked up as she recounted the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side and the family found themselves standing on a wall. “He said ‘take my baby,'” Mrs. Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand as she teared up. “I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn’t want the baby to fall down the stairs. I gave the baby back. I couldn’t hold her.
“I thought that was the end and I thought they should be with their baby,” she said.
“I wonder where they are,” daughter Valerie whispered.
The family said they were some of the last off the ship, forced to shimmy along a rope down the exposed side of the ship to a waiting rescue vessel below.
Survivor Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, after stepping off a ferry from Giglio. She was wearing elegant dinner clothes – a gray cashmere sweater, a silk scarf – along with a large pair of hiking boots, which a kind islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape. Left behind in her cabin were her passport, credit cards and phone.
Hammer, 65, told The Associated Press that she was eating her first course, an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad, on her first night aboard her first-ever cruise, which was a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.
Suddenly, “we heard a crash. Glasses and plates fell down and we went out of the dining room and we were told it wasn’t anything dangerous,” she said.
Several passengers concurred, saying crew members for a good 45 minutes told passengers there was a simple “technical problem” that had caused the lights to go off. Seasoned cruisers, however, knew better and went to get their life jackets from their cabins and report to their “muster stations,” the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.
Once there, though, crew members delayed lowering the lifeboats even thought the ship was listing badly, they said.
“We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side,” said Mike van Dijk, a 54-year-old from Pretoria, South Africa. “We were standing in the corridors and they weren’t allowing us to get onto the boats. It was a scramble, an absolute scramble.”
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Some Concordia crew members were still aboard to help the coast guard rescuers, he said.
Passengers Alan and Laurie Willits from Wingham, Ontario, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, said they were watching the magic show in the ship’s main theater when they felt an inital lurch, as if from a severe steering maneuver, followed a few seconds later by a “shudder” that tipped trash cans over. The subsequent listing of the ship made the theater curtains seem like they were standing on their side.
“And then the magician disappeared,” Laurie Willits said, saying the magician left the stage and panicked audience members fled for their cabins as well.
Once at their life boat station, crew members directed passengers to go upstairs from the fourth floor deck; Alan Willits said he refused.
“I said ‘no this isn’t right.’ And I came out and I argued ‘When you get this boat stabilized, I’ll go up to the fifth floor then,” he said. Eventually, his lifeboat was lowered down.
But things didn’t improve for passengers once aboard the lifeboats or on land.
“No one counted us, neither in the life boats nor on land,” said Ophelie Gondelle, 28, a French military officer from Marseille. She said there had been no evacuation drill since she boarded in Marseille, France on Jan. 8.
As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the 290-meter (950-foot) long ship’s interior was being conducted to see if anyone might have been trapped inside, Paolillo said.
“There are some 2,000 cabins, and the ship isn’t straight,” Paolillo said, referring to the Concordia’s dramatic more than 45-degree tilt. “I’ll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it.”
Paolillo said it wasn’t immediately known if the dead were passengers or crew, nor were the nationalities of the victims immediately known. It wasn’t clear how they died.
Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported in grave condition. Several passengers came off the ferries on stretchers, but it appeared more out of exhaustion and shock than serious injury.
Some passengers, apparently in panic, had jumped off the boat into the sea, witnesses said. Authorities were trying to obtain a full passenger and crew list from Costa, so they could do a roll call to determine who might be missing.
The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular vacation isle about 18 miles (25 kilometers) off Italy’s central west coast. Those evacuated the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.
Passengers sat dazed in a middle school opened for them, wrapped in wool or aluminum blankets, with some wearing their life preservers and their shoeless feet covered with aluminum foil. Civil protection crews served them warm tea and bread, but confusion reigned supreme as passengers tried desperately to find the right bus to begin their journey home.
Tanja Berto, from Ebenfurth, Austria, was shuttled from one line to another with her mother and 2-year-old son Bruno, trying to figure out how to get back to Savona, where they began their cruise a week ago.
“It’s his birthday today,” she said of her son, rolling her eyes as she held Bruno and tended to her mother, who had grown faint and was lying on the ground. “Happy birthday, Bruno.”
Survivors far outnumbered Giglio’s 1,500 residents, and island Mayor Sergio Ortelli issued an appeal for islanders – “anyone with a roof” – to open their homes to shelter the evacuees.
Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in northwestern Italy.
The coast guard official, speaking from the port captain’s office in the Tuscan port of Livorno, said the vessel “hit an obstacle” – it wasn’t clear if it might have hit a rocky reef in the waters off Giglio – “ripping a gash 50 meters (160 feet) across” in the side of the ship, and started taking on water.
The cruise liner’s captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio’s small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier. But after the ship started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible, Paolillo said.
Five helicopters, from the coast guard, navy and air force, were taking turns airlifting survivors still aboard and ferrying them to safely. A coast guard member was airlifted aboard the vessel to help people get aboard a small basket so they could be hoisted up to the helicopter, said Capt. Cosimo Nicastro, another Coast Guard official.
Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, starting from Civitavecchia with scheduled calls to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.
It said about 1,000 Italian passengers were onboard, as well as more than 500 Germans, about 160 French and about 1,000 crew members.
The Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters, ANSA reported. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port’s dock, and suffered damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.