PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy– 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 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.
Photos: Cruise ship runs aground off Italy
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.”
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.