Ship aground off Italy; 3 bodies found

By Frances D’Emillo and Nicole Winfield/The Associated Press

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy — Survivors who escaped a luxury cruise liner that ran aground and tipped over off Italy’s coast recounted a chaotic and terrifying evacuation through the ship’s upended hallways on Saturday, as divers searched the submerged part for any people still unaccounted for in the confusion.

Three bodies were recovered from the sea after the Costa Concordia with 4,234 people aboard ran aground hundreds of yards (meters) 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.

As authorities and port officials carefully matched names on the cruise ship’s list of passengers and crew with those of survivors getting off ferries or other boats on the mainland, the number of the unaccounted for steadily dropped to roughly 40.

Passengers described a scene reminiscent of “Titanic”, saying they escaped the ship by crawling along hallways, desperately trying to reach safety as the lights went out and plates and glasses crashed around them. Helicopters whisked some survivors to safety, others were rescued by private boats in the area, and witnesses said some people jumped from the ship into the dark, cold sea.

At darkness, the diving operations, involving fire department divers and coast guard divers, was suspended for the night, coast guard officials said. While only a small section of the submerged area was inspected, no signs of any survivors or victims were immediately found, said Capt. Emilio Del Santos, of the port captain’s office in Livorno. Helicopters and sea searches of the area were continuing.

The ship was lying virtually flat off Giglio’s coast, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull.

Passengers complained 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.

An evacuation drill was 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?’”

Carnival Corp., which owns the cruise line that the ship belongs to, didn’t address the allegations in a statement it issued.

“Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the wake of this tragic event.”

One of the victims was a Peruvian crew member, a diplomat from the South American country said, adding that a Peruvian woman was also missing. A French Foreign Ministry official confirmed that two of the bodies Frenchmen, both tourists.

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, said the experience was like a disaster movie.

“Have you seen ‘Titanic?’ That’s exactly what it was,” said. 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 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.”

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.

A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia’s captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef.

“The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona,” a shaken-looking Onorato, who is Costa’s director general, told reporters on Giglio, a popular vacation isle about 18 miles (25 kilometers) off Italy’s central west coast. The captain is an 11-year Costa veteran, he said.

The captain was being held for questioning, which was continuing for hours, by Grosseto prosecutors, Italian state TV reported Saturday night. Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment

Patrick Pourbaix of Costa’s French arm, said 250 of the 462 French passengers are being brought Saturday night to Marseille. The other French passengers are expected to be brought back by special flights.

Coast guard officials in Porto Santo Stefano, where the survivors disembarked, said it would take hours at least to completely go through the cruise ship’s lists. As names of survivors were checked off, they were being communicated to consulates inquiring about the fate of their citizens aboard.

Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported to be in grave condition. Several passengers came off the ferries on stretchers, but it appeared more out of exhaustion and shock than serious injury.

The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on Giglio. Those evacuated by helicopter were taken to 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.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said 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.”

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, took turns airlifting survivors 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.

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 sustained damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.

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Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.