At least three people were killed and more than 4 000 passengers and crew rescued on Friday night after a packed cruise liner began capsizing off the Italian coast after running aground.
The Costa Concordia had left port in the early evening for a seven-day Mediterranean cruise – but within two hours it had run aground in the sea with a major electrical fault.
Coastguards were immediately dispatched to the scene near the island of Giglio, off the Tuscan coast.
One terrified passenger said it was like a scene from the Titanic as the ship began to sink.
Passengers were ordered to put on life jackets and man lifeboats as the 260m luxury floating palace, which costs up to R15 000 a night, began to list heavily.
Helicopters plucked to safety 50 people who were trapped on the liner after it listed so badly that they couldn’t launch lifeboats.
The identities of the dead have not yet been released.
A report released by the Messaggero newspaper said that at least 30 people had sustained injuries, with several of them serious.
Among the dead was a man of 65, who officials said they believed might not have been able to withstand the cold of the sea at night.
It is thought that the death toll will rise. There are believed to be at least three other unconfirmed fatalities.
“We were having dinner aboard when we heard a loud noise, like that of the keel being dragged over something,” passenger Luciano Castro told Italian state radio.
The lights had gone out “and there were scenes of panic, glasses falling to the floor”, he said.
Another passenger, Mara Parmegiani, said “it was like a scene from the Titanic”.
She was wearing elegant dinner clothes – a cashmere sweater, a silk scarf – along with a large pair of hiking boots, which she was given after she had lost her shoes, passport, credit cards and cellphone in the scramble to escape.
One female passenger, 65, said she had been eating her first course, an appetizer of squid, on her first night aboard her first cruise, which was a gift to her and her husband from her church, where she volunteers.
“We heard a crash,” she said. “Glasses and plates fell down. We went out of the dining room and were told it wasn’t anything dangerous.”
Then, she said, the passengers had been instructed to put on life jackets and take to the lifeboats, but they hadn’t been able to get into the boats because the liner was tilting so much that the boats couldn’t be lowered into the sea.
They had eventually been rescued by one of several boats that came to the liner’s aid.
The evacuated passengers were taking refuge in schools, hotels and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular holiday isle about 25km off Italy’s central west coast.
Those evacuated by helicopter were flown to Grosseto, but others, rescued by local ferries pressed into emergency service, were taken to the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.
“It was terrible,” said one woman, as German and Spanish tourists were about to board buses at the port.
Fabio Costa, who worked in a shop on the stricken ship, said a number of people had jumped into the sea to swim ashore.
Describing the moment the boat began to list, he said: “We were all working and all of a sudden we felt the boat hitting something and everything just started to fall – all the glasses broke and everybody started to panic and run.
“We could only feel that the boat had hit something, we had no idea how serious it was until we got out and looked through the window, and we saw the water getting closer and closer.
“Everything happened really, really fast and we saw the water coming in.”
Costa said that once the emergency alarm had been set off, people had started to panic and push each other in an attempt to get into lifeboats.
“A lot of people were falling down the stairs and were hurt because things fell on them,” he added.
He said it had taken the crew a long time to launch the lifeboats because the vessel had listed so much.
“We just saw a huge rock – that was probably where the ship hit – and people were having huge trouble trying to get on the lifeboats.
“So at that point we didn’t know what to do, so it took hours for people to get off the ship.
“It was easier for people to jump into the sea because we were on the same level as the water, so some people pretty much just decided to swim because they were not able to get on the lifeboats.”
As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the ship’s interior was being conducted to see if anyone might have been trapped inside.
Coast guard commander Francesco Paolillo said: “No one is leaning out, shouting, calling that they need help, but until the inspection is completed, we won’t know.
“There are some 2 000 cabins, and the ship isn’t straight.
“I’ll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it.”
Coast guard officials confirmed that 3 200 passengers and 1 000 crew members had been on board at the time that the ship ran aground, and all had been evacuated by lifeboat.
Some crew were back aboard to help the coast guard inspect “every millimetre” of the ship.
Paolillo said it wasn’t immediately known whether the dead were passengers or crew, what their nationalities were or how they had died.
He said that most of the 30 people injured had suffered bruises but at least two were in a serious condition.
The exact circumstances of the accident were also unclear, he said, but the first alarm had gone off about 10.30pm local time.
This was about two hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in north-western Italy.
The vessel had “hit an obstacle” – it wasn’t clear if it might have hit a rocky reef in the waters off Giglio – “ripping a gash 50m across” on its left side, and had started taking on water.
The captain had then tried to steer the ship towards shallow waters, near Giglio’s small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier.
But after the ship had started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation had no longer been feasible, Paolillo said.
The evacuation had been virtually completed by 1.20am, with the liner listing at an angle of 20 degrees but not in danger of sinking.
A webcam on the website of Costa Cruises, the company that runs the Concordia, showed the position of the £450 million (R5.6 billion) six-year-old ship just off the coast near Giglio, with a caption reading: “Data transmission is temporarily suspended.”
The website describes the Concordia as a “real floating temple of fun that will amaze you”. It has four swimming pools, five restaurants and 13 bars.
A statement from Costa Cruises did not mention any casualties, and said it had not yet determined the cause of the ship’s sinking.
The company said that the Concordia had been 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 had been on board, as well as more than 500 Germans and 160 French. – Daily Mail