It was dinner time on the luxury ship and a Pietermaritzburg family of four had just sat down, looking forward to their cruise in the Mediterranean.
But suddenly, the Costa Concordia began listing.
What followed was chaotic, scary and “Titanic- like”, according to Faizal Agjee, his wife, Nafeesa, and their children, Zaheer and Zahra, who lost all their clothing and most of their baggage.
They told how they evacuated the dining room as it started tilting, how they were obliged to jump from a malfunctioning lifeboat back on to the ship, and how they ran through confusing passageways while holding on to anything they could to avoid slipping, and finally jumped to safety on the roof of a rescue boat.
The Agjees were among the 4 234 passengers and crew on board when the vessel ploughed into a reef off an island on Italy’s Tuscan coast on Friday evening, tearing a massive gash in its hull through which water poured, causing it to list badly.
At least five people were killed with 70 others injured and nearly 40 people listed as missing.
Yesterday a South Korean honeymoon couple were plucked from the ship, 24 hours after it was wrecked, and rescue workers were struggling to save another trapped person.
Francesco Schettino, the captain of the luxury 114 500t ship, was under arrest and accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, Italian police said.
Sitting in their Rome Hilton Hotel room in oversized tracksuits that had been handed out to them, the family spoke of their harrowing ordeal.
“At first, an announcement was made to stay calm and that it was an electrical fault,” said businessman Faizal, 52.
But with the increasing tilt of the ship, glass and cutlery slipped off the tables. Then the lights went out and, sitting in darkness, passengers knew that the problem was more than just a technical fault and panic broke out.
Zaheer, 18, told his family to get to their cabins as soon as possible to get valuables and lifejackets.
Following the sudden darkness, the screaming and pushing started as people started to flee.
“We were tilting too much, but they continued to announce that everything was fine.
“We ran to our rooms, got our valuables and put on our lifejackets,” said Zaheer.
Zaheer’s family commended him for keeping a cool head throughout the ordeal, which they said helped in their escape.
An evacuation drill had been planned for Saturday morning, but without it, panic and chaos ensued. The passenger announcements became meaningless, with English translation following Spanish and Italian. But before the evacuation announcement was made, the family hurried to the port (left) side of the ship.
Zahra, 22, overwhelmed with fear, could not contain her tears throughout the ordeal.
She said the family made it to a lifeboat and jumped on.
“While waiting, many people continued to try and get on even though the boat was full to capacity; they pushed themselves through the gate, it was horrible.”
A woman almost fell overboard but was caught just in time.
The lifeboat was left dangling off the side as the crew said they needed to wait for the captain to give the order to release them – an order which never came.
Zahra said she had felt a sense of calm when an elderly couple who were in the same lifeboat, smiled at her.
“Every time I looked at them, they smiled; it was warm and unifying and despite our different backgrounds we were in the same situation, having lost all possessions and trying to escape.”
But that calmness soon turned to horror as the lifeboat became wedged between the ropes and the side of the already listing ship.
“The lifeboat could not be lowered and we had to jump back on to the ship; this was the most terrifying part of the entire night,” said Zaheer.
With a 40m drop below, the family were forced to negotiate a gap between the lifeboat and the ship. Meanwhile, the gradient of the list increased dramatically.
Once back on the deck, they made their way across the ship, to the starboard (right) side.
Holding hands tightly, they began a nerve-racking journey through the interior of the ship.
“People were falling past us, crawling against the tilt, some were too scared to move,” said Nafeesa, 48.
People with children and the elderly were struggling through the mêlée.
They raced through bars and corridors which were near vertical, avoiding bottles and glass falling past them as they held on to each other trying to make it on to the deck. Once there, the family found there were no lifeboats available.
“Soon afterwards, a rescue vessel came towards us; its roof was in line with the deck and we had to jump on to the roof,” said Faizal.
The family had to make their way across to an opening in the roof in order to reach the seating area. Here, Zahra fell down the opening, but was caught by her brother who prevented her from falling on to the deck.
At about 1am, the vessel made its way to the nearby island of Giglio.
The family sat huddled in icy cold temperatures for three hours before being taken to a hotel in Rome.
The Agjees say they are thankful that they are safe.
“When we see the news on television it seems surreal that we were on the ship; and while it lies on its side now, when we were on it, we all thought it would sink completely,” said Nafeesa.
Zaheer, who completed matric last year, said he was was particularly upset about losing his expensive Carducci suit, which he wore to his matric dance.
The family will remain in Italy until Friday when they will take their scheduled flight back to SA. 8P5