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Night of chaos after cruise ship Concordia ran aground off Italy

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy

The first course had just been served in the Costa Concordia's dining room when the wine glasses, forks and plates of cuttlefish and mushrooms smashed to the ground. At the magic show in the theater, the trash cans tipped over and the theater curtains turned on their side. Then the hallways turned upside down, and passengers crawled on bruised knees through the dark. Others jumped alone into the 55-degree Mediterranean Sea.

The terrifying, chaotic escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from Titanic for many of the more than 4,000 passengers and crew on the cruise ship, which ran aground off the Italian coast late Friday and flipped on its side with a 160-foot gash in its hull. At least three bodies had been recovered and divers searched the underwater belly of the boat for a few dozen more unaccounted for. Late Saturday, nearly 24 hours after the capsizing, rescuers had reason to celebrate: a South Korean couple on their honeymoon responded in the door-to-door search of cabins and were brought to safety in good condition, officials said. The number of missing had now dwindled to about 40. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.

The Friday the 13th grounding of the Concordia was one of the most dramatic cruise ship accidents in recent memory. It immediately raised a host of questions: Why did it hit a reef so close to the Tuscan island of Giglio? Did a power failure cause the crew to lose control? And why did crew members tell passengers they weren't in danger until the boast was listing perilously to the side?

The delay made lifeboat rescue eventually impossible for some of the passengers, some of whom jumped into the sea while others waited to be plucked to safety by helicopters. Some boats had to be cut down with an ax.

"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, from Pretoria, South Africa. "It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."

Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. The captain was detained for questioning by prosecutors, investigating him for suspected manslaughter, abandoning ship before all others, and causing a shipwreck, state TV and Sky TV said. Before his detention, Captain Schettino told Italian television that the ship had hit a reef that was not on his navigation charts. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn't address the allegations of delayed evacuation.

Costa Cruises 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 State Department said about 126 U.S. citizens were onboard.

The ship began its lurch at the beginning of dinner service in the ship's two-story dining room, where passengers described a scene of frantic confusion.

Silverware, plates and glasses crashed down on them from the upper floor balcony, children wailed and darkened hallways upended themselves after the ship began its lurch.

"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. 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," said her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61. She choked up as she recalled the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship listed to the side.

"He said, 'Take my baby,' " Georgia Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand. "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." Her daughter Valerie said: "I wonder where they are?"

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. Italian coast guard officials said the circumstances were still unclear, but that the ship hit an unknown obstacle.

Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released. Several other passengers said crew members told passengers that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Seasoned cruisers 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.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

Surviving passengers huddled under woolen or aluminum blankets in a middle school on the Italian mainland of Porto Santo Stefano, where passengers were ferried early Saturday from Giglio. Some wore their life preservers, their shoeless feet were covered with aluminum foil.

Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a weeklong cruise across the Mediterranean Sea that began Jan. 7 in Savona with stops at Civitavecchia, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo. The Concordia had a previous accident, Italian officials 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.

4,229

onboard

3

confirmed dead

40

missing

30

injured

. Fast facts

The passengers

Costa Cruises 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 State Department said about 120 U.S. citizens were onboard.

Night of chaos after cruise ship Concordia ran aground off Italy 01/14/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 15, 2012 12:18am]

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