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Former Dunedin resident tells of harrowing escape from capsized cruise ship

DUNEDIN — Just 15 days after their wedding, Benji Smith and Emily Lau put the vow "for better or for worse" to the test.

One second they were sitting in their ship cabin, sifting through photos of their honeymoon cruise. The next second they were running for their lives as the same luxury cruise liner in those photos began to capsize.

Smith, who grew up in Dunedin, and Lau were among the more than 4,000 passengers and crew members who scrambled to escape the 952-foot-long Costa Concordia on Friday night. The 1,500-cabin vessel ran aground on rocks off the west coast of Italy and turned on its side.

As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 11 people were confirmed dead; it was unclear how many were still missing.

"It was the Marx brothers, watching these guys trying to figure out how to work the boat," Smith, a 1995 Dunedin High School graduate whose parents still live in Clearwater, told CNN. "I felt like the disaster itself was manageable, but I felt like the crew was going to kill us."

Smith, 34, left Dunedin to study theater at Brigham Young University in Utah and now lives near Boston. He and Lau, 27, have been documenting their ordeal on Facebook.

They lost virtually all of their belongings in the shipwreck. On Monday, the exhausted couple was resting in Rome, where a local hotel provided them with food and lodging until they were able to secure accommodations through Facebook contacts. They expected to return to the United States today.

The newlyweds say passengers got little support from the ship's crew during the ordeal.

The couple realized something was wrong when the television and other items in their room began to fall off shelves and the lights flickered. Smith, a research engineer, told the Boston Globe that they grabbed their life vests and a cellphone to use as a flashlight, and headed toward lifeboats on the fourth deck.

In the chaotic scene, panicked adults screamed and children cried. At least 20 minutes passed, they said, before the crew advised passengers via loudspeaker to stay calm while technicians worked on an electrical problem.

"Everyone knew this was nonsense because the boat was leaning to the side and since when does an electrical problem cause the boat to tilt?" Smith told Good Morning America.

He said several lifeboats were finally deployed but at least three either malfunctioned or the crew didn't know how to operate them. As the ship listed and its staircases began to flood, Smith, Lau and other passengers who had been left behind tied ropes into ladders. They clung to the ropes for 3 1/2 hours until a returning lifeboat picked them up.

The couple and many other passengers have blamed the deaths on crew mismanagement. According to media reports, a safety briefing for passengers was scheduled for the next day.

"It was every man for himself," said Lau. "No one knew how to help because they were never trained. That was the cruise line's fault."

Smith's parents, Robert and Suzanne Smith of Clearwater, said their son is organizing a Facebook page where survivors and the media can consolidate their stories.

The couple "clung to a rope ladder and kissed their good-byes because they didn't think they were going to live," Robert Smith told the Tampa Bay Times this week. "As a parent, I'm sorry he had to go through fear of losing his life, but we're grateful he's alive and going to be fine."

Robert Smith said they learned about the accident about 9:30 p.m. Friday, when Benji called to inform them that "our ship sank and we're okay and we're rescued and that's all we can say because there's a lot of other people waiting to use the phone."

That, and a brief London newspaper report, was all they knew until 8:30 a.m. Saturday, when Benji called to say he and Emily had made their way to Rome, thanks to officials on the island of Giglio.

"Even though they're healthy and happy, it's a very traumatic experience," Robert Smith said, adding that his son "didn't want to talk about the tragedy. He just wanted to talk about getting home."

Lau expressed outrage on her Facebook page Monday that the cruise line hadn't offered her or Smith any assistance after the accident. She linked to the website for an Italian consumer protection group that's giving passengers 10 days upon their return home to request refunds for the cost of their "ruined vacation," belongings, injuries or death.

She also had harsh words for the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, who has denied reports that he abandoned ship while passengers scrambled to flee. He has been arrested on charges including manslaughter and shipwreck.

"People who were left behind ... were helping each other to get out of there and stay alive. And he, who is responsible for all of us, left," Lau told Good Morning America. "What a coward you are."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Former Dunedin resident tells of harrowing escape from capsized cruise ship 01/16/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 3:52pm]
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