It was like 'Titanic', say survivors of cruise ship
Irish couple on board 'safe and well'
Published 15/01/2012 | 05:00
THE Costa Concordia had left port only two hours earlier when its 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew first had an inkling of the disaster that was about to engulf them.
Passengers enjoying the on-board magic show reported a lurch followed by a shudder; diners, picking over a starter of squid, sauteed mushrooms and salad reported the lights going out and the smashing of glasses and plates as they fell from tables and crashed to the floor.
The ship -- for whatever reason -- had hit a reef on its way from a port near Rome to its next stop, Savona in the north west of Italy. It was due to arrive the next morning. The Costa Concordia never got further than 200 yards from the tiny island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany.
Local prosecutors said that the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, was being investigated for manslaughter and abandoning ship following reports his stricken vessel failed to raise a mayday alert as the disaster unfolded.
There was speculation in maritime circles that a power failure on board the ship could have led to it losing navigational control and crashing into the rocks. Experts said that passenger reports of a power blackout and large blast indicated the vessel could have suffered an explosion in the engine room.
An Irish couple who were on-board were reported to be "safe and well" yesterday by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Iveagh House confirmed that the couple were not injured and the Irish Embassy in Rome was yesterday providing consular assistance to them, but provided no other details. They were unaware of any other Irish passengers, though cruises on the vessel are offered to Irish holiday makers through a number of booking agencies here.
A member of the crew -- a cabaret singer from Birmingham -- recalled watching a film in her cabin when the ship tilted. Her television then "went flying to the floor". The terror and the chaos that came next was in stark contrast to the air of bonhomie that had preceded it.
Having enjoyed a leisurely dinner, Julia Zhou, 61, a freelance fashion consultant from New York, and her sister returned to their cabin. Outside, it was getting dark and the pair were heading for bed.
"Suddenly there was an enormous bang. It was like an earthquake -- everything fell on the floor," recalled Ms Zhou, "The lights went out -- there was a blackout."
At 9.30pm in Milano, one of the ship's five restaurants, Christine Hammer, 65, from Bonn, was at the second dinner sitting.
"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.
Luciano Castro, another passenger at the second sitting, said: "We were having supper when all the lights suddenly went out. We heard a boom and a groaning noise and all the cutlery fell to the floor."
Alan and Laurie Willits, a Canadian couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, were watching the magic show when they felt a lurch as if from a "severe steering manoeuvre" followed by a "loud scraping sound along the side of the ship".
"As soon as we all heard the noise, the magician was off -- he didn't hang around," said Mrs Willits, 52. "We ran to our cabin and we grabbed what we could. There was very sketchy information, and they just said there was a generator problem. An alarm sounded but we didn't know it meant that water was coming into the ship."
Reassured by a public announcement that it is "just a technical problem" and that there was nothing to fear, passengers largely stayed calm, at least for those first 45 minutes.
It may not have helped, according to some eyewitnesses, that many of the crew were from Asia, and didn't speak much Italian, English, French or German -- the main languages spoken by the ship's passengers.
But there are suggestions that some crew members may have paid a terrible price; their quarters were in the lower of the 13 passenger decks, where divers are now searching.
In the fourth-deck restaurant, Fernando Tofanelli, a 38-year-old Italian studying English in London, said: "I was sitting down to dinner at around nine, when I suddenly heard a very loud noise and felt an enormous bang. At first I thought it was something mechanical with the engine, but after a few seconds we felt the ship starting to lean over from one side to the other.
"Plates and tables were flying all over the place and people were falling over as the tilting got worse. People were shouting and screaming and it was absolute chaos.
"At first the crew of the ship said it was nothing serious and they didn't do anything to begin emergency procedures."
Nobody, it seems, expected a state-of-the-art, €400m cruise ship to encounter such a serious problem. Even with the ship listing -- first one way and then another -- not all passengers realised at this stage just how serious their predicament was. But as the ship lurched, so the realisation of the seriousness of the situation began to dawn.
Amelia Leon, 22, the cabaret singer from Birmingham, was in her cabin; she had been watching a DVD with her boyfriend.
"Suddenly, the boat went on its side and we were like 'this is a bit strange'," said Ms Leon, a veteran of cruise ships despite her youth.
"Because it wasn't moving, it was just tilting more to the side and suddenly the TV went flying to the floor and the lights went out and then I started to really panic. I was like 'Oh my God, what's going on?'"
Ms Zhou, who had taken a sleeping pill, suddenly realised what was happening.
"I looked out of the cabin and everyone was putting on lifejackets -- but nobody had told us," she said.
"We left straight away. I lost everything -- my camera, computer, iPhone, jewellery, money. I just grabbed our bags and ran."
Out on the decks, panic and fear had inevitably spread. The announcement was made to abandon ship, signalled by horns blaring amid the darkness; the mad scramble to get into lifeboats had begun.
But by then -- at about 10.30pm and an hour after the initial collision -- vital time had already been lost. The ship was listing badly; water was flooding into the lower cabins and it was not easy to launch the lifeboats. Some passengers jumped into the sea.
At least one is thought to have died that way, suffering a heart attack as he entered the cold water.
The evacuation was clearly easier on one side of the ship than the other. On the side now tilted closest to the sea, the boats could be lowered fairly easily. Some passengers and crew even jumped straight into the water and swam to shore.
But on the side now raised up toward the sky, many lifeboats appeared to have been rendered useless, unable to be lowered down into the water.
One eyewitness described seeing a man in his 70s in a wheelchair struggling to get into one of the lifeboats. Many others -- because by now the ship was leaning so steeply -- could not be launched at all.
Women and children were supposed to go first, but fathers, desperate to be with their families, ignored the order. This was very much every man for himself.
Some passengers even fought with each other to get on to the boats.
"There was a lot of panic, screams, children crying," said Giuseppe D'Avino, a pastry chef from Modena. "Some passengers came to blows as they tried to get in the lifeboats."
Fabio Costa, a crewmate, who tried to bring order to the chaos, said: "We were giving priority to kids and women and trying to leave the men until last, but they were not accepting it because it was their families.
"So that is why there was a huge confusion. We were just trying to stop people getting stepped on."
As the vast ship listed, the Ananias family from Los Angeles were on their hands and knees, crawling along stairways and near-vertical hallways to get to the top deck.
"Have you seen the film Titanic? That's exactly what it was," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a school teacher who was travelling with her sister and parents. "We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," said her mother Georgia.
Tears welling up, she told how an Argentine couple handed her their three-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side and the Ananias family found themselves standing on a wall.
"He said 'Take my baby,'" Mrs Ananias said, covering her mouth as she recalled the intense horror.
"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."
Her daughter Valerie whispered: "I wonder where they are now?"
Mr Tofanelli recounted: "After about an hour the ship finally sounded several blasts on the horn, and that was the signal to go to the lifeboats, but by now people were pushing each other to get out of the way, and some were leaping over the side into the sea.
"They didn't have enough lifeboats for all the passengers because some appeared to be underwater from the ship leaning over.
"Fortunately, I was above the water line, but I could see it climbing higher and higher towards us. Some of the crew didn't seem to even know how to release the lifeboats or even start the lifeboat engines once they were down on the water. The crewman in charge of our lifeboat was absolutely ashen-faced, he just didn't know what to do."
The evacuation took hours. By 3am, there were still as many as 100 people on board, largely crew.
Miss Zhou, recovering from her ordeal, was yesterday as angry as she was relieved.
"The ship's management lied to us," she said, "A lot of passengers are saying they want to sue. People died last night for nothing. If there had been more warning... but there was no safety drill, no alarm, no knock on the door.
"The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is coming up and we were talking about it before we came on the cruise. I told my sister 'Don't worry, this is the 21st century'. But the handling of this accident was as bad as on the Titanic. I just want to get home to New York."