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Video: Multiple fatalities reported after cruise ship overturns

Image: Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano after a cruise ship ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island
Stringer/Italy  /  Reuters
Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano after a cruise ship ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island late Friday.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/14/2012 12:10:16 PM ET 2012-01-14T17:10:16

Survivors who escaped a luxury cruise ship that ran aground and tipped over described a delayed then panicked evacuation, as plates and glasses crashed around them and they crawled along upended hallways trying to reach safety.

By morning Saturday, the ship was lying virtually flat off Gigio's coast, its starboard side submerged in the water.

Some 4,200 people were on board at the time. The U.S. Embassy estimated 100 Americans were on board, NBC News reported Saturday morning.

Three bodies were found, officials said, and there were unconfirmed news reports of a total of six or eight deaths. New reports said 69 people were still missing early Saturday.

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Passengers complained the crew failed to give instructions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many of them to be released.

Cruise ship runs aground off Italy; deaths reported

"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 on the first of two cruises around the Mediterranean.

They all had dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along hallways and stairwells that were nearly vertical, trying to reach rescue boats.

Image: Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano after a cruise ship ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island
Stringer/Italy  /  Reuters
Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano after a cruise ship ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island late Friday.

"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61, said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."

Choked up
She choked up as she recounted the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side and the family found themselves standing on a wall.

"He said 'take my baby,'" Mrs. Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand as she teared up.

"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," she added.

"I thought that was the end and I thought they should be with their baby," she said.

Get the latest on this story from breakingnews.com

"I wonder where they are," daughter Valerie whispered.

The family said they were some of the last off the ship, forced to shimmy along a rope down the exposed side of the ship to a waiting rescue vessel.

The evacuation drill was only scheduled for Saturday afternoon, even though some passengers had already been on board for several days.

"It was so unorganized, our evacuation drill was scheduled for 5 p.m.," said Melissa Goduti, 28, of Wallingford, Connecticut, who had set out on the cruise of the Mediterranean hours earlier. "We had joked 'What if something had happened today?'"

Panic
Passenger Maria Parmegiano Alfonsi told Sky Italia television that they were "sitting down to dinner and we heard this big bang."

"I think it hit some rocks. There was a lot of panic, the tables overturned, glasses were flying all over the place and we ran for the decks where we put on our lifevests," she said.

"We had a blackout and everybody was just screaming. All the passengers were running up and down and then we went to our cabins to get to know what is going on," said another passenger, who did not give his name.

"They said we should stay calm, it is nothing, it's just some electrical problem or just some blackout thing," the man added.

Survivor Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, after stepping off a ferry from Giglio.

She was wearing elegant dinner clothes — a cashmere sweater, a silk scarf — along with a large pair of hiking boots, which a kind islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape. Left behind were her passport, credit cards and phone.

Hammer, 65, told The Associated Press that she was eating her first course, an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad, on her first night aboard her first-ever cruise, which was a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.

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.

'Technical problem'
Several passengers said crew members for a good 45 minutes told passengers there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Seasoned cruisers, however, knew better and went to get their life jackets in their rooms and report to their "muster stations," the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.

Once there, though, crew members delayed lowering the lifeboats even thought the ship was listing badly, they said.

"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, a 54-year-old from Pretoria, South Africa. "We were standing in the corridors and they weren't allowing us to get onto the boats. It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."

Passengers Alan and Laurie Willits, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, said they were watching the magic show in the ship's main theater when they felt an initial lurch, as if from a severe steering maneuver, followed a few seconds later by a "shudder."

"And then the magician disappeared," Laurie Willits said, saying the magician left the stage and panicked audience members fled for their cabins as well.

Things didn't improve for passengers once aboard life boats.

"No one counted us, neither in the life boats or on land," said Ophelie Gondelle, 28, a French military officer from Marseille. She said there had been no evacuation drill since she boarded in France on Jan. 8.

As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the ship's interior was being conducted to see if anyone might have been trapped inside, Paolillo said.

"There are some 2,000 cabins, and the ship isn't straight," Paolillo said, referring to the Concordia's dramatic more than 45-degree tilt on its right side. "I'll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it."

Some Concordia crew members were still aboard to help the coast guard rescuers, he said.

The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular vacation island about 18 miles off Italy's central west coast. Those evacuated by helicopter were flown to Grosseto, while others, rescued by local ferries pressed into emergency service, took survivors to the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.

Passengers sat dazed in a middle school opened for them, wrapped in woolen blankets with some wearing their life preservers and their shoeless feet covered with aluminum foil.

Survivors far outnumbered Giglio's 1,500 residents, and island Mayor Sergio Ortelli issued an appeal for islanders — "anyone with a roof" — to open their homes to shelter the evacuees.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy said the welfare of American citizens in Italy was its highest priority.

"As of this moment, there are no reports of serious injuries to American citizens as a result of the shipwreck this morning off the coast of Tuscany, based on information provided by local officials," the statement read. "We are working with them and their families to ensure their continued safety."

Family members seeking information were instructed to call 39 06 4674 1 for emergency information, the Embassy said.

The Associated Press, NBC News and Reuters contributed to this report.

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