Chaos aboard the Costa Concordia

2012-01-15 17:36
Giglio Island - First a thud, then the lights went out.

It was around 21:30, just two and a half hours after the Costa Concordia set sail on Friday on what was to have been a sparkling Mediterranean cruise.

Two long whistles, then one short, signalled a problem.

The more than 3 000 holidaymakers aboard had little time to find their bearings aboard the massive vessel when it ran aground off the coast of Tuscany as many, clad in glittering evening wear, were sitting down to dinner.

Investigators will be looking closely at what happened next, with Captain Francesco Schettino accused of sailing off course and facing charges of abandoning ship before all passengers were rescued.

According to survivor Joel Pavageau, "The captain was saying in five, six languages, 'Don't panic'. I got the feeling I was living my last moment."

Then, 40 minutes after the impact, the ship began listing badly.

Seven short whistles and one long were then sounded: abandon ship!

Scenes of chaos ensued, as passengers scrambled to their cabins in search of life vests or to the fourth deck where the lifeboats were. At least 100 simply jumped into the cold water, risking broken limbs and hypothermia.

"We were lucky we were so close to the shore," said Jose Rodriguez, a 43-year-old barman from Honduras, one of the more than 1 000 personnel on the vessel. "Thank God".

Too close to shore

In fact, the 114 500-ton cruise ship was sailing too close to Giglio island as it observed an age-old Italian maritime tradition of saluting shore residents - so close that it struck rocks well known to the locals.

"Everyone knows where the rocks are!" a Giglio resident said. "I don't know what happened. We pass it all the time in our boat. The captain must have made some mistake."

A prosecutor told reporters that the Costa Concordia "approached Giglio Island in a very awkward way, hit a rock that stuck into its left side, making [the boat] list and take on a huge amount of water in the space of two or three minutes."

Crewman Fabio Costa described the rush for the lifeboats - available only on the unsubmerged side of the vessel, which came to rest at an 80% angle.

"Everything just started to fall and everybody started to panic and run," he was quoted as saying by the BBC.

The coastguard, backed by helicopters, sprang into action around 22:20, aided by hundreds of the island's 800-strong population.

The first lifeboat reached the island at 23:15. Media reports say Schettino - who told Italian TV that he had tried to save as many people as possible - was found ashore, exhausted, at 23:40.

Inside the massive vessel, rescue workers faced obstacles including locked doors, broken stairways and stacks of fallen furniture.

At 01:30 on Saturday, three bodies were recovered, those of two French tourists and a Peruvian crewman.

Worked through the night

Rescuers were able to work on the unsubmerged part of the wreck through the night but divers and specialised cavers had to wait until dawn to resume work in the underwater part.

At dawn, firechief Ennio Aquilino incorrectly stated that the last survivor had been rescued from the ship from a total of around 60, while another 100 had been plucked from the water.

Rescuers had overlooked a pair of South Korean honeymooners who had apparently stayed in their cabin through the ordeal, "we still don't understand why," said spokesperson Luca Carli.

They were airlifted to safety "in perfect condition", he said.

Also on Sunday, a coast guard official said the Italian officer responsible for passenger safety on the vessel had been rescued, with a broken leg.

Teams were painstakingly checking thousands of cabins on the Costa Concordia for people still unaccounted for after the huge vessel foundered and listing with more than 4 000 on board, killing at least three people and injuring 70.

The task is akin to searching a small town - but one tilted on its side, largely in darkness and partly submerged.

At about 13:00 on Sunday rescue workers airlifted Manrico Gianpetroni, chief purser, hours after making voice contact with him several decks below.

Gianpetroni, who had a broken leg, was lifted from the ship on a stretcher by an helicopter and taken directly to hospital.

"I never lost hope of being saved. It was a 36-hour nightmare," he told reporters.

Honeymooners

After midnight, rescue workers had found the two South Koreans still alive in a cabin, after locating them from several decks above, and brought them ashore looking dazed but unharmed.

By Sunday afternoon, about a quarter of the part of the ship that was still above the waterline had been searched. "This is a floating city and it's very difficult," said Luca Cari, firefighter's spokesperson on Giglio.

Passengers, comparing the disaster to the movie Titanic, told of people leaping into the sea and fighting over life jackets in panic when the ship hit a rock and ran aground near the island of Giglio, late on Friday.

Two French tourists and a Peruvian crew member were known to have died. There was confusion about the number of people still unaccounted for. The president of the Tuscan region said the number stood at 17 but other estimates were as high as 34.

The vast hulk of the 290m cruise ship, resting on its side, loomed over the little port of Giglio, a picturesque island in a maritime nature reserve off the Tuscan coast. A large gash was visible in its side.

Rescue workers including specialist diving teams were working their way through more than 2 000 cabins a huge spa, seven restaurants, bars, cinemas and discotheques.

As the search continued, there were demands for explanations of why the vessel had come so close to the shore and bitter complaints about how long it took to evacuate the terrified passengers after the ship ran aground late on Friday.

State prosecutor Francesco Verusio said investigations might go beyond the captain.

"We are investigating the possible responsibility of other people who could be responsible for such a dangerous manoeuvre," he told SkyTG24 television. "The command systems did not function as they should have."

Chaos

Magistrates said Schettino, whose ship had been carrying 4 229 passengers and crew, abandoned the vessel before all the passengers were taken off.

The vessel's operator, Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise company, said the Costa Concordia had been sailing on its regular course when it struck a submerged rock.

In a television interview, Schettino said the rock was not marked on any maritime charts of the area.

Costa Crociere president Gianni Ororato said the captain "performed a manoeuvre intended to protect both guests and crew" but it was "complicated by a sudden tilting of the ship".

"We'll be able to say at the end of the investigation. It would be premature to speculate on this," said coastguard spokesperson Filippo Marini.

After a night-time operation on Friday and Saturday involving helicopters, ships and lifeboats, many passengers had left the area with many taken to Rome airport for flights home.

The ship was involved in an accident on November 22 2008 when it hit a port wall and was damaged while docking.

Local officials expressed concern the fuel on the ship, at full load as it had just begun the cruise, could spill into the pristine waters. However by early Sunday, there was no sign of any pollution damage.

Dinner

Passengers had just sat down to dinner, a few hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia near Rome on a week-long cruise to Barcelona and Majorca, when a loud bang interrupted the piano player and the ship began to list.

"We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the lights went off," said passenger Luciano Castro.

"What followed was scenes of panic, people screaming, running around the place. Close to us a five-month pregnant young woman was crying and panicking."

The ship was carrying mainly Italian passengers, but also British, Germans, French, Spanish, Americans and others. Many were elderly and some were in wheelchairs. It became more difficult to lower the lifeboats the more the ship listed.

"It was complete panic. People were behaving like animals. We had to wait too long in the lifeboats," said Patrizia Perilli, 47.

Passengers said they had been given little or no information in the immediate aftermath of the ship running aground.

"After approximately 20 minutes a voice told us there was a problem with the electricity that they were trying to fix," said Castro.

"The ship continued to tilt further, after 15 minutes they said again it was a problem with the electricity, but no one believed it," he said.

"Of course panic makes things worse and the crew members struggled in calming down the most active and worried passengers."

The ship was built in 2004-2005 at a cost of €450m at the Fincantieri Sestri shipyard in Italy.

Captain in a blanket

A helicopter on Sunday airlifted the third survivor from the capsized hulk of a luxury cruise ship 36 hours after it ran aground.

There are now six crew members and 11 passengers who haven't been located, Tuscany's regional president Enrico Rossi said.

A prosecutor on Sunday confirmed allegations that the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.

Asked Sunday by Sky TG24 about the accusations, Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio replied, "unfortunately, I must confirm that circumstance."

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays of Marseille, told The Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.

They insisted on telling a reporter what they saw, so incensed that - according to them - the captain had abandoned the ship before everyone had been evacuated.

"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.

"Normally the commander should leave at the end," said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."

According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

50m gash

Schettino has said the ship hit rocks that weren't marked on his nautical charts, and that he did all that he could to save lives.

"We were navigating approximately 300m from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock."

He insisted he didn't leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying "we were the last ones to leave the ship."

But that wasn't the case. In addition to the three people recovered from on board by rescue crews Saturday night and Sunday, police divers and rescue crews on Sunday circled the wreckage searching for more of the 17 missing.

Crews in dinghies touched the hull with their hands, near the site of the 50m gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to list.

A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the Concordia's tanks before any leaks into the area's pristine waters, Rossi, the regional president, said. No leaks have so far been reported.

While ship owner Costa has insisted it was following the same route it takes every week between the Italian ports of Civitavecchia and Savona, residents on the island of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the "Le Scole" reefs and rocks that jut out off Giglio's eastern side.

"This was too close, too close," said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregigilo ferry service that runs between the island and the mainland for more than a decade.

A now-retired Costa commander used to occasionally do "fly-bys" on the route, nearing a bit and sounding the siren in a special salute for his hometown, he said.

Crew confused

Such a fly-by was staged last August, but there was no incident, he said.

He said the cruise ship always stayed more than five to six nautical miles offshore, well beyond the reach of the "Le Scole" reefs, which are popular with scuba divers.

The terrifying escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from Titanic.

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 for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

France said two of the confirmed victims were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 49, a crewman from Peru. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.

Some 300 of the crew members were Filipinos and that three of them were injured, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.

Anello Fiorentino, captain of a ferry that runs between Giglio and the mainland, said he makes the crossing every day without encountering problems.

Thank you

"Yes, if you get near the coast there are reefs, but this is a stretch of sea where all the ships can safely pass," he said.

Islanders on Giglio opened up their homes and businesses to accommodate the sudden rush of survivors. Rossana Bafigi, who runs a newsstand, said she was really moved by the reaction of the passengers.

She showed a note left by one Italian family that said, "We want to repay you for the disturbance. Please call us, we took milk and biscuits for the children. Claudia."

At Mass on Sunday morning in Giglio's main church, which opened its doors to the evacuees Friday night, altar boys and girls brought up to the altar a life vest, a rope, a rescue helmet, a plastic tarp and some bread.

Don Lorenzo, the parish priest, told the faithful that he wanted to make this admittedly "different" offering to God as a memory of what had transpired.

He said each one carried powerful symbolic meaning for what happened on Friday night: the bread that multiplied to feed the survivors, the rope that pulled people to safety, the life vest and helmet that protected them, and the plastic tarp that kept cold bodies warm.

"Our community, our island will never be the same," he told the few dozen islanders gathered for Mass.

Read more on:    costa  |  italy  |  cruise liner disaster

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