Passengers tell of luxury liner panic
Porto Santo Stefano - Passengers from an Italian cruise ship have described people leaping into the sea or fighting over lifejackets in panic after it ran aground, killing at least three people and leaving many unaccounted for.
Around 40 people were injured, two seriously, and rescuers were continuing the search for the missing after the Costa Concordia, with 4 229 passengers and crew, hit a sandbar near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany on Friday evening.
Officials warned that figures were extremely uncertain because of confusion surrounding the rescue.
"We are not sure of the numbers, we cannot exclude that some people are missing, in fact it is very probable," said Ennio Aquilini, head of the fire service rescue operation.
"It could be 10, 20 up to 40 but I cannot give anything more precise. There is a possibility that no one is missing."
Passengers had just sat down to dinner, a couple of hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia near Rome, when disaster struck.
"It was complete panic. People were behaving like animals. We had to wait too long in the lifeboats," said 47-year-old Patrizia Perilli.
"We thought we wouldn't make it. I saw the lighthouse but I knew I couldn't swim that far but lots of people threw themselves into the sea. I think they are some of the dead."
The vessel was left capsized on its side in water 15-20m deep, with decks partly submerged, a few hundred metres from the shore. A large gash was visible on its side.
Officials said rescue efforts were continuing on Saturday after a night-time operation involving helicopters, ships and lifeboats. The picturesque harbour of Porto Santo Stefano was lined with ambulances and green tents for the victims.
"We have about 40 men at work and we're expecting specialist diving teams to arrive to check all the interior spaces of the ship," said fire services spokesperson Luca Cari.
"We don't rule out the possibility that more people will be lost," he said.
Officials said, however, there was confusion over the numbers of missing and on identifying all the passengers transferred from Giglio to Porto Santo Stefano on the mainland.
"To have a more precise idea we are still waiting for a full list of the people identified in Porto Santo Stefano to make a comparison with the passenger list," said Giuseppe Linardi, police chief in the nearby town of Grosseto.
Authorities said they had launched investigations and declined to comment on the possible causes of the accident.
"We'll be able to say at the end of the investigation. It would be premature to speculate on this," coastguard spokesperson Filippo Marini told SkyTG24 television.
'End of the world'
Passengers said they were having dinner when a loud bang interrupted the piano player accompanying their evening meal and the ship was rocked by an impact which sent crockery flying across the room.
"It seemed like the end of the world," said 18-year-old student Lucrezia Ranchelli.
The ship, a vast floating resort with spas, theatres, swimming pools, a casino and discotheque, was carrying mainly Italian passengers, with some British, Germans and Russians. There were many elderly people and some in wheelchairs.
As the drama unfolded, passengers crowded into lifeboats, but there was bitter criticism of a lack of information and the response by the largely Asian crew, few of whom were able to speak Italian.
"I was sure I was going to die. We were in the lifeboats for two hours, crying and holding on to each other," said Antonietta Sintolli, 65, who broke down in tears as she recounted the event.
"People were trying to steal lifejackets from each other. We could only gets ones for children."
Angel Holgado, 50, a guitarist who had been performing when the ship foundered, said he got in a lifeboat but decided to abandon it after it became dangerously overcrowded.
"There was terrible panic and fear and I jumped into the water and swam to the shore," he said.
The website of the ship's operator, Genoa-based Costa Crociere, had apparently collapsed under the volume of searches but the company set up a helpline to answer public enquiries. Costa said it would cooperate fully with authorities.
There was no word on the identities of casualties.
"We are going through the list of passengers at a reception centre that's been set up but most of the passengers didn't have their papers with them of course, so it's been difficult to get full identification," an official said.
The ship was built in 2004-2005 at a cost of €450m at the Fincantieri Sestri shipyard in Italy.