Firsthand

01.14.12

Passenger Survival Stories from Italy’s Sinking Cruise Ship

After their ocean liner ran aground in Italy, killing five, passengers tell Barbie Latza Nadeau of their fights for survival in the sinking ship's pitch-black warren of cabins.

Laurie and Alan Willits from Ontario, Canada, had just settled in their seats to watch a magic show after finishing dinner on the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany when the lights went out.

“They told us over the PA system that they were having an electrical problem, but then there was a jolt and it felt like the ship lurched and then you just heard this shuffling, scraping sound,” Alan Willits told The Daily Beast. “Then I slid off my seat onto the floor.”

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AP Photo

The Willitses were among the 4,234 passengers and crew whose Mediterranean holiday turned into a fight for survival when the luxury liner ran aground around 10:30 p.m. yesterday, Friday the 13th. On Saturday, three people were confirmed dead (update: a total of five people were confirmed dead on Sunday) and as many as 70 still unaccounted for in what could be one of the worst Mediterranean sea disasters in recent years.

The Willitses, who are veteran cruisers, said that they had never been in such harrowing situation, exacerbated by the fact that the authorities didn’t tell them anything. “We really didn’t have any information,” Mrs. Willits said. “We knew the ship was in trouble because we felt the impact and then it was listing so badly, but they weren’t calling us to the evacuation areas so we made our way on our own. We went to our cabin to get our coats, but it was all dark. There were no staff members anywhere to direct us.”

What the couple felt was the ship hitting a rocky sandbar, ripping a 160 foot gash in the ship’s hull, similar to the damage that sank the Titanic. The hull then started to fill with water, quickly tipping the gigantic ship, effectively rendering the lifeboats on the lower side ineffective. Several passengers and crew members jumped into the chilly waters and swam to shore while others climbed on ropes to the rocks below. Nareen Fauled, from South Africa, ran to the top of the ship and hurried into a lifeboat, but as the ship tilted to its side, they were suspended for nearly 45 minutes in midair. “It was so terrifying,” said Fauled. “We didn’t know if we’d be stuck in the lifeboat as the ship sank or how we’d get out of there alive.”

Eventually all the surviving passengers were evacuated by either lifeboat or by helicopter and ferried to the tiny island of Giglio, about 18 miles from the Tuscan resort village of Porto Santo Stefano, before being brought to the mainland.  Once on solid ground, they found themselves in a chaotic limbo, huddled in a school gymnasium with few facilities and only cookies and water. Eventually they were dispersed between Rome, Civitavecchia, and Savona, and await word on what to do next. 

Throughout Saturday, divers with the Italian Coast Guard searched the area around the sunken ship in search of survivors, but as the night wore on it became apparent that reports of many still missing may have been a result of poor information. “We can’t be sure if the numbers are hard numbers or bad record keeping,” a member of the cruise company who asked not to be named told The Daily Beast at the school where the surviving passengers were taken. “But we don’t rule out that the death count will climb.”

Among the dead was a 65-year-old woman who died of a heart attack when she reportedly jumped into the water, and early reports suggested that another victim may have been a Russian climber who one passenger said had descended to the lower decks to help. More than 40 people were injured with broken limbs and concussions suffered as they scrambled to leave the ship. Passengers recalled stories of panic as they lifted babies and elderly to the lifeboats without any direction from the ship’s crew.

“We didn’t know if we’d be stuck in the lifeboat as the ship sank or how we’d get out of there alive.”

The Concordia had one previous accident in Palermo in 2008, but a generally good safety record. The Italian Coast Guard did confirm that the captain did not make an emergency call and that they were not alerted to the accident until the evacuation had already begun. The captain was questioned by port authorities in Porto Santo Stefano on Saturday afternoon and he will be pivotal in the investigation.

For the surviving passengers, it won’t be a vacation they forget anytime soon. “We don’t have our passports or credit cards,” said Mrs. Willits. “But we might not have made it off that ship at all, so we are lucky.”