Dramatic

01.15.12

Cruise Ship Sinking: Couple Rescued From Costa Concordia

Seventeen are still missing after a massive cruise ship went aground off the Italian shore. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports from the scene on one couple’s unlikely escape—and why the captain is in custody.

The giant carcass of the Costa Concordia lies like a beached whale 200 meters off the shoreline of Giglio, a tiny tourist island off Italy’s Tuscan coast. Red curtains flutter in the broken cabin windows and champagne bottles and life jackets bob in the calm sea nearby. Of the more than 4,000 passengers and crew, five are confirmed dead and 17 remain unaccounted for after several passengers identified themselves, including four Japanese tourists who came forward to authorities in Rome. Divers from the Italian Coast Guard searched in vain on Saturday, fearing that some passengers may have been crushed between the rocks and the 115,000-ton luxury cruiser as they tried to escape.

Other rescue workers hit the jackpot early Sunday morning—they found a couple from South Korea who had been trapped in their above-water cabin. The passengers’ door had jammed in the accident and they had been crying for help in the dark. Their cabin was just a few meters above water level, and they could hear helicopters above and workers banging on the metal hull below. Rescue workers spent 90 minutes trying to free the couple, who were then taken to a local hospital. They were on their honeymoon; it was their first cruise. “We could hear the rescuers’ noises,” the man, whose name has not been released, told reporters on the shore. “We were waiting for someone to rescue us.”

The Daily Beast later witnessed the dramatic rescue of a third survivor precariously lifted from the wreckage Sunday morning. The survivor was an Italian crew member who was found in the restaurant area of the sunken ship. He was suffering from hypothermia. A doctor was lowered into the wreckage to stabilize him before he was lifted out.

Ship Capt. Francesco Schettino and First Capt. Ciro Ambrosio are in police custody, facing charges for manslaughter and abandoning ship. The duo was among the first to take a lifeboat to safety, effectively leaving the passengers and crew to fend for themselves in what has been described as a very chaotic evacuation. “No one was in charge,” said Nareem Fauled, a South African passenger. “We had such conflicting information and no one knew what we were supposed to do.”

Early on Saturday, Schettino told Italian police investigators that the rocky sandbar was not on any maritime maps, but The Daily Beast spoke with fishermen at the nearby port of Porto Santo Stefano who said the rocks off Giglio were known to all. Gianni Ororato, president of the cruise line, defended Schettino, issuing a statement that the captain had acted heroically to save the passengers by “performing a maneuver intended to protect the passengers and crew that was complicated by a sudden tilting of the ship.”

On Saturday, rescuers removed the ship’s “black box” to analyze its final movements. Witnesses on the shore reported that the ship seemed exceptionally close to the coast line as it passed through the corridor of sea between Giglio and the Italian mainland. Francesco Verusio, the investigating prosecutor from nearby Grosetto, told reporters that Schettino "approached Giglio Island in a very awkward way, hitting a rock that lodged into its left side, making it list and take on a huge amount of water in the space of two or three minutes.”

Surviving passengers told harrowing stories of their experience trying to get off the ship. In a scene reminiscent of stories from the Titanic, women and children were separated from the men in their families as they were evacuated. “I didn’t think I’d see my husband again,” a young Italian woman named Pina, who didn’t want to give her last name, told The Daily Beast in the reception center where passengers were taken on Saturday. “He was crying when we got on the lifeboat and I’ll never forget the look on his face.” The family was reunited after four hours.

“I just can’t believe we were on that ship and that we actually made it off alive.”

Divers continue to search the cabins submerged underwater on Sunday, looking for the bodies of the missing. Officials from the Costa Concordia are also working to square the passenger lists, hoping that an administrative error is to blame for the discrepancy in survivors and passengers. “It all seems so unreal to me, even now,” says Canadian Laurie Willits from her hotel in Rome. “I just can’t believe we were on that ship and that we actually made it off alive.”