Sheer Panic as Cruise Ship Runs Aground off Tuscany

Passengers of the Costa Concordia describe harrowing scenes as they tried to escape the cruise ship, which slammed an unseen obstacle just off the island of Giglio on Friday night, killing at least six people.

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At least three people are dead after a cruise ship ran aground near an island off the coast of Tuscany, precipitating a panicked, disorderly evacuation from the listing ship.

By Saturday morning, the Costa Concordia lay nearly flat on its starboard side, a large gash visible below the water line, where it struck a sandbar off the island of Giglio. Search-and-rescue teams were still conducing a room-by-room search for survivors, the BBC reported.

At least 70 people are believed to be unaccounted for, the BBC reported later Saturday morning.

News outlets described total panic among passengers after the ship ran aground as dinner was being served. Elderly guests in evening wear were forced to scramble on hands and knees through the listing hallways, The New York Times reported, trying to reach lifeboats that the crew seemingly struggled to launch because of the angle of the vessel's tilt into the water.

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.

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."

The accident also triggered unbelievable exchanges like this one, which really did seem to earn the Titanic comparisons:

[American Georgia Ananias] 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.

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

"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 town of Giglio is now struggling to handle the thousands of survivors who have been evacuated. The town has only 1,500 residents, and local officials called on private homeowners to help shelter strangers, some of whom jumped from the ship into the sea and suffered from hypothermia, The Times reported. The ship held more than 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew when it departed on a cruise of the Mediterranean on Friday.

Investigations will continue into how the 950-foot, modern ship could have run aground in the first place — and whether the evacuation could have been more orderly. Cruise industry executives considered it "unbelievable" that such a ship could have wound up so seriously disabled by an accident of this type, Simon Calder, travel editor of The Independent, said on the BBC. Calder predicted a thorough examination of the design of the Concordia and its five sister ships, to see whether a design flaw contributed to the vessel's flop onto its side after the collision. The Costa cruise line is owned by Carnival, one of the largest cruise ship operators in the world.

The passengers and crew were to have performed an evacuation drill while underway; it was scheduled for Saturday.

The Costa cruise company's last serious accident occurred in 2010, when another of its vessels rammed a dock in high winds in the Egyptian port of Sharm al Sheikh, the BBC reported, killing three crew members.

Later Saturday, CNN reported that the Italian captain of the ship was under arrest, as investigators tried to determine why the vessel didn't make a distress call until its evacuation efforts were already underway.

Updated with more of the amazing photos from the aftermath of the ground, including what appears to be a giant rock stuck in the side of the ship's hull:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.