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Archive for Saturday, January 14, 2012

Night of chaos, fear after cruise ship ran aground

January 14, 2012

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PORTO SANTO STEFANO, ITALY — The first course had just been served in the Costa Concordia’s dining room when the wine glasses, forks and plates of cuttlefish and mushrooms smashed to the ground. At the magic show in the theater, the trash cans tipped over and the theater curtains turned on their side. Then the hallways turned upside down, and passengers crawled on bruised knees through the dark. Others jumped alone into the cold Mediterranean Sea.

The terrifying, chaotic escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from “Titanic” for many of the 4,000-plus passengers and crew on the cruise ship, which ran aground off the Italian coast late Friday and flipped on its side with a 160-foot gash in its hull. At least three bodies had been recovered, and divers searched the underwater belly of the boat for a few dozen more who remained unaccounted for. By late Saturday, the number of missing had dwindled to about 40.

The Italian news agency ANSA quoted rescuers as finding two survivors alive and in good condition in a cabin.

ANSA said fire department rescuers found two Asians in a cabin inside the liner late Saturday night and were bringing out the survivors.

The Friday the 13th grounding of the Concordia was one of the most dramatic cruise ship accidents in recent memory. It immediately raised a host of questions: Why did it hit a reef so close to the Tuscan island of Giglio? Did a power failure cause the crew to lose control? Did the captain — under investigation on manslaughter allegations — steer it in the wrong direction on purpose? And why did crew members tell passengers they weren’t in danger until the boat was listing perilously to the side?

The delay made lifeboat rescue eventually impossible for some of the passengers, some of whom jumped into the sea while others waited to be plucked to safety by helicopters. Some boats had to be cut down with an axe.

“We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side,” said Mike van Dijk, from Pretoria, South Africa. “It was a scramble, an absolute scramble.”

Van Dijk said the boat he was on — on the upended port side — got stuck along the ship’s wall as it came down.

“It was a hell of a sound, the crunching,” he said.

Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn’t address the allegations of delayed evacuation.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, was detained for questioning by prosecutors, investigating him for suspected manslaughter, abandoning ship before all others, and causing a shipwreck, state TV and Sky TV said. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying Schettino deliberately chose a sea route that was too close to shore.

Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti told the agency: “I’d like to say that several hundred people owed their life to the expertise that the commander of the Costa Concordia showed during the emergency.”

France said two of the 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.

The ship began its lurch at the beginning of dinner service in the ship’s two-story dining room, where passengers described a scene of frantic confusion.

Silverware, plates and glasses crashed down on them from the upper floor balcony, children wailed and darkened hallways upended themselves after the ship began its lurch. Panicked passengers slipped on broken glass as the lights went out while crew members insisted nothing serious was wrong.

“Have you seen ‘Titanic’? That’s exactly what it was,” said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents. They all bore dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells, trying to reach rescue boats.

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