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Like a scene out of the film 'Titanic,' chaos consumed listing ship

By Michael Martinez and Barbie Nadeau, CNN
updated 12:44 PM EST, Sun January 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 200 passengers swam to shore, Little Rock man says
  • The tilting ship and rising water evoked the film "Titanic," a crew member says
  • There was chaos on board as passengers tried to find lifeboats in darkness
  • The luxury cruise ship was designed to appeal to young couples and families

Porto Santo Stefano, Italy (CNN) -- The 3,200 passengers aboard the Costa Concordia cruise liner were enjoying a night of entertainment and relaxation off Italy's Mediterranean coast.

Then, at about dinnertime, the lights went out, an ominous scraping sound moaned through the hull, and the ship tilted to one side.

The 1,500-cabin luxury vessel, which was also carrying about 1,000 crew members, had run aground on a rocky sandbar off the tiny island of Giglio.

Chaos overwhelmed passengers and crew alike when, as the ship listed and water rose as if it were a scene from "Titanic," everyone realized that only one side of the ship's lifeboats and rafts were reachable.

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Ship runs aground off Italy  Ship runs aground off Italy
Ship runs aground off ItalyShip runs aground off Italy

Amid screams, the crew appeared helpless, according to one passenger who had to make a ladder of rope to save himself and his wife.

"It was the Marx brothers watching these guys trying to figure out how to work the boat," said Benji Smith, who was on the Concordia for his honeymoon with his wife, Emily. The couple live in Boston.

"I felt like the disaster itself was manageable," Smith added, referring to the grounding and tilting of the ship, "but I felt like the crew was going to kill us."

The worst part came when a lifeboat crew member told everyone, "Women and children first," Smith said. "All these families who were clinging to each other had to be separated," he added.

After helping passengers, some crew members jumped overboard and swam ashore.

Search continues for missing passengers

At least three lifeboats apparently malfunctioned due to technical or crew error, Smith said.

Life rafts were "twisting and turning," and the crew pulled in some rafts and put the people back on the ship, but the crew never returned for them, Smith said.

With the ship's staircases flooded, "we made ladders out of ropes to climb down from the outer fourth deck to the third deck," Smith said.

"We waited clinging to those rope ladders for 3½ hours" before being picked up by a lifeboat that returned from dropping passengers onshore, he said.

Smith said he and his wife never heard from any of the officers or captain during the incident.

The couple was eventually transported by bus to a hotel in Rome.

"I've been awake for 40 hours -- I still have never spoken to a person from Costa," he said, adding that no food, clothes, or money were provided by the cruise line.

Many passengers complained about how the cruise ship staff handled the crisis and asked why they had not yet received an obligatory safety briefing when disaster struck, only hours into their journey.

"We attended a safety presentation on the first day," but he says it didn't turn out to have any safety information, he said. "It was only a sales pitch" for shore excursions, Smith said.

Mark Plath of Little Rock, Arkansas, said 200 passengers swam about 100 yards to rocks, where they awaited further assistance.

"We were helping the staff more than they were helping us," Plath said of the ordeal.

Rosalyn Rincon, a member of the cruise ship staff who worked as a dancer, was in the middle of a magician's act when the ship ran aground. She was inside a box during a magic show when, she said, "I realized that everything stopped. The music stopped," she said.

Everything on the stage fell on top of people because the ship listed dramatically, said Rincon, 30, of Blackpool, England.

"There was no signal as to what was going on until about 30 minutes into it," Rincon told CNN.

Her boyfriend, an Italian engineer officer on the vessel, told her that there was a blackout and the ship crashed into something. "They told us there was a fire," she said.

Then another blackout occurred, and the ship went into darkness, she said. She put on her life vest in her cabin, she said.

About 15 minutes later, "the captain of the ship told us it was an electrical problem," Rincon said.

Rincon thought to herself: "If it was an electrical problem, why were we tilting," she said.

Several minutes later, "we were told to abandon ship," Rincon said.

Then panic set in, she said.

"This is the problem: You've got 3,000 passengers, you've got 2,000 crew members, and you got only one side of usage of lifeboats and life rafts" because the ship was resting on one side, Rincon said in a telephone interview from her Italian hotel.

Rincon realized there was going to be a shortage of lifesaving watercraft, she said.

"You were going higher and higher, and you were on a vertical position. I was holding on to the railing. All you could see was noise and creaks. It was very, very scary," Rincon said.

Rincon was able to get into a rescue boat -- after all the passengers were put on lifeboats or life rafts, she said.

"We were literally thrown into the boat," Rincon said.

Several crew members jumped overboard and swam to the mountain shore, she said. One friend was rescued by helicopter from the top of the ship, Rincon said.

Passenger Laurie Willits from Ontario, Canada, who was watching the magic show with her husband, told CNN: "All of a sudden the lights flashed, and the boat tipped like it was turning, but it didn't return to level."

Emergency announcements in English and other languages were difficult to hear, Willits said.

Panic spread as people scrambled to find lifeboats in the dark as the ship quickly leaned to one side.

Lifeboats on the higher side got stuck, Willits said, leaving some people suspended in mid-air for a long time. The sounds of children crying and screaming could be heard.

Willits and her husband managed to get into a lifeboat about an hour to 90 minutes after the alarm was raised, and were among the first to be taken to land.

American Nancy Lofaro said she and her husband Mario were watching the magic show, when there was a "grinding noise." All the performers ran off the stage, she said, leaving the audience in the theater.

She added that 30 minutes passed before there was any announcement, saying everything was under control. "The crew tried hard but they kept telling us they had no information, and it wasn't until an hour into this situation that we got into a lifeboat and were lowered."

Lofaro described a chaotic situation on the lifeboat. "At one point we were being lowered, and we were sliding off to one side. Everyone fell into one side of the boat and were slamming into the ship. This happened a few times over 30 seconds. And finally we were lowered into the water level. It took 30 minutes to get to shore... the lifeboats were slamming into each other. It was chaos."

At reception centers set up on shore Saturday, some passengers were still wearing pajamas, slippers or housecoats from when the alarm was first raised on the ship. Most were without their money, phones and valuables.

Sirens blared as some of the injured were taken to hospital. Helicopters lifted some people from the badly listing ship.

Rescue officials said their operation peaked between midnight and 3 a.m. Saturday, and calm seas prevented greater loss of life. Three people were confirmed dead and 20 injured.

Many people spent the night in small churches and other buildings around the island before being ferried to the mainland to make their way home.

The Italian cruise company, Costa Cruises, said it would help passengers return home. Costa is owned by parent company Carnival Corp.

An investigation into the cause of the disaster is under way, officials said.

CNN's Livia Borghese in Rome, Laura Smith-Spark in London, journalist Barbie Nadeau in Porto Santo Stefano and Michael Martinez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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