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Captain's conduct blasted as divers find more dead

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GIGLIO, Italy (AP) — Maritime authorities, passengers and mounting evidence pointed Sunday toward the captain of a cruise liner that ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast, amid accusations that he abandoned ship before everyone was safely evacuated and was showing off when he steered the vessel far too close to shore.

Divers searching the murky depths of the partially submerged Costa Concordia found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, bringing the confirmed death toll to five. At least 15 people were still missing, including two Americans.

The recovered bodies were discovered at an emergency gathering point near the restaurant where many of the 4,200 on board were dining when the luxury liner struck rocks or a reef off the tiny island of Giglio. The Italian news agency ANSA reported the dead were an Italian and a Spaniard.

Still, there were glimmers of hope: The rescue of three survivors — a young South Korean couple on their honeymoon and a crew member brought to shore in a dramatic airlift some 36 hours after the grounding late Friday.

Meanwhile, attention focused on the captain, who was spotted by Coast Guard officials and passengers fleeing the scene even as the chaotic and terrifying evacuation was under way.

The ship's Italian owner, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise lines, issued a statement late Sunday saying there appeared to be "significant human error" on the part of the captain, Francesco Schettino, "which resulted in these grave consequences."

Authorities were holding Schettino for suspected manslaughter and a prosecutor confirmed Sunday they were also investigating allegations the captain abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays, told the Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.

"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.

"Normally the commander should only leave at the end," said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."

Coast Guard officers later spotted Schettino on land as the evacuation unfolded. The officers urged him to return to his ship and honor his duty to stay aboard until everyone was safely off the vessel, but he ignored them, Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said.

Schettino insisted he didn't leave the liner early, telling Mediaset television that he had done everything he could to save lives. "We were the last ones to leave the ship," he said.

Questions also swirled about why the ship had navigated so close to the dangerous reefs and rocks that jut off Giglio's eastern coast, amid suspicions the captain may have ventured too close while carrying out a maneuver to entertain tourists on the island.

The ship's owner, Costa Crociere SpA, issued a statement late Sunday saying it was working with investigators to determine "precisely what went wrong aboard the Costa Concordia."

"While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship's master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences," the statement said. "The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain's judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures."

Residents of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the dangerous "Le Scole" reef area.

"This was too close, too close," said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregiglio ferry between Giglio and the mainland for more than a decade. Pointing to a nautical map, he drew his finger along the path the ship usually takes and the jarring one close to shore that it followed Friday.

The ship was a mere 150 yards (meters) from shore at the time of the grounding, ANSA quoted Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio as saying.

Schettino insisted he was twice as far out and said the ship ran aground because the rocks weren't marked on his nautical charts.

However, he did concede he was maneuvering the ship in "touristic navigation" — implying a route that was a deviation from the norm and designed to entertain the tourists.

"We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock. On the nautical chart it indicated that there was water deep below."

Costa captains have occasionally steered the ship near port and sounded the siren in a special salute, Arienti said. Such a nautical "fly-by" was staged last August, prompting the town's mayor to send a note of thanks to the commander for the treat it provided tourists who flock to the island, local news portal GiglioNews.it reported.

But Arienti and other residents said even on those occasions, the cruise ship always stayed far offshore, well beyond the reach of the "Le Scole" reefs.

"Every so often they would do a greeting, but not so close — far away, safely," said resident Giacomo Dannipale.

Douglas Ward, a cruise expert and author of the 2012 Berlitz guide to cruises, said the waters around Giglio are too shallow for such maneuvers.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini said divers had recovered the so-called "black box," with the recording of the navigational details, from a compartment now under water, though no details were released.

Jorgen Loren, chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer's Association, said the captain clearly deviated from the ship's intended route.

"It is remarkable because weather conditions were good and these cruise ships have the best and most modern technical equipment. All conditions were ideal," he said.

"These are well-known waters, ferries pass here every day going back and forward to the mainland," he said.

Meanwhile, rescue work continued into the night on the unsubmerged half of the Concordia, said firefighters spokesman Luca Cari. Sniffer dogs were being brought in, although it was unclear if they could adapt to working in an environment where the horizontal became the vertical, due to the 90-degree list of the ship.

Marini, the coast guard captain, held out hope there could still be survivors, perhaps holed up in the section still above water, or that some of the unaccounted passengers simply didn't report their safe arrival on land.

Earlier Sunday, a helicopter airlifted a cabin crew member from the capsized hulk just hours after South Korean honeymooners were rescued from their cabin when firefighters heard their screams.

A relative of the rescued crewman told reporters he had survived two nights in darkness and with his feet in water.

Besides the two dead discovered Sunday, the bodies of three other victims — two French passengers and a Peruvian crewman — were pulled out of the sea in the hours after the accident.

Survivors described a terrifying escape that was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for all to be released.

"We were left to ourselves," pregnant French passenger Isabelle Mougin, who injured her ankle in the scramble, told the ANSA news agency.

Another French passenger, Jeanne Marie de Champs, said that faced with the chaotic scene at the lifeboats, she decided to take her chances swimming to shore.

"I was afraid I wouldn't make the shore, but then I saw we were close enough, I felt calmer," she told Sky News 24.

Coast Guard diver Majko Aidone, interviewed by Sky TG24 TV after his dive, explained that the first task after gaining access to a submerged space, is to tie down large floating objects, like mattresses, which could turn into dangerous obstacles.

Then, in hopes of alerting any survivors to their presence, "we make noise," he said.

Crews in dinghies climbed on board the exposed hull of the ship and touched it, near the site of the 160-foot-long (50-meter-long) gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to topple on its side.

Earlier Sunday, at a Mass held in Giglio's main church, which opened its doors to the evacuees Friday night, altar boys and girls brought up a life vest, a rope, a rescue helmet, a plastic tarp and some bread.

Don Lorenzo, the parish priest, told the faithful that he wanted to make this admittedly "different" offering to God as a memory of the tragedy.

"Our community, our island will never be the same," he said.

___

Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris and Victor L. Simpson and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

GIGLIO, Italy (AP) — Coast guard divers searching the submerged part of the Costa Concordia on Sunday found the bodies of two elderly men still in their life jackets, authorities said, raising to five the death toll after the luxury cruise liner ran aground and tipped over off the Tuscan coast.

Divers scouring the bowels of the ship in the murky, cold sea discovered the bodies at the emergency gathering point near the restaurant where passengers were dining when the ship carrying more than 4,200 people hit a reef or rock near the island of Giglio, Coast Guard Cmdr. Cosimo Nicastro said.

The discovery reduced to 15 the number of people still unaccounted for after an Italian who worked in cabin service was pulled from the wreckage Sunday and a South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued late Saturday in the unsubmerged part of the liner when a team of rescuers heard their screams.

"We are still searching" for any bodies, "but (also) in the hope that there might have been an air pocket" to allow the survival of others, Nicastro told Sky TG24 TV dockside.

Authorities are holding the Italian captain for investigation of suspected manslaughter and abandoning his ship among other possible charges. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.

The ship's chaotic and panicked evacuation has added to the difficulty in tracking down survivors — with six of those unaccounted for crew members and the others passengers. Two of the unaccounted for passengers are American, the U.S. Embassy in Rome said.

In the first hours after the accident late Friday night, three bodies were found in the waters near the ship. The victims discovered Sunday were two elderly men who were wearing life vests, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo.

"The divers had to remove the life vests to get the bodies out," he said, because they could have floated away. Their nationalities were not immediately released.

The divers' search through the ship, which is lying on its side with a huge gash, was already dangerous because of the risk the vessel could suddenly move and sink into waters over a nearby lower sea bed.

Their safety was increasingly threatened by floating objects in the belly of the 290-meter (nearly 1,000) foot long liner, as well as muck drastically reducing visibility, Nicastro said.

"There are tents, mattresses, other objects moving which can get tangled in the divers' equipment," Nicastro said. Officials were going to huddle soon to see how long the underwater search could safely continue, he said.

Divers say they are using a kind of long cord they hook near the point of entrance and unroll as they work, so they can find their way out when finished.

Prosecutor Francesco Verusio confirmed reports that prosecutors are investigating allegations the cruise liner's captain, Francesco Schettino, abandoned the stricken liner before all the passengers had escaped.

Asked Sunday by Sky TG24 about the accusations, Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio replied, "unfortunately, I must confirm that circumstance."

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays of Marseille, told The Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship. They insisted on telling a reporter what they saw, so incensed that — according to them — the captain had abandoned the ship before everyone had been evacuated.

"The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off," said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer.

"Normally the commander should leave at the end," said Du Pays, a police officer who said he helped an injured passenger to a rescue boat. "I did what I could."

Schettino has said the ship hit rocks that weren't marked on his nautical charts, and that he did all he could to save lives.

"We were navigating approximately 300 meters (yards) from the rocks," he told Mediaset television. "There shouldn't have been such a rock."

He insisted he didn't leave the liner before all passengers were off, saying "we were the last ones to leave the ship."

But that clearly wasn't the case as the finding of the three survivors aboard Saturday night and Sunday showed.

Coast guard spokesman Capt. Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that Coast Guard divers have recovered the so-called "black box" with the recording of the navigational details from a compartment now under water.

A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the Concordia's tanks before any leaks into the area's pristine waters. No leaks have so far been reported.

While ship owner Costa has insisted it was following the same route it takes every week between the Italian ports of Civitavecchia and Savona, residents on the island of Giglio said they had never seen the Costa come so close to the Le Scole reefs and rocks that jut from Giglio's eastern side.

"This was too close, too close," said Italo Arienti, a 54-year-old sailor who has worked on the Maregigilo ferry service that runs between the island and the mainland for more than a decade. A now-retired Costa commander used to occasionally do "fly-bys" on the route, nearing a bit and sounding the siren in a special salute for his hometown, he said. Such a fly-by was staged last August, but there was no incident, he said.

He said the cruise ship always stayed more than five to six nautical miles offshore, well beyond the reach of the "Le Scole" reefs, popular with scuba divers.

The terrifying escape from the luxury liner, which was on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise, was straight out of a scene from "Titanic." Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.

Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Amateur footage taken aboard the ship showed the situation immediately after it ran aground, as an announcement in various languages tells passengers the liner is having electrical problems and "the situation is under control." When a man asks a crew member in Spanish why he is wearing a life vest, the crew member doesn't answer and continues on his way.

Other video shows people crowded together in life jackets, apparently calm and waiting to disembark the ship. A third video taken from a lifeboat, shows mostly darkness as people shout and scream in panic.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

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.

Some 300 of the crew members were Filipinos and three of them were injured, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.

The captain has insisted that the reef was not marked, but locals said the stretch of sea is not difficult to maneuver. Anello Fiorentino, captain of a ferry that runs between Giglio and the mainland, said he makes the crossing every day without encountering problems.

"Yes, if you get near the coast there are reefs, but this is a stretch of sea where all the ships can safely pass," he said.

Islanders on Giglio opened up their homes and businesses to accommodate the sudden rush of survivors. Rossana Bafigi, who runs a newsstand, said she was really moved by the reaction of the passengers.

She showed a note left by one Italian family that said, "We want to repay you for the disturbance. Please call us, we took milk and biscuits for the children. Claudia."

At Mass on Sunday morning in Giglio's main church, which opened its doors to the evacuees Friday night, altar boys and girls brought up to the altar a life vest, a rope, a rescue helmet, a plastic tarp and some bread.

Don Lorenzo, the parish priest, told the faithful that he wanted to make this admittedly "different" offering to God as a memory of what had transpired.

He said each one carried powerful symbolic meaning for what happened on Friday night: the bread that multiplied to feed the survivors, the rope that pulled people to safety, the life vest and helmet that protected them, and the plastic tarp that kept cold bodies warm. "Our community, our island will never be the same," he told the few dozen islanders gathered for Mass.

_____

Frances D'Emilio contributed to this story from Rome.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (AP) — 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 (50-meter) 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 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 the Tuscan island of Giglio? Did a power failure cause the crew to lose control? And why did crew members tell passengers they weren't in danger until the boast 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. The captain 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. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn't address the allegations of delayed evacuation.

France said two of the victims were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 42, 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.

"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61 said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."

She choked up as she remembered the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship listed to the side.

"He said,'Take my baby,'" Georgia Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand. "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."

Whispered her daughter Valerie: "I wonder where they are."

The Ananias family was among the last passengers off the ship, left standing on the upended port side. They were forced to exit from a still-attached lifeboat that became impossible to use once the ship began to tip over; so they climbed a ladder dropped too them off a deck and shimmied down a rope to a waiting rescue vessel.

"We thought we were dying four times," Valerie said, recounting the most terrifying moments in their escape.

A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia's captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef. Italian coast guard officials said the circumstances were still unclear, but that the ship hit an unknown obstacle.

Despite some early reports that the captain was dining with passengers when his ship crashed into the reef, he was on the bridge, Onorato said.

"The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona," a shaken-looking Onorato told reporters on Giglio, a popular vacation isle off Italy's central west coast.

He said the captain was an 11-year Costa veteran and that the cruise line was cooperating with Italian investigators to find out what went wrong.

Malcolm Latarche, editor of maritime magazine IHS Fairplay Solutions, said a loss of power coupled with a failure of backup systems could have caused the crew to lose control.

"I would say power failure caused by harmonic interference and then it can't propel straight or navigate and it hit rocks," Latarche said.

There were no firm indications that anyone was trapped. Rescuers carried out extensive searches of the waters near the ship for hours and "we would have seen bodies," said Coast Guard Capt. Cosimo Nicastro.

Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.

Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Seasoned cruisers knew better and went to get their life jackets from their cabins and report to their "muster stations," the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

Miriam Vitale, a hostess on the cruise liner who disembarked earlier this week in Palermo, told SkyTG24 the ship conducts a drill every 15 days. She said that since passengers on the Concordia embark or disembark every day, some passengers could miss it depending on which day they begin the trip.

Surviving passengers huddled under woolen or aluminum blankets in a middle school on the Italian mainland of Porto Santo Stefano, where passengers were ferried early Saturday from Giglio. Some wore their life preservers, their shoeless feet were covered with aluminum foil.

Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor as she waited for a bus to take her somewhere — she didn't know where. She wore her gray cashmere sweater and a silk scarf with a large pair of hiking boats loaned to her by an islander after she lost her shoes in the scramble. Her passport, credit cards and phone were left in her cabin.

Hammer, 65, said the ship lurched to the side as she ate an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad on her first night aboard her first-ever cruise, a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.

"We heard a crash. Glasses and plates fell down and we went out of the dining room and we were told it wasn't anything dangerous," she said.

Alan and Laurie Willits from Wingham, Ontario, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, said they were watching the magic show in the ship's main theater when they felt an initial lurch, as if from a severe steering maneuver. That was followed a few seconds later by a "shudder" that tipped trash cans over.

The subsequent listing of the ship made the theater curtains seem like they were standing on their side.

"And then the magician disappeared," Laurie Willits said.

Florida-based Carnival Corp. issued a brief statement Saturday.

"Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the wake of this tragic event."

Costa Cruises said about 1,000 Italian passengers were onboard, as well as more than 500 Germans, about 160 French and about 1,000 crew members. The State Department said about 126 U.S. citizens were onboard.

Coast guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm aboard went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia to Savona, in northwestern Italy. No SOS was sent, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The vessel "hit an obstacle," that tore a 50-meter (160 feet) gash in the side of the ship and started taking on water, Paolillo said. It wasn't clear if the obstacle was a jagged, rocky reef or something else, he said.

The captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio's small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier.

Five helicopters from the coast guard, navy and air force took turns airlifting survivors still aboard and ferrying them to safely.

Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a weeklong cruise across the Mediterranean Sea that began Jan. 7 in Savona with stops at Civitavecchia, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.

The Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters, ANSA reported. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port's dock, and suffered damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.

___

D'Emilio reported from Rome; contributing to this report were David Stringer in London, Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru and Curt Anderson in Miami.

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (AP) — Divers searched the submerged part of a luxury cruise liner that went aground off Italy's coast in case any of 70 people unaccounted for might be trapped inside, a coast guard official said Saturday, as passengers described a delayed and terrifying evacuation.

Three bodies were recovered from the sea after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the tiny island of Giglio near the coast of Tuscany late Friday, tearing a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in its hull and sending in a rush of water.

One of the victims was a Peruvian crew member, a diplomat from the South American country said, adding that a Peruvian woman was also missing. The ANSA new agency identified the other two fatalities as French passengers, but didn't cite a source.

Passengers described a scene reminiscent of "Titanic", saying they escaped the ship by crawling along upended hallways, desperately trying to reach safety as the lights went out and plates and glasses crashed. Helicopters whisked some survivors to safety, others were rescued by private boats in the area, and witnesses said some people jumped from the ship into the dark, cold sea.

The ship was lying virtually flat off Giglio's coast, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull.

Passengers complained the crew failed to give instructions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many of them to be released.

Carnival Corp., which owns the cruise line that the ship belongs to, didn't address the allegations in a statement it issued.

"Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the grounding of the Costa Concordia and especially the loved ones of those who lost their lives. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the wake of this tragic event."

Authorities have been checking names against the passenger list, but have had a hard time accounting for everyone. They still hadn't counted all the survivors by the time they reached the mainland 12 hours later.

An evacuation drill was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, even though some passengers had already been on board for several days.

"It was so unorganized, our evacuation drill was scheduled for 5 p.m.," said Melissa Goduti, 28, of Wallingford, Connecticut, who had set out on the cruise of the Mediterranean hours earlier. "We had joked 'What if something had happened today?'"

"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 on the first of two cruises around the Mediterranean. 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.

"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61 said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."

She 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 below.

Survivor Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, after stepping off a ferry from Giglio. She was wearing elegant dinner clothes — a gray cashmere sweater, a silk scarf — along with a large pair of hiking boots, which a kind islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape. Left behind in her cabin were her passport, credit cards and phone.

Hammer, 65, told The Associated Press she was eating her first course, an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad, on her first night aboard her first-ever cruise, which was a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.

Suddenly, "we heard a crash. Glasses and plates fell down and we went out of the dining room and we were told it wasn't anything dangerous," she said.

Several passengers concurred, saying 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 from their cabins and report to their "muster stations," the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.

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."

Passengers Alan and Laurie Willits from Wingham, Ontario, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, said they were watching the magic show in the ship's main theater when they felt an initial lurch, as if from a severe steering maneuver, followed a few seconds later by a "shudder" that tipped trash cans over. The subsequent listing of the ship made the theater curtains seem like they were standing on their side.

"And then the magician disappeared," Laurie Willits said, adding that the panicked audience members fled for their cabins as well.

Once at their life boat station, crew members directed passengers to go upstairs from the fourth floor deck; Alan Willits said he refused.

"I said 'no this isn't right.' And I came out and I argued 'When you get this boat stabilized, I'll go up to the fifth floor then," he said. Eventually, his lifeboat was lowered down.

But things didn't improve for passengers once aboard the lifeboats or on land.

"No one counted us, neither in the life boats nor on land," said Ophelie Gondelle, 28, a French military officer from Marseille. She said there had been no evacuation drill since she boarded in Marseille, France on Jan. 8.

A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia's captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef.

"The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona," a shaken-looking Onorato, who is Costa's director general, told reporters on Giglio, a popular vacation isle about 18 miles (25 kilometers) off Italy's central west coast. The captain is an 11-year Costa veteran, he said.

He said Costa was cooperating with Italian investigators to find out what went wrong.

Costa Cruises said about 1,000 Italian passengers were onboard, as well as more than 500 Germans, about 160 French and about 1,000 crew members.

Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported to be in grave condition. Several passengers came off the ferries on stretchers, but it appeared more out of exhaustion and shock than serious injury.

The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on Giglio. Those evacuated by helicopter were taken to the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.

Passengers sat dazed in a middle school opened for them, wrapped in wool or aluminum blankets, with some wearing their life preservers and their shoeless feet covered with aluminum foil. Civil protection crews served them warm tea and bread, but confusion reigned supreme as passengers tried desperately to find the right bus to begin their journey home.

Tanja Berto, from Ebenfurth, Austria, was shuttled from one line to another with her mother and 2-year-old son Bruno, trying to figure out how to get back to Savona, where they began their cruise a week ago.

"It's his birthday today," she said of her son, rolling her eyes as she held Bruno and tended to her mother, who had grown faint and was lying on the ground. "Happy birthday, Bruno."

Survivors far outnumbered Giglio's 1,500 residents, and island Mayor Sergio Ortelli issued an appeal for islanders — "anyone with a roof" — to open their homes to shelter the evacuees.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in northwestern Italy.

The coast guard official, speaking from the port captain's office in the Tuscan port of Livorno, said the vessel "hit an obstacle."

The cruise liner's captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio's small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier. But after the ship started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible, Paolillo said.

Five helicopters, from the coast guard, navy and air force, took turns airlifting survivors and ferrying them to safely. A coast guard member was airlifted aboard the vessel to help people get aboard a small basket so they could be hoisted up to the helicopter, said Capt. Cosimo Nicastro, another Coast Guard official.

Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, starting from Civitavecchia with scheduled calls to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.

The Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters, ANSA reported. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port's dock, and sustained damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.

___

Frances D'Emilio reported from Rome.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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