By Dario Thuburn (AFP) – Jan 14, 2012
GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy — The captain of a luxury cruise liner that keeled over off Tuscany, killing at least three people was on Saturday arrested as survivors told of scenes "like the Titanic".
Terrified passengers rushed to get into lifeboats and 100 people had to be rescued from the sea. Forty-one passengers are still unaccounted for.
The Costa Concordia with more than 4,000 people on board apparently hit a reef, tearing a 70- to 100-metre (230- to 330-foot) gash in its hull, just hours after setting off on Friday from Civitavecchia a port near Rome.
The ship quickly listed, leaving it half submerged in shallow waters near the island of Giglio off the west coast of Italy.
Within 24 hours of the accident, local prosecutors announced the arrest of the captain, Francesco Schettino, and first officer, Ciro Ambrosio. Italian media reported they could face charges of multiple homicide and having abandoned ship before all passengers were rescued.
The captain "approached Giglio Island in a very awkward way, hit a rock that stuck into its left side, making (the boat) list and take on a huge amount of water in the space of two or three minutes," Grosseto prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters.
Fire chief Ennio Aquilino told AFP his men had "plucked 100 people from the water and saved around 60 others who were trapped in the boat."
At least 42 are injured, including two seriously -- a woman with a blow to the head and a man struck in the spine.
Medical sources said most had suffered broken limbs and hypothermia.
Coastguards meanwhile said divers had recovered the ship's "black box" which should contain records of the precise route and conversations among the crew. The search for survivors was suspended late on Saturday.
But 41 people who had been on board were still missing, said Grosseto governor Giuseppe Linardi and port officials, although it was not clear whether they had made their own way to safety without checking in with authorities.
But he told journalists: "There are three certified dead."
France's embassy in Rome said two French passengers had died, and ANSA news agency reported the third victim was a Peruvian member of the crew.
As passengers were sitting down for dinner Friday, they felt an impact as the cruise liner hit something.
Passengers said they were initially told the ship had shuddered to a halt for electrical reasons, before being instructed to put on their life-jackets and head for lifeboats.
"The captain was saying in five, six languages 'Don't panic'," recalled 74-year-old Joel Pavageau who was with his wife in one of the ship's restaurants when the ship hit something and the room was plunged into darkness.
"I got the feeling I was living my last moment," he said.
"There were scenes of panic like on the Titanic. We ran aground on rocks," passenger Mara Parmegiani was quoted by Italian media as saying. "We were very scared and freezing."
"We heard a loud noise, the plates and cutlery fell on the floor and the lights went out, but the staff told us not to worry," said Roberto Bombardieri, a hairdresser.
Another survivor, cruise ship worker Fabio Costa, described the rush for the lifeboats.
"Everything just started to fall and everybody started to panic and run," he was quoted as saying by the BBC.
"We had no idea how serious it was until we got out and we looked through the window and we saw the water coming closer and closer. Everything happened really, really fast," he said.
"Everybody tried to get on the boats but people started to panic so they were pushing each other and the crew was trying to help. A lot of people were falling down the stairs," he added.
Indian Mondal Mithun, a 26-year-old restaurant manager who was on his first cruise with the ship, said that in his area there was only "one lifeboat for 150 passengers".
Earlier Saturday, Captain Schettino told Italian television that the vessel had hit a rocky spur while cruising in waters which, according to the charts, should have been safe on Italy's west coast.
"As we were navigating at cruise speed, we hit a rocky spur," he told Tgcom24 television station.
"According to the nautical chart, there should have been sufficient water underneath us," he added.
An executive with the company that owns the Italian cruise ship also insisted that the vessel had not strayed off course.
"It is not correct to say that the boat was off its route," Gianni Onorato, managing director of Costa Crociere, told reporters on Porto Santo Stefano island, a resort town near the site of the accident.
But according to Giorgio Fanculli, a journalist on Giglio island, the vessel was too close to shore.
"It was the classic passage, the cruise liners do it often, all lights lit up... but here, he went too close, a lot more than usual," said Fanculli, who saw the vessel sink and also witnessed the rescue operation.
Among those on board were about 52 children under six.
While some 60 nationalities were represented among those on board, nearly a third of the passengers were Italian and most of the others French and German.
The boat was carrying 4,299 people, more than 3,000 of whom were passengers, including 989 Italians, 569 Germans, 462 French nationals and 177 Spaniards.
Officials at the US State department said 126 US nationals were on board.
An environment ministry official told AFP the risk of an oil spill was minimal, because of the vessel's double-hull design. An estimated 2,380 tonnes of oil remain in the ship's tanks.
After being put up in Giglio islands hotels, a local church and sometimes at the homes of local people, many of the passengers were making their way home Saturday.
The ship had been headed for the port of Savona in northwest Italy and had been scheduled to visit the French port of Marseille and Barcelona in Spain.
The cruiseliner boasts 58 suites with balconies, five restaurants, 13 bars, five Jacuzzis and four swimming pools.
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