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4:59pm UK, Saturday January 14, 2012
Three people have died and about 70 more are missing after a cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers, including British holidaymakers, ran aground off Italy’s coast.
The head of cruise company Costa, Gianni Onorato, said the vessel “hit a rock” and pictures showed a massive gash in the Costa Concordia’s hull more than 150ft (45m) long.
There was a huge rock embedded in the side of the ship towards the stern.
The dead have reportedly been identified as two French passengers and one Peruvian crewman, according to AP.
One of the victims was a man aged in his 70s who is thought to have died of a heart attack caused by the shock of the icy water when he dived in during the chaos.
A coastguard official said the 70 people missing may be trapped inside “the belly of the ship”.
Costa Cruises told Sky News the 37 Britons onboard – 25 passengers and 12 crew members, mainly entertainers – were rescued.
A major rescue operation was launched after the liner began sinking near the island of Giglio, off the Tuscan coast, late on Friday – just two hours after it began its voyage.
Read survivors’ stories
Five helicopters and nearby ships plucked people to safety after they became trapped on the ship when it listed so badly they could not launch lifeboats.
Divers were also called in to search the 290m-long ship for missing passengers.
Officials confirmed three bodies had been retrieved from the sea and warned the death toll could rise.
Fire services spokesman Luca Cari said rescue efforts were continuing as dozens of the 4,234 people on the ship at the time still unaccounted for.
“We have about 40 men at work and we’re expecting specialist diving teams to arrive to check all the interior spaces of the ship,” he said.
“We don’t rule out the possibility that more people will be lost.”
A further 14 people were injured, mostly suffering bruises, authorities said.
The ship’s captain is reportedly being questioned by authorities.
Costa chief executive Mr Onorato said after the liner hit a rock the captain “decided to bring the ship to safety before ordering its evacuation”.
He added: “Unfortunately, the fast tilting of the vessel interrupted the evacuation by the use of lifeboats.
“That’s when events started escalating and that required the Italian coast guard to intervene, this and the rescue operations were handed over to the authorities.”
Earlier, a harbour master said the ship started taking on water after it “hit an obstacle”, “ripping a gash 50m (160ft) across” on the left side.
Coastguard official Cmdr Francesco Paolillo said the cruise liner’s captain responded by trying to steer the ship toward shallow waters near Giglio’s small port to make the evacuation easier.
As the ship began to list heavily to one side, coastguards were immediately dispatched to the scene while terrified passengers were ordered to put on life vests and man lifeboats.
Some people reportedly jumped into the cold waters in the scramble to escape.
:: Built in 2006
:: 280m long and 36m wide
:: Capacity to hold 3,700 passengers and 1,100 crew
:: Four swimming pools, five jacuzzis, seven restaurants, 13 luxury bars, three dance clubs and a cinema.
Passenger Luciano Castro told Italian media of the horror that unfolded when the ship ran aground.
”We were having dinner when all of a sudden the lights went out,” he said. “It seemed as if the ship struck something and then we heard a loud bang and everything fell to the floor.
”The captain immediately came on the tannoy and said that there had been an electrical fault but it seemed very strange as the ship almost immediately began to list to one side. The glasses just slid off the table.
”We were then told to put on our life vests and head to the lifeboats just to be safe but there was a real panic onboard you could see it in the faces of the people especially those with young families.
”Then a few minutes later there were seven whistles which meant everyone had to get in the lifeboats.”
Another passenger Mara Parmegiani said: ”It was just like something out of the Titanic. You could tell straight away that the ship had hit something and no way was it an electrical fault.”
The Costa Concordia had left the port of Civitavecchia at 7pm local time on Friday and was sailing to Savona, its first port of call, when disaster struck at around 9pm.
Costa Cruises confirmed that about 3,200 passengers – 52 reportedly children under the age of six – were onboard along with around 1,000 crew members.
A webcam on the company’s website showed the position of the ship with a caption reading: ”Data transmission is temporarily suspended.”
Officials initially said the liner was listing at an angle of 20 degrees but it was not in danger of sinking. Hours later and it was on an 80 degree angle, with half the ship submerged under water.
Philip Metcalfe, the British father of one of the ship’s crew, told Sky News how he was relieved to hear from his daughter, who is a dancer onboard, to say she was OK.
He said she had described “pretty chaotic” scenes as people went into a panic – and how she had to use a fire hose to escape.
Many of the passengers and crew were taken to the mainland port of Porto Santo Stefano where they are staying in schools, churches and other public buildings.
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.
The £450m Costa Concordia is one of the biggest ships in the Costa cruise fleet. It has 1,500 cabins and was at the start of a seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean.
Costa Cruises said in a statement: “Our first thoughts go to the victims and we would like to express our condolences and our closeness to their families and friends.
“In this moment all our efforts are focused on the completion of the last emergency operations, besides providing assistance to the guests and the crew who were onboard.”
It added: “The company will fully co-operate with the relevant authorities in order to determine the causes of what happened.”
:: Concerned family and friends of passengers who were on the ship are urged to call the Foreign Office on 0207 008 1500 or the British Embassy in Rome on (+39) 064 2200 001.