At least five people have been killed and up to 70 others injured as an Italian cruise liner with over 4,000 people on board hit a reef off the Italian coast. The rescue operation is underway with at least 17 missing.
Over 4,000 people, including 3,200 passengers, have immediately been evacuated to safety, while coast guard officers struggled to rescue 200 others stuck on the ship, AFP news agency reports. Rescue teams used helicopters with spotlights to locate the stranded passengers.
At the moment 11 passengers and six crew are unaccounted for, AP reports.
Italian authorities said that they have recovered three bodies from the sea. Two more bodies were found aboard the cruise ship, in the submerged restaurant. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, three of the dead were identified as two French passengers and a crewman from Peru. One of the victims is a 70-year-old man, who did not survive the shock of jumping into icy water from the listing liner.
Reports on the number of people injured range from 20 to 70. Most of them sustained broken limbs, bruises and hypotermia; at least two people are said to be in a serious condition, AP news agency reports.
According to the Russian Embassy in Genoa, none of the 108 Russian tourists on board the ship was hurt in the incident. As the evacuated tourists were taken to hotels, it turned out that most of them had lost their passports, as cruise rules assign foreign IDs to be kept in the receptionist’s safe on the ship.
The 290-meter-long Costa Concordia, on a cruise from Civitavecchia port near Rome to Marseille, hit a sandbar at about 8pm local time near the island of Giglio while the passengers were having dinner. The ship was three hours into the voyage to Savona, its first port of call in northwestern Italy.
"We were having supper when the lights suddenly went out, we heard a boom and a groaning noise, and all the cutlery fell on the floor," passenger Luciano Castro was quoted by ANSA news agency as saying.
Some passengers reportedly jumped off the ship into the water. "It was like a scene from Titanic," passenger Mara Parmegiani was quoted by AFP as saying.
Watch video with first hours of rescue operation
Passengers complained they were not instructed properly on how they should evacuate in case of emergency and said that the evacuation drill was scheduled only for Saturday afternoon.
"It was so unorganized. Our evacuation drill was scheduled for 5pm," American passenger Melissa Goduti was quoted by AP as saying." We had joked ‘what if something had happened today?’"
With the ship tilting too far, many failed to get on life rafts as they simply would not reach the cold water, survivor Christine Hammer told Agence France Presse. The passengers were eventually rescued by boats in the area which came to their aid.
The ship is now reportedly out of danger of sinking, with one of its sides lying on the sandbar it hit. Scuba divers are searching its lower decks to try and locate more passengers. According to RIA Novosti news agency, the vessel has sustained up to a 70-meter (229-foot) gash in the hull.
It is too early to say what exactly has happened, remarks Francesco Paolill, a local coast guard official.
"We think this happened as a result of sailing too close to an obstacle like a reef," he added.
A local prosecutor in Grosetto, Italy, says the Concordia's captian, Francesco Schettino, was arrested on Saturday evening and will be investigated for manslaughter and abandoning ship. Schettino mantains the ship has hit an unmapped rock.
Still, experts interviewed by Itar-Tass news agency suggest a command mistake may be behind the accident, as the modern navigation systems of the Concordia would have detected any reef. But they praise captain’s maneuvers in putting the ship on a sandbank in order to avoid sinking.
This is not the first accident involving the Concordia. In 2008, the cruise ship smashed against the Sicilian port’s dock in rough winds, but, says ANSA news agency, nobody was injured in that incident.