GIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) - Passengers had just settled down to a relaxed dinner when the first shock was felt, launching them into a terrifying ordeal as their liner flipped over off the coast of Italy.
“We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the lights went off,” said passenger Luciano Castro, describing the first moments after the giant liner Costa Concordia hit a rock.
Castro, an Italian, was one of the more than 3,200 people who had just begun a week-long cruise of the western Mediterranean.
For the 1,000-strong crew of the Costa Concordia, a floating resort that boasted seven restaurants, a dozen bars and the largest spa and biggest cinema ever built on a cruise ship, it was a routine trip conducted throughout the year.
But there was confusion that turned quickly to panic and chaos after the shock was felt among the passengers and the army of waiters, musicians and entertainers on board.
“We didn’t understand at once. We thought it was some kind of a drill, or maybe a minor accident, and that all would end in a minute,” said Ludmila Yatsyshian, a Russian passenger.
Officials believe the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, had brought the 114,500-tonne vessel too close to the shore, where it struck the rock, tearing a large gash in the hull.
He did not give an immediate order to abandon ship but made an attempted safety manoeuvre before realizing he had no choice but to evacuate as water poured in.
“He turned the prow towards the port of Giglio and cast the anchors into the water in a bid to hold the ship steady as close as possible to the coast,” a coastguard official said.
Schettino has been arrested for manslaughter after at least three people died. Prosecutors also charged him with leaving the ship around midnight, when some passengers were still on board.
After the initial impact, the lights went out and passengers were left waiting for long minutes until an announcement was made over the intercom that the ship had suffered a technical problem but there was no cause for alarm.
“After approximately 20 minutes a voice told us there was a problem with the electricity that they were trying to fix,” Castro said.
“The ship continued to tilt further. After 15 minutes they said again that it was a problem with the electricity, but no one believed it,” he said.
The ship’s big staterooms and stairwells were quickly filled with frightened passengers. Crew members, few of whom knew the Italian spoken by the largest number of passengers - nearly 1,000 - struggled to contain the rising panic as the ship began to list alarmingly.
“At the end I got to the purser and stayed close to him,” said Eleanora Venti, one of the entertainment staff who was on board to look after young children. “I said to him I am 21 years old. If I am going to die you need to tell me now.”
Cabin crew eventually began to gather people at meeting points and direct them towards lifeboats but panic was spreading quickly among passengers.
“I can easily understand the comparisons to the film, how it must have been on the Titanic, or in a fiction film,” said Francesca Sinatra, an Italian passenger.
“Panic creates disaster. There were people scrambling over each other, elderly people wetting themselves,” she said.
As the ship listed heavily, it became very difficult to lower the packed boats into the water and many frightened passengers were left waiting in cold weather for as much as two hours before they were taken off the stricken vessel.
“The rescue was awful. I mean it was very, very disorganized,” said American Alex Beach. “We had not had our master check. We did not know where to go. When we got to the side of the boat to board the rescue boats they were full.”
“It took us five tries on different boats to get on. My husband and I finally got on and we still feel so fortunate.”
As delays continued and the crush built up in the lifeboats, many passengers decided to take their fate into their own hands and swim to shore.
“We were standing and the water started coming on my feet, and I said to my wife ‘that’s it, we’re going,’” said Lawrence Davies, a passenger from South Africa.
Once in the cold water, however, they faced a new danger as the enormous ship loomed above them, listing heavily.
“I kept looking at the boat, it was coming down so I wanted to make sure I could get further away, so that if it comes it doesn’t trap us,” Davies said. “And I got on my back and I said to my wife: kick! kick! kick! swim!”
He said he saw around 100 people swim ashore in the dark and icy waters.
“There were some people who were really panicking,” said one American passenger.
“There was this girl who was just really, really worried, I guess and she was kind of like grabbing hold of some other people so it was kind of dangerous when you’re all swimming, you know people hit you in the face,” he said.
“We’re pretty adventurous and we’re very good swimmers so we weren’t worried about us four. But there was a family from France right by us with a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old and the parents and they jumped and swam just like us.”
Eventually, like most of those who jumped into the sea, they reached the island’s rocky shore and scrambled onto land, where local residents waited with blankets and hot drinks.
For those still on the lifeboats, the wait continued for much longer and even once the rescue vessels were launched, it was some time before they reached the shore.
“When we arrived in the port we got off and in a sense got abandoned as no one from the ship could actually do anything to help us,” said Castro.
“Those who did help us all night long were the Giglio Island residents,” he said.
Reporting by Reuters correspondents on the scene; writing By James Mackenzie; editing by Barry Moody