By the CNN Wire StaffSat January 14, 2012
Cruise ship runs aground off Italy
Rome (CNN) -- Italian authorities were questioning Saturday the captain of a cruise ship that ran aground, knocking the vessel on its side and killing at least three people, with dozens more missing, officials said.
The Italian captain, Francesco Schettino, was being interviewed by investigators Porto Santo Stefano on what happened when the 4,200-passenger Costa Concordia, owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises, slammed into shallow water off Italy's western coast, said officer Emilio Del Santo of the Coastal Authorities of Livorno.
Authorities are looking at why the ship didn't hail a mayday during the accident near the Italian island of Giglio on Friday night, officials said.
"At the moment we can't exclude that the ship had some kind of technical problem, and for this reason moved towards the coast in order to save the passengers, the crew and the ship. But they didn't send a mayday. The ship got in contact with us once the evacuation procedures were already ongoing," Del Santo said.
"Fear and panic are comprehensible in a ship long over 300 meters with over 4000 passengers," Del Santo said. "We can confirm that the ship has a breach on the hull of about 90 meters, and that the right side of it is completely under water."
Giuseppe Orsina, a spokesman with the local civil protection agency, said 43 to 51 persons were missing, though authorities are reviewing passenger lists to confirm the exact figure.
"These people could be still on the island of Giglio, in private houses or in hospitals," Orsina said.
The coast guard said 50 to 70 people could be missing.
Rescue teams worked through the night to evacuate more than 4,000 people from the Costa Concordia, owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises, after it ran aground off of Italy's western coast.
Authorities said earlier Saturday they believed everyone was accounted for, but that they did not have a definitive list of names.
The huge ship, which which is now lying on its side in shallow water, was carrying about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members when it ran aground at about dinner time.
Initial reports suggested as many as six people had been killed, but it was unclear why the number dropped. An additional 14 people were injured, Adm. Ilarione Dell'Anna, head of coastal authorities for the port city of Livorno, told CNN.
Passengers described how the lights went out and it then became clear the ship had hit something, prompting scenes of chaos.
Laurie Willits from Ontario, who was watching a magic show with her husband at that moment, told CNN: "We heard a scraping noise to the left of the ship and then my husband said 'we're sliding off our seats.'"
The couple ran to their cabin to get coats and life jackets before making their way to a lifeboat. Emergency instructions in English were hard to hear, Willits said.
Panic spread as people scrambled to find lifeboats in the dark as the ship quickly leaned to one side. Access to some lifeboats was hampered by the ship's tilt into the water, adding to the confusion.
Willits and her husband, who managed to get into a lifeboat about an hour to 90 minutes after the alarm was raised, watched from a pier on the island as the ship slowly sank until it was at an almost 90 degree angle in the water.
"I'm exhausted, I haven't had any sleep, I'm hungry," Willits said, but added that she was relieved to have been able to call her family thanks to the help of people on the island.
The civil protection agency in the town of Grosseto, the provincial capital, said Saturday morning that the emergency operation was still ongoing and parts of the ship remained underwater.
The coast guard said three helicopters were used to rescue some passengers from the ship.
Evacuation efforts started promptly but were made "extremely difficult" by the position of the ship, according to a statement on Costa's website. Some passengers fell into the chilly waters during the rescue, Italy's ANSA news agency reported.
Dell'Anna said an investigation is under way.
"There has probably been a technical blackout," he said. "The ship was dangerously near the coast. We worked all night in a state of maximum emergency.
"Fortunately the sea conditions have helped us, otherwise -- given the high number of people to rescue, 4,231 -- we could have had a completely different scenario: a real tragedy."
Many of those rescued in the early hours were taken to small churches and other buildings around the island for shelter.
Some were still wearing the pajamas and slippers they had on as the ship went down, as they waited for help Saturday morning at reception centers set up on the island.
One of the victims was a 65-year-old woman who died of a heart attack, according to authorities.
Costa said it was focusing on the final stages of the emergency operation and helping passengers and crew return home.
"It is a tragedy that deeply affects our company. Our first thoughts go to the victims and we would like to express our condolences and our closeness to their families and friends," Costa said on its website.
The Concordia, built in 2006, was on a Mediterranean cruise from Rome with stops in Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo, according to the cruise line. It was unclear how far into the cruise the grounding occurred.
Most of the passengers on board were Italian, as well as some French and German citizens. CNN affiliate America Noticias, in Peru, said a group of 32 Peruvians were also onboard.
Another Costa ship was involved in a deadly 2010 accident when the Costa Europa crashed into a pier in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh during stormy weather, killing three crew members.