(PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy) — A crew member of a luxury liner that hit a reef off the Italian coast and toppled over was hoisted to safety by helicopter on Sunday morning, and a honeymooning couple was rescued from their cabin overnight as officials scrambled to locate other missing people and threatened to charge the ship’s captain with manslaughter.
Three people died when the Costa Concordia struck a reef and sank onto its side off of the small island of Giglio, Italy, early Saturday. The U.S. embassy in Rome said none of the 126 Americans on board the ship are among those who were seriously injured.
Seventeen people remained unaccounted for — 11 passengers and six crew members, Tuscany’s regional president, Enrico Rossi, told reporters. The number was reduced from an earlier estimate of 40 unaccounted for.
The gleaming ship was carrying 4,234 passengers and crew when it struck rocks off Italy’s west coast during the night, tearing a 160-foot long gash in the hull.
Investigators now believe the ship was dangerously close to the shore and hit a rock that the captain claims was unmarked.
The captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino, is now in custody, facing possible charges with manslaughter and abandoning his ship.
Passengers heard a loud bang around 9:15 p.m. and then a blackout. Minutes later, an announcement from the crew said it was merely an eletrical problem. But with the ship tilting, many passengers ignored their orders and scrambled to the deck. Vacationers reported the crew did not want to lower the lifeboats. Many reported forcing their way on against orders. Some were lowered, but not everyone got on.
By 11 p.m., the ship was tilting too much to its side and many lifeboats couldn’t be lowered. Many of the ship’s occupants jumped in to the icy waters to make a swim for it, and at least 50 people had to be airlifted by helicopter.
Schettino was detained by authorities and questioned along with the ship’s first bridge officer, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. ANSA said the captain could face criminal charges.
The agency reported that Schettino could be charged with abandoning ship since he reportedly left the stricken vessel about 12:30 a.m., while many passengers didn’t get safely off the ship until 6 a.m.
American Mark Plath, who had leaped off the ship and swam to rocks, told Sky Italia that he was woken up by loudspeakers shortly before 11 p.m. saying there was a power outage, but not to worry about it. About a half hour later, another announcement said they were still working on the power outage, but he noticed the ship was listing about 15 degrees.
When he went outside, he found about 500 people on the fourth floor deck.
“We were trying to get outside. People had children with them, people were pushing, people were yelling, people were pushing back. It was difficult to stay in control because so many people were upset,” Plath said.
“Have you seen ‘Titanic?’ That’s exactly what it was,” said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles. She and sister and parents all had dark red bruises on their knees from crawling along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells to reach rescue boats.
“We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing,” her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61 said. “We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls.”
She said an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side and the family found themselves standing on a wall.
“He said ‘take my baby,'” Mrs. Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand as she teared up. “I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn’t want the baby to fall down the stairs. I gave the baby back. I couldn’t hold her.”
Many of those who arrived on shore with blankets covering their elegant, but not very warm, dinner clothes, lashed out at the ship’s crew.
“They are without shame! Without shame!” one passenger shouted after making it to land.
UPDATE: Scuba divers reportedly found on Sunday two more bodies on the luxury liner that hit a reef off the Italian coast and toppled over, bringing the death toll in the disaster to five people.
The divers found the bodies in the submerged part of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, the Italian news outlet Ansa reported.
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Catherine E. Shoichet, Max Blau and Steve Almasy, CNN
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