A Calgary couple who evacuated from the cruise ship that ran aground off the coast of Italy on Friday night describe the experience as absolute "pandemonium."

Laurence and Andrea Davis, who have lived in Calgary since 1997 but are originally from South Africa, were among the 12 Canadians on board the stricken vessel. All were able to get off the ship unscathed.

The couple had decided to celebrate Laurence’s 60th birthday by setting sail on the Costa Concordia and boarded the cruise ship in Barcelona on Jan. 9. They said the first four days were "absolutely fantastic."

"Everything was going pretty smooth until Friday the 13th," said Laurence Davis. "We call it unlucky Friday the 13th, but in my case it's lucky Friday the 13th because I’m still alive."

si-calgary-couple-300

Calgary couple Laurence and Andrea Davis had to swim for their lives after the cruise ship they were on capsized off the coast of Italy. (Facebook)

The couple had just arrived for the second sitting of supper on Friday, ordered a bottle of wine and received their appetizers.

"We were finishing starters about 9:30 p.m. and there was a loud bang and a shudder," he said. "All the electricity in the boat went off, and everything went into total darkness and then the lights came back on, which we assumed was the emergency generator kicking in," said Davis.

He said they were told to relax, and were just sitting and waiting when the ship started listing to starboard.

'Everything's under control'

"All the plates started flying all over," he said.

They grabbed what they could and ran for shelter under the second tier of the dining room to avoid the flying bottles and glass.

Around 9:45 p.m. they were told to head to a safe area in the middle of the ship and to wait for further instruction.

At roughly 10:40 p.m., the couple started asking what was happening.

"There were a lot of announcements in different languages, English too," he said, adding that many people had started to panic.

There was confusion about what was going and there were reports of an electrical problem.

"The announcements [were] saying [there was] no problem, everything's under control and everything will be good," said Davis.

Costa Cruises history

  • 2010: Two collisions, power failure blamed.
  • 2009: Engine problems, fire in generator room.
  • 2008: Almost collided with car transporter.

Panic sets in with passengers

"Then eventually came the sound of what they teach you, it's a long, like, seven beeps: Beep beep beep beep beep beep and then it goes beeeeeeeeep, and that means abandon ship," Davis said. 

"Then of course more pandemonium broke out, people were rushing to the decks and screaming for children and family, and then on the decks it was pathetic — people were fighting, you know, that was survival mode. But there was no order ... there was no instructions of what was going on, the emergency service was pathetic."

Davis said roughly half the lifeboats couldn’t be lowered quickly enough, and they were trying to limit the number of people getting into them. The couple were shuffled from station to station and eventually managed to get some life-jackets.

si-ship-italy-300

The luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia lies on its side after it ran aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy. (Andrea Sinibaldi/AP)

They were forced to wait again as the ship was starting to list badly — at an angle of more than 45 degrees. The passengers were then asked to go to the other side of the ship, which was sinking toward the water.

"Some [people] would just come sliding and knock your legs from beneath you, and people were just smashing against the sides of the boat, and people were breaking limbs," Davis said. "One lady had her face smashed in."

The couple held on to each other and helped an elderly woman who could only speak German. They were accompanied by roughly 60 people. They managed to get their hands on inflatable barrels, but the only one they managed to inflate got caught under the arm of a beam on the ship.

‘We have to make a decision’

Davis said just after midnight the two started to panic.

"I thought to myself, that’s it for us. Like what’s going to happen? We have to make a decision," he said.

The water started rising, and within two minutes it was covering their feet.

"I said to my wife Andrea, I said, 'Come Andy, we’ve got to go,'" before jumping into the water.

Fortunately, the sinking ship provided shelter from the currents, but the water was quite cold, he said.

si-divers-ship-01947061

Italian Navy scuba divers approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia. Divers rescued a crew member from the ship on Sunday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

"So I just held her with my one arm, and swimming with my other arm, and kicking, but I was just finding it very uncomfortable," he said, adding he could see "the boat tipping towards us."

Couple desperately swims for shore

"I just said, ‘Kick Andy! Kick! Swim! We’ve got our children to look forward to!’ And I just pushed and pushed, and eventually I just saw the boat coming down and said 'We’ve got to clear this or we’re going to drown.'"

They eventually made it to solid ground and climbed on some rocks. 

"I didn’t have the strength anymore. I was tired from the swimming. The swim to the shore was about 80 to 100 metres, I would estimate," he said. "I know looking back now with the ship lying there it looks like it was just a walk to this, but believe me it wasn’t."

The couple finally reached the top of the rocks, where they sat and turned to watch the ship.

"It just rested, and that’s where it stopped," said Davis.

He said they were joined by roughly 30 other people who had made the swim to shore, and at that time he broke down because he was worried about the other passengers. 

map-italy-google

Google

"On the boat I kept pretty calm, but when I got to the top of that island the emotions just broke out," said Davis, adding he was happy to be alive and that he would be able to see his children again.

Davis said locals from the island of Giglio came to help them, taking them to a village school where they saw that the German woman had also made it safely to shore.

He said he was upset that the ship's crew kept saying everything was under control when that wasn't the case. Davis also said he thought there would have been less panic if an evacuation had been started sooner.

Laurence and Andrea Davis are expected to return to Calgary Monday night.