The first course had just been served in the Costa Concordia's dining room when the wine glasses, forks and plates of cuttlefish and mushrooms smashed to the ground. At the magic show in the theater, the trash cans tipped over and the theatre curtains turned on their side.

Then the hallways turned upside down, and passengers crawled on bruised knees through the dark. Others jumped alone into the cold Mediterranean Sea.

The terrifying, chaotic escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from the movie Titanic for many of the 4,000-plus passengers and crew aboard the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Italian coast late Friday and flipped on its side with a 50-metre gash in its hull. At least three people have been confirmed dead and about 40 remain missing.

Among the many questions that authorities will try to answer is why crew members told passengers they weren't in danger until the boat was listing perilously? The delay made lifeboat rescue eventually impossible for some of the passengers, some of whom jumped into the sea while others waited to be plucked to safety by helicopters.

"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, from Pretoria, South Africa. "It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."

Van Dijk said the boat he was on — on the upended port side — got stuck along the ship's wall as it came down. "It was a hell of a sound, the crunching," he recalled.


'We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls.' — Georgia Ananias, whose family survived the disaster

Passengers described a scene of frantic confusion. Silverware, plates and glasses crashed down from the dining room's upper floor balcony, children wailed and darkened hallways upended themselves. Panicked passengers slipped on broken glass as the lights went out while crew members insisted nothing serious was wrong.

"Have you seen Titanic? That's exactly what it was," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was travelling with her sister and parents. They all bore dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells, trying 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 choked up as she remembered the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their three-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship listed to the side.

"He said,'Take my baby,"' Georgia Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand. "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."

Whispered her daughter Valerie: "I wonder where they are."

Shimmied down rope

The Ananias family was among the last passengers off the ship, left standing on the upended port side. They were forced to exit from a still-attached lifeboat that became impossible to use once the ship began to tip over; so they climbed a ladder dropped to them off a deck and shimmied down a rope to a waiting rescue vessel.

"We thought we were dying four times," Valerie said, recounting the most terrifying moments in their escape.

A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia's captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef. Italian coast guard officials said the circumstances were still unclear, but that the ship hit an unknown obstacle.

Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate the ship and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.

'Technical problem'

Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Seasoned cruisers knew better and went to get their life jackets from their cabins and report to their "muster stations," the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

Miriam Vitale, a hostess on the cruise liner who disembarked earlier this week in Palermo, told SkyTG24 the ship conducts a drill every 15 days.

"No one counted us, neither in the life boats or on land," said Ophelie Gondelle, 28, a French military officer from Marseille. She said there had been no evacuation drill since she boarded in France on Jan. 8.

Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbour as she waited for a bus to take her somewhere, though she she didn't know where. She wore her grey cashmere sweater and a silk scarf with a large pair of hiking boats loaned to her by an islander after she lost her shoes in the scramble. Her passport, credit cards and phone were left in her cabin.

Hammer, 65, said the ship lurched to the side as she ate an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad on her first night aboard her first cruise, a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.

"We heard a crash. Glasses and plates fell down and we went out of the dining room and we were told it wasn't anything dangerous," she said.


Rescuers in an inflatable boat approach the Costa Concordia cruise ship on Saturday night. The vessel with more than 4,000 people aboard ran aground off the west coast of Italy on Friday night. (Remo Casilli/Reuters )