A risky search by divers of the sunken, water-filled half of the ship for the missing was suspended at darkness Saturday night.
The trapped survivors were found more than 24 hours after the ship ran aground and lurched violently.
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 traveling 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 3-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.”
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 too 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.
Despite some early reports that the captain was dining with passengers when his ship crashed into the reef, he was on the bridge, Onorato said.
“The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona,” a shaken-looking Onorato told reporters on Giglio, a popular vacation isle off Italy’s central west coast.
He said the captain was an 11-year Costa veteran and that the cruise line was cooperating with Italian investigators to find out what went wrong.
Malcolm Latarche, editor of maritime magazine IHS Fairplay Solutions, said a loss of power coupled with a failure of backup systems could have caused the crew to lose control.