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Costa Cruises said about 1,000 Italian passengers were onboard, as well as more than 500 Germans, about 160 French and about 1,000 crew members. The State Department said about 126 U.S. citizens were onboard.

Coast guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm aboard went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia to Savona, in northwestern Italy. No SOS was sent, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The vessel “hit an obstacle,” that tore a 50-meter (160 feet) gash in the side of the ship and started taking on water, Paolillo said. It wasn’t clear if the obstacle was a jagged, rocky reef or something else, he said.

The captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio’s small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier.

Five helicopters from the coast guard, navy and air force took turns airlifting survivors still aboard and ferrying them to safety.

Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a weeklong cruise across the Mediterranean Sea that began Jan. 7 in Savona with stops at Civitavecchia, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.

The Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters, ANSA reported. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port’s dock, and suffered damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.

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D’Emilio reported from Rome; contributing to this report were David Stringer in London, Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru and Curt Anderson in Miami.