A luxury cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, sending water pouring in through a 160-foot (50-meter) gash in the hull and forcing the evacuation of some 4,200 people from the listing vessel early Saturday, the Italian coast guard said.
Three bodies were recovered from the sea, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo. There were reports that three other people had died after the accident late Friday night near the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, but those reports were not yet confirmed, he said.
Twelve hours after the accident, the ship was lying virtually flat, its right-hand side submerged in the water.
Passengers complained the crew failed to give instructions on how to evacuate the Costa Concordia and that the evcauation drill was only scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Authorities still hadn't counted all the survivors.
"It was so unorganized, our evacuation drill was scheduled for 5 p.m.," said Melissa Goduti, 28, of Wallingford, Connecticut, who had set out on the cruise of the Mediterranean hours earlier. "We had joked what if something had happened today."
Helicopters plucked to safety some 50 people who were trapped on the ship after it listed so badly they couldn't launch lifeboats, Paolillo told The Associated Press in Rome by telephone from his command in the Tuscan port city of Livorno.
Passenger Mara Parmegiani, a journalist, told the ANSA news agency that "it was like a scene from the Titanic."
Survivor Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, after stepping off a ferry from Giglio. She was wearing elegant dinner clothes — a cashmere sweater, a silk scarf — along with a large pair of hiking boots, which a kind islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape, along with her passport, credit cards and phone.
Hammer, 65, told The Associated Press that she was eating her first course, an appetizer of squid, on her first night aboard her first-ever cruise, which was a gift to her and her husband, Gert, from her local church where she volunteers.
Suddenly, "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.
The passengers were then instructed to put on life jackets and take to the life rafts but, Hammer said, they couldn't get into the boats because the cruise liner was tilting so much the boats couldn't be lowered into the cold, night sea. The passengers were eventually rescued by one of several boats in the area that came to their aid.
"It was terrible," Hammer said, as German and Spanish tourists were about to board buses at the port.
"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.
As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the 290-meter (950-foot) long ship's interior was being conducted to see if anyone might have been trapped inside, Paolillo said.
"There are some 2,000 cabins, and the ship isn't straight," Paolillo said, referring to the Concordia's dramatic more than 45-degree tilt on its right side. "I'll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it."
Some Concordia crew members were still aboard to help the coast guard rescuers, he said.
Paolillo said it wasn't immediately known if the dead were passengers or crew, nor were the nationalities of the victims immediately known. It wasn't clear how they died.
Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported in grave condition.
Paolillo said the Concordia was believed to have set sail with 3,206 passengers and 1,023 crew members.
Some passengers, apparently in panic, had jumped off the boat into the sea, a Tuscany-based government official, Grosseto prefect Giuseppe Linardi, was quoted as saying. Authorities were trying to obtain a full passenger and crew list from Costa, so they could do a roll call to determine who might be missing.
The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular vacation isle about 18 miles (25 kilometers) off Italy's central west coast. Those evacuated by helicopter were flown to Grosseto, while others, rescued by local ferries pressed into emergency service, took survivors to the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.
Passengers sat dazed in a middle school opened for them, wrapped in woolen blankets with some wearing their life preservers and their shoeless feet covered with aluminum foil.
Survivors far outnumbered Giglio's 1,500 residents, and island Mayor Sergio Ortelli issued an appeal for islanders -- "anyone with a roof" to open their homes to shelter the evacuees.
Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in northwestern Italy.
The coast guard official, speaking from the port captain's office in the Tuscan port of Livorno, said the vessel "hit an obstacle" — it wasn't clear if it might have hit a rocky reef in the waters off Giglio — "ripping a gash 50 meters (160 feet) across" in the side of the ship, and started taking on water.
The cruise liner's captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio's small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier.
But after the ship started listing badly, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible, Paolillo said.
Five helicopters, from the coast guard, navy and air force, were taking turns airlifting survivors still aboard and ferrying them to safely. A coast guard member was airlifted aboard the vessel to help people get aboard a small basket so they could be hoisted up to the helicopter, said Capt. Cosimo Nicastro, another Coast Guard official.
Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, starting from Civitavecchia with scheduled calls to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.
It 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 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.
D'Emilio reported from Rome.