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Saturday, January 14, 2012

At least three dead and 4,200 panicked passengers and crew evacuated after luxury cruise liner carrying Britons sinks off coast of Italy

-Costa Concordia developed electrical fault two hours after leaving port
-Three bodies recovered from water and 4,200 passengers and crew evacuated
-One victim, 65, died from heart attack following shock of cold water
-Passengers 'forced to leap into the water to swim to safety'
-Liner had listed so badly 'lifeboats had difficulty being launched'
-24 Britons on board but none believed to have died or been injured

By Emily Allen

Tragedy: A terrified passenger said it was 'like a scene from the Titanic' as the ship began to sink and people were ordered into lifeboats and airlifted to safety

Three people were killed and more than 4,000 passengers and crew were rescued last night after a packed cruise liner began capsizing off the Italian coast after running aground.

Twenty-four British holidaymakers were on the Costa Concordia which had left port at 7pm for a seven-day Mediterranean Cruise - but within two hours, it ran aground in the sea with a major electrical fault.

The 13 deck liner then began to take on water after hitting rocks creating a 160ft gash in the hull, near the island of Giglio, off the Tuscan coast,

Passengers said the ship had begun to sink so much it was difficult to launch lifeboats, while some said they saw holiday-makers leaping into the water to swim to safety.

Damage: The luxury cruise liner lies virtually flat, its right-hand side submerged in the water. The huge whole in the hull is clearly visible

At least three bodies have been recovered from the sea, although earlier estimates suggested eight were dead. Fourteen people are believed to have minor injuries such as bruising.

The Foreign Office said it was not aware of any injuries or fatalities to Britons.

Among the dead was a man around age 65, who officials believe may not have been able to withstand the cold of the sea at night.

Submerged: Passengers said it was difficult to launch lifeboats as they ship had listed so much but fortunately ferries arrived to rescue them

Collision: Rocks emerge from the damaged side the Costa Concordia revealing the extent of the damage to the hull

Close-up: A woman looks at the cruise ship as it lies half in the water off the coast of Italy. Three people have been killed

It is thought that the death toll may still rise and there are believed to be at least three other unconfirmed fatalities.

Terrified passengers were ordered to put on life vests and man life boats as the 850ft-long luxury 'floating palace', which costs up to £1,200 a night, began to list heavily to one side.

Helicopters plucked to safety some 50 people who were trapped on the liner.

Waiting game: A passenger took this photo of a group of passengers in life-jackets on board the liner as they waited to be rescued

Darkness: The hull of the massive Costa Concordia was damaged as it ran aground and water began pouring in

'We were having dinner aboard when we heard a loud noise, like that of the keel being dragged over something,' passenger Luciano Castro told Italian state radio.

The lights went out 'and there were scenes of panic, glasses falling to the floor,' he said.

Another passenger Mara Parmegiani said '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.

Disaster: The Costa Concordia lies partly submerged this morning after hitting rocks. So passengers were rescued by helicopter

Worried: Passengers in life jackets, blankets and coats arrive on the ferry this morning following the disaster off the coast of Tuscany last night

Rescue: A Carabinieri boat approaches the Costa Concordia as it lies partly submerged in the water off the coast of Tuscany

About half of the vessel on the left-hand side is underwater. Terrified passengers were ordered to put on life vests and man life boats as the 850ft-long luxury floating palace began to list heavily to one side

She was wearing elegant dinner clothes — a cashmere sweater, a silk scarf — along with a large pair of hiking boots, which an islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape, along with her passport, credit cards and phone.

Hammer, 65, said 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.

Rescue workers help a woman at Porto Santo Stefano, after the cruise ship began sinking last night. No Britons are believed to have been injured or killed

Three passengers huddle in blankets as they arrive on a ferry in Porto Santo Stefano. Twenty-four Britons were on board

The passengers were 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.

The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular holiday isle about 18 miles off Italy's central west coast.

The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny island of Giglio, a popular holiday isle about 18 miles off Italy's central west coast

Distressed: Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano visibly upset by the tragedy including this woman, right

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.

'It was terrible,' Hammer said, as German and Spanish tourists were about to board buses at the port.

Fabio Costa, who worked in a shop on the stricken cruise ship, said a number of people were jumping into the sea to swim ashore.

Rescue workers helps a woman as she is lead to safety at Porto Santo Stefano. Lifeboats had difficulty launching

A police officer holds a baby wrapped in a blanket, left, while distressed passengers huddle in blankets after being rescued from the sinking liner

Describing the moment the boat began to list, he told BBC Breakfast: 'We were all working and all of a sudden we felt the boat hitting something and everything just started to fall, all the glasses broke and everybody started to panic and run.

'We could only feel that the boat had hit something, we had no idea how serious it was until we got out and we looked through the window and we saw the water getting closer and closer. Everything happened really, really fast and we saw the water coming in.'

Mr Costa said that once the emergency alarm was set off people started to panic and push each other in a bid to get into lifeboats.

'A lot of people were falling down the stairs and were hurt because things fell on them,' he added.

The worker said it took the crew a long time to launch the lifeboats as the vessel had listed so much.

He said: 'We just saw a huge rock, that was probably where the ship hit, and people were having huge trouble trying to get on the lifeboats.

'So at that point we didn't know what to do so it took hours for people to get off the ship.

'It was easier for people to jump into the sea because we were on the same level as that water so some people pretty much just decided to swim as they were not able to get on the lifeboats.'

As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the ship's interior was being conducted to see if anyone might have been trapped inside.

Terrified: Passengers are seen in a rescue boat of the stranded cruise ship Costa Concordia near the island of Giglio wearing orange life vests

Coastguard officials confirmed that 3,200 passengers were onboard at the time along with 1,000 crew members and all had been evacuated by lifeboat and taken to the island of Giglio

Operation: Rescue boats of the stranded cruise ship Costa Concordia arrive in the harbour and dozens of passengers are pictured on the quayside

Coast Guard Commander Francesco Paolillo said: 'No one is leaning out, shouting, calling that they need help, but until the inspection is completed, we won't know.'

'There are some 2,000 cabins, and the ship isn't straight.
'I'll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it.'

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