VALERIE: I knew I wouldn’t breathe easy until the lifeboat was lowered into the water. We had been listing more and more, and I had this bad feeling that when the time came, they wouldn’t be able to lower the boat, because the ship was tilted too far and its side would be in the way.
Each lifeboat held about 100 people. We saw other boats launch, but for some reason, it took longer to load ours. Then a crew member got on and told us we had to count ourselves off, in English, while we waited to be lowered. But most of the passengers didn’t speak English, and we could barely get through a few numbers before someone would get lost and not know what number came next. Maybe if we had done a muster drill, we’d have understood the system, but all this did was waste precious time.
Finally, they started trying to lower our boat, but it hit and scraped against the side of the ship. They made several attempts using a long pole to try to push us far enough away to launch us safely, but each attempt resulted in more scraping, and the danger of the boat flipping over was too great. Eventually someone yelled, “Stop!” And I knew in that instant that we weren’t going to make it off.
GEORGIA: Obviously, people who’ve fled a sinking ship don’t want to hear they have to get back on. So when we weren’t moving fast enough, two crew members started grabbing and yanking us. The deck was now sharply angled, and I slid and slammed into the bulkhead. I saw one woman severely twist her ankle, but there was no way to help her, because it was too difficult to stand. People were screaming and crying, and I remember saying to myself, You’re never going to be able to help all of them. I had to concentrate on saving my family.
DEAN: We were on the port side of the ship, and we heard that lifeboats were still being launched from the starboard side. Could everyone who’d been thrown off our lifeboat get over there in time?
After much confusion, we started inching toward a corridor that led to the starboard side. We got about a third of the way when we heard glasses breaking and plates crashing. All at once the ship rolled even more, and people were screaming. Clearly it wasn’t safe to continue down the corridor, so I told my family we had to give up trying to reach the other side and instead get to the highest point.
CINDY: The climb back up to the deck was exhausting. Picture one of those steep concrete highway embankments and imagine trying to walk up it in the pitch dark. Finally, we emerged back on deck—except the most recent roll had turned the deck into a wall, and the wall had become the floor. About nine or ten feet up the deck (now wall) was a railing. I thought if my family boosted me up there, I could help them next.
I grasped two rails like a kid on monkey bars, swinging my feet to get up. Then I leaned down and told my sister, “Give me your hand!” Next we both pulled Mom up. We didn’t think we could grab Dad, so he jumped.
Looking back, I’m amazed at our physical feats. Everyone in our family is in decent shape, but we don’t climb mountains or run obstacle courses. I’m incredibly proud that we never let fear or self-doubt stand between us and survival.
VALERIE: Once we were all balanced on the railing, looking down at the bulkhead below (much like Jack and Rose did in Titanic), we turned our attention to the stairwell. I think we had all been desperately hoping we could find some exit that would take us straight to the water level and we could just swim for it. Another passenger went to check, then yelled that there was no way out.
I looked at my dad, the Navy veteran, and what I saw was heartbreaking. I had obviously known we were in a dire situation, but the look on Dad’s face made it all the more real. He knew the ship was rolling over. He knew that when we capsized, we would be trapped underwater with a cruise ship forcing us down to the bottom of the sea. I could tell he was trying to be strong and not worry us, but his face said this was the end. I started saying the Creed, the Greek Orthodox prayer we had said so many times in church.
Next: “We waved our arms and yelled for help, but it didn’t do any good” »