VALERIE: We talked and prayed on that railing, waiting for the water to come, waiting to die. Yet I just couldn’t understand that there wasn’t some way out. It was like half of me was at peace with the idea of death and the other half was in total denial.
Dad took his cell phone out, even though it didn’t have service, thinking that maybe by some miracle we might get a call out to Debbie to tell her goodbye. One of the strangest things was that none of us was crying. It had to be unbelievably hard for my parents to think of leaving Debbie, and I know they were worried that Cindy or I would die first and they would have to see it. But they stayed strong and just kept telling us how much they loved us.
DEAN: When the water didn’t come, I thought, What in the world is going on here? What I didn’t know was that the ship had come to rest on rocks. I later learned we had drifted out to sea after our initial collision, but a steady wind had blown us back, so that when we rolled on our side, the shore broke our fall. Some people might call that luck, but our family knows it was a miracle.
Finally, we decided to get off the railing and find out what was happening. We had to jump to the deck below. Then we noticed a group of people moving toward the ship’s bow.
Walking on a wall that has become a floor is harder than it sounds. For instance, there were windows, and while they probably could have supported our weight, we weren’t chancing it, so we had to keep maneuvering around. We used our own saliva to activate the lights on our life jackets so we could see better.
Once we got closer to the crowd, we saw an extension ladder rising toward the sky. Now, this is hard to envision, but basically, if the ship had been upright, the ladder would have been lying along the ground, stretching from one side of the deck to the other and sticking out a little into one of the holes where a lifeboat had been. But since the deck was now the wall, the last few rungs were sticking up into the air.
Men were shoving women and children aside, and older people were being trampled. This ladder was the only way to get up onto the side of the ship and possibly out.
Valerie and Cindy couldn’t stand watching the kids being pushed mercilessly out of the way, so they muscled their way to the front and got as many children up the ladder as they could. Once they had all the kids up, it was their turn. The girls looked our way, but Georgia told them not to worry about us. We had lived our lives and wanted them to save themselves. We would get up the ladder if we could, but they needed to not waste any more time.
The girls firmly said, “No!” Either we all went or none of us went. In order to keep things moving, we agreed. Georgia climbed up, but then I noticed more parents with kids, so I let them go ahead.
When I finally got on the ladder, I could hear Cindy yelling from above, “That’s my dad!” I had no idea whom she was talking to until I got near the top and saw a couple of German fellows helping people. They told us to head toward the stern, the highest point on the ship.
As people got off the ladder, some were heading right (like us), but most went left. We later learned that a rope ladder had been set up on the left side to get everyone down to waiting lifeboats. But at the time, we didn’t know that.
We climbed through another metal railing and found ourselves high up on the slippery outer side of the ship in frigid winter weather.
CINDY: As our group of about 15 got closer to the highest point, we turned and looked out. If I had to guess, I’d say we were eight to ten stories up. It was dark, but there were lights from boats and helicopters, which I assume were part of the rescue operation. We sat there, way up in the air, shivering in the wind and mist.
Mom was really upset about the helicopters not seeing us. We waved our arms and yelled, but it didn’t do any good. The worst part was being so close to rescue but feeling so far away.
DEAN: After about an hour, one of our fellow passengers decided we needed to make our way back down toward the middle, where it looked like a lifeboat had gotten up close enough for people to jump on. He seemed pretty excited about it. I remember noticing that he had on a dark jacket and dark pants, which looked kind of like a uniform, so I asked, “Are you a crew member?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m an architect from Vienna.” I should have figured he was a passenger because not once had we encountered a crew member taking charge of anything. But this passenger was stepping up and doing what needed to be done, just like the two German fellows had done at the top of the ladder and like Val and Cindy had done at the bottom of the ladder.
The plan was to scoot down to an area a little ways below us, crawl across a small strip between the openings where the lifeboats had been, make our way across to the middle of the ship, then use thin ropes that hung down the side of the ship to guide us lower until we were close enough to jump into the lifeboat.
Georgia told me later that she thought there was no way she could do it. We knew that one slip could plunge us into the water. But she quickly realized that if she wanted off the ship, she had no choice.
Finally, we found ourselves directly above a lifeboat. About this time we noticed the first crew member we had seen since being ordered off the first lifeboat. What amazed us most of all was that he was taking a smoke break. There he sat, on the side of the ship, at 2:30 in the morning, calmly having a cigarette while passengers were trying to evacuate.
We grabbed the nearest rope and got ourselves down to the lifeboat. Together we had survived.
After more chaos and insufficient provisions on land, the Ananias family finally made it home, but 32 passengers died. Last summer, five employees of the Carnival cruise ship line, which owned the Costa Concordia, were convicted of manslaughter. The captain, who claimed he fell overboard and landed in a lifeboat shortly after giving the abandon-ship signal, and who refused to reboard when ordered to do so by the Coast Guard, will be tried separately. A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the Ananias family and 100 other passengers is still pending.
Excerpted from the book S.O.S. Spirit of Survival. The book will be available exclusively on thebooknook.com on October 22, and everywhere books are sold on October 29, 2013.
On September 17, 2013, engineers successfully lifted the severely damaged Costa Concordia from the water near Giglio. According to CNN, the effort took 500 workers from 26 different countries. Watch below for more information, and click here for incredible footage of the disaster and its aftermath: