Aboard the Costa Concordia: One Family’s Nightmare

Our family vacation aboard the Costa Concordia went terribly wrong. Here’s what it felt like to almost go down with the ship.

Costa Concordia
Laura Lezza/Getty Images

On January 13, 2012, the Ananias family—Dean, 66, Georgia, 63, and their daughters Valerie, 32, and Cindy, 25, of Los Angeles—set off on a dream cruise aboard the luxurious Costa Concordia. (A third daughter, Debbie, 30, had just gotten married and was not on board.) Carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, the enormous vessel left Rome for what was to be a seven-day cruise, visiting ports in Italy, Spain, and France. Instead, the ship slammed into rocks on the first night. As the scene
on board turned to mayhem, here’s how one family survived:

DEAN: While we were sitting in the dining room that first night, the theme song from the movie Titanic began playing. I remember Georgia commenting that maybe this wasn’t the best song to play on a cruise ship! Turns out she was more right than she knew.

A short while later, as we were eating our salads, we heard rumbling, and the ship started vibrating like a mini-earthquake. Next came a loud bang, and the lights flashed. The guy next to us got up and bolted for the door, with his wife hurrying behind. The table on the other side of us was a mess of screaming kids. Over the PA system, we heard an announcement, which at first we couldn’t understand. After sitting through Italian, French, and German versions, we finally got the English one and learned that we had “nothing to fear” because this was just an “electrical problem.” Meanwhile, the ship was starting to tilt, and things were falling off the upper level.

Panicked passengers were pushing and shoving their way out of the dining room, sliding on the slanting floor. We waited for the stampede to clear so we could avoid getting separated.

CINDY: People were freaking out in various languages, rushing for the doors. A waiter motioned for us to take the service stairs up to the lifeboat deck. Things weren’t much better up there. Normally on cruises, there’s a muster drill the first day, where the crew shows you what to do in an emergency. But there had been no drill on this cruise, and now there was zero organization.

My sister Val was convinced we had hit something. She asked Dad, who had been in the Navy, how much time we’d have to get off the ship if it were sinking.

That’s when we noticed that everyone else had life jackets. Apparently, while we had waited for the stampede to pass, everyone had raided the life jacket bins, and now they were empty.

Next: “I knew this crew wasn’t going to do anything extra to help us” »

Costa Concordia Chart

GEORGIA: I knew we had three life jackets downstairs in our cabin. Could we risk going farther down into the ship when we didn’t know if we were taking on water? We decided to try. We didn’t want to split up, especially since the lights were out and the girls’ cabin was several decks away, but at least if we could get to the stateroom that Dean and I shared, three of us would have jackets and maybe we’d find another. So we got down on our hands and knees and crawled down two decks with only the emergency floor lighting to guide us.

Inside, the room was pitch-black. Somehow I managed to feel my way to the closet, jump, and grab all three jackets. Thank God I remembered where I had put them!

Just as I came out into the hallway, I saw a room steward. I knew he had master keys, so I asked him to open another cabin so we could get a fourth life jacket. Shockingly, he told us he “wasn’t allowed” to do that. It felt like that scene in Titanic where the people in steerage are begging the steward to unlock the gate so they can get on the lifeboats, but he says he “isn’t allowed.”

I knew we wouldn’t be permitted to board a lifeboat without life jackets, because that is standard protocol, and this crew wasn’t going to do anything extra to help us. And what if we found ourselves needing to jump overboard? We had no idea how close to land we were. In fact, because of the side of the ship we were on, it looked to us like we were in the middle of the ocean.

We were making our way back up to the boat deck, when there it was: a gray life jacket right in front of me. Not a single person was nearby, and I know it hadn’t been there when we’d come down a few minutes earlier. I realize that not everyone believes in miracles, but in that instant, I did.

DEAN: Once we all had life jackets, our family returned to the boat deck. The crew weren’t helping, and I started to worry that even if we were finally put on lifeboats, they wouldn’t know how to run them. Most of them were waiters and kitchen staff.

We kept trying to convince them that we needed to evacuate before the ship tilted too much, but the captain still had not given the signal. If they had started loading the lifeboats as soon as people came up on deck, I have no doubt everyone would have gotten off safely.

Finally we heard the signal. What we didn’t know was that the captain got off the ship soon after he gave that evacuation order.

As the gates to the lifeboats opened, passengers made a mad dash, shoving others aside and jumping in. We got on a boat and took our seats, relieved that we were safe. But the nightmare was just beginning.

Next: “Another passenger yelled that there was no way out” »

Diamond Princess
Courtesy The Ananias Family
Veteran cruise-goers (here on another vacation), the Ananias family suffered a nightmare scenario aboard the Costa Concordia.

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” »

Costa Concordia
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
According to CNN reports, it took 500 workers from 26 different countries to raise the Costa Concordia.

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.

SOS Spirit of SurvivalAfter 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:

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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