A loud bang, then panic as Italian cruise ship ran aground

GIGLIO, Italy - Passengers had just settled down to a relaxed dinner when the first shock was felt, launching them into a terrifying ordeal as their liner flipped over off the coast of Italy.

"We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the lights went off," said passenger Luciano Castro, describing the first moments after the giant liner Costa Concordia hit a rock.

Castro, an Italian, was one of the more than 3,200 people who had just begun a week-long cruise of the western Mediterranean.

For the 1,000-strong crew of the Costa Concordia, a floating resort that boasted seven restaurants, a dozen bars and the largest spa and biggest cinema ever built on a cruise ship, it was a routine trip conducted throughout the year.

But there was confusion that turned quickly to panic and chaos after the shock was felt among the passengers and the army of waiters, musicians and entertainers on board.

"We didn't understand at once. We thought it was some kind of a drill, or maybe a minor accident, and that all would end in a minute," said Ludmila Yatsyshian, a Russian passenger.

Officials believe the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, had brought the 114,500-tonne vessel too close to the shore, where it struck the rock, tearing a large gash in the hull.

He did not give an immediate order to abandon ship but made an attempted safety manoeuvre before realising he had no choice but to evacuate as water poured in.

"He turned the prow towards the port of Giglio and cast the anchors into the water in a bid to hold the ship steady as close as possible to the coast," a coastguard official said.

Schettino has been arrested for manslaughter after at least three people died. Prosecutors also charged him with leaving the ship around midnight, when some passengers were still on board.

Italian cruise ship capsizes
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: Reuters, AFP)

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