"Have you seen 'Titanic'? That's exactly what it was," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents on the first of two cruises around the Mediterranean. They all bore dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells, trying to reach rescue boats.
"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61, said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."
She choked up as she recounted the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship lurched to the side and the family found themselves standing on a wall. "He said 'take my baby,"' Mrs. Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand as she teared up. "I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn't want the baby to fall down the stairs. I gave the baby back. I couldn't hold her.
"I thought that was the end and I thought they should be with their baby," she said.
"I wonder where they are," daughter Valerie whispered.
The family said they were some of the last off the ship, forced to shimmy along a rope down the exposed side of the ship to a waiting rescue vessel below.
Survivor Christine Hammer, from Bonn, Germany, shivered near the harbor of Porto Santo Stefano, on the mainland, after stepping off a ferry from Giglio. She was wearing elegant dinner clothes a gray cashmere sweater, a silk scarf along with a large pair of hiking boots, which a kind islander gave her after she lost her shoes in the scramble to escape. Left behind in her cabin were her passport, credit cards and phone.
Hammer, 65, told The Associated Press she was eating her first course, an appetizer of cuttlefish, sauteed mushrooms and salad, 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.
Several passengers concurred, saying crew members for a good 45 minutes told passengers there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off. Seasoned cruisers, however, knew better and went to get their life jackets from their cabins and report to their "muster stations," the emergency stations each passenger is assigned to, they said.
Once there, though, crew members delayed lowering the lifeboats even thought the ship was listing badly, they said.
"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, a 54-year-old from Pretoria, South Africa. "We were standing in the corridors and they weren't allowing us to get onto the boats. It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."
Passengers Alan and Laurie Willits from Wingham, Ontario, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, said they were watching the magic show in the ship's main theater when they felt an initial lurch, as if from a severe steering maneuver, followed a few seconds later by a "shudder" that tipped trash cans over. The subsequent listing of the ship made the theater curtains seem like they were standing on their side.
"And then the magician disappeared," Laurie Willits said, adding that the panicked audience members fled for their cabins as well.