‘We Had to Improvise’: Costa Concordia Survivors Speak Out

From the courageous to the cowardly, survivors of the Italian cruise ship disaster are telling their stories.

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The stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia on January 17, 2012 in Giglio Porto, Italy. More than 4,000 people were on board when the ship hit rocks last Friday.

Search and rescue teams have suspended operations aboard the Costa Concordia after the stricken Italian liner shifted slightly on its rocky mooring this morning. Hopes are fading for the 24 people still missing after the ship ran aground Friday. Meanwhile, many who managed to escape the cruise have harrowing stories of just how good — and how awful — people can be.

Nicole Servel, 61, of France, recounted how her husband, Francis, gave her his life jacket before they leaped from the ship. That was the last time she would see her 71-year-old partner, who was swept underwater. “I called to him. He shouted back: ‘Don’t worry! I’ll be all right,’” she told RTL radio. “And then, I never saw him again.”

(PHOTOS: Saving Italy’s Stricken Costa Concordia Cruise Ship)

One honeymooning couple from Boston said they created a makeshift ladder by tying sheets together and lowering themselves off the ship. “We had to improvise,” said Benji Smith, 34, of his escape with his 27-year-old wife Emily Lau. “No one was telling us what to do.”

Another American couple, Mark and Sarah Plath of Arkansas, defied official instructions not to worry after using their iPad to discovered the ship was listing 23 degrees. They decided to jump overboard and swim to shore.

Their escape was relatively easy compared to that of one Los Angeles family, who had to craw through near-vertical hallways and stairwells to reach the lifeboats in the dark. “We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls,” said Georgia Ananias, 61.  At one point, they met a struggling Argentinian couple who tried to hand over their 3-year-old daughter. “I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn’t want the baby to fall down the stairs,” said Ananias. “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.”

Crew member Rose Metcalf, a 23-year-old British dancer, sent a missive to her mother on Facebook when she thought she would not escape the sinking ship. “My name is Rose, it’s Friday the 13th and I’m one of the last survivors still on board the sinking cruise ship off the coast of Italy. Pray for us to be rescued,” she wrote. Metcalf and her boyfriend, an engineer on the ship, then clambered down the side of the ship using its railings.

MORE: The Sinking of the Costa Concordia and Italy’s Rules of Safety

Some on the Concordia held their own in terms of heroics. One British teenager made himself into a human ladder to rescue more than a dozen passengers. Nineteen-year-old James Thomas bridged the gap between two ship levels with his 6’3” frame in order to help people reach the lifeboats. “People couldn’t get down, the drop was too far, so I lowered myself into position,” he told the Mirror. “I grabbed the lifeboat with one arm and the upper deck rail with the other and let people climb on my shoulder and down my body.”

Gallantry wasn’t always the order of the day, however. Sandra Rogers, a 62-year-old British widow who was sailing with her daughter and grandchildren told the Daily Mail that, “There was no ‘women and children first’ policy. There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats. It was disgusting.”

(MORE: Before Costa Concordia: Ship Disasters in History)

Once in the lifeboats, most were not eager to relinquish their seats. Frenchwoman Beatrice Miceaud, 58, recounted how she and her 61-year-old husband spent over an hour in the freezing water. “I was only wearing [an] evening dress. We hung on to the edge of a life raft and kept lifting our heads to shout to ask to be taken on board but the people in the raft didn’t hear us or didn’t want to hear us. We were exhausted.”

The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, took center stage as the villain of the story, however, allegedly abandoning his ship while hundreds remained on board. He told investigators on Tuesday, “I tripped and I ended up in one of the [life]boats. That’s how I found myself there.” In a damning recording of a phone conversation on the night of the accident, a coastguard orders Schettino to reboard the ship. Schettino complains that “it is dark and we can’t see anything,” to which the coastguard captain replied, “And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home?”

MORE: ‘Go On Board!’ Transcript Shows Cruise Captain Resisted Returning to Ship

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