PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (AP) — A luxury cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, gashing open the hull and taking on water, forcing some 4,200 people aboard to evacuate aboard lifeboats to a nearby island early Saturday. At least three were dead, the Italian coast guard said.
Three bodies were recovered from the sea, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo. There were reports that three others had died after the accident late Friday night, but as the hours passed, those reports were not yet confirmed, he said.
Helicopters plucked to safety some 50 people who were trapped on the Costa Concordia after the liner listed so badly they couldn't launch lifeboats, Paolillo told The Associated Press in Rome by telephone from his command in the Tuscan port city of Livorno.
"We were having dinner aboard when we heard a loud noise, like that of the keel being dragged over something," passenger Luciano Castro, who is a journalist, told Italian state radio early Saturday. The lights went out "and there were scenes of panic, glasses falling to the floor," Castro said.
Another passenger on what set out to be an eight-day pleasure cruise around Mediterranean ports, Mara Parmegiani, also a journalist, told the ANSA news agency that "it was like a scene from the Titanic."
Castro said some passengers told them that some people jumped into the sea to try to swim to safety on the reefs of nearby Giglio island, although he didn't see anybody do that. He did say he met one survivor on land, a a young crewman from Asia, who told him he swam to the reefs.
As dawn neared, a painstaking search of the 290-meter (9.570 foot) long ship's interior was being conducted to see if any one might have been trapped inside, Paolillo said. "No one is leaning out, shouting, calling that they need help, but until the inspection is completed, we won't know."
"There are some 2,000 cabins, and the ship isn't straight," Paolillo said, referring to the Concordia's dramatic 20-degree tilt on its right side. "I'll leave it to your imagination to understand how they (the rescuers) are working as they move through it."
Some Concordia crew members were still aboard to help the coast guard rescuers inspect "every millimeter" of the ship, he said.
Paolillo said it wasn't immediately known if the dead were passengers or crew, nor were the nationalities of the victims immediately known. It wasn't clear how they died.
Some 30 people were reported injured, most of them suffering only bruises, but at least two people were reported in grave condition.
Paolillo said the Concordia was believed to have set sail with 3,206 passengers and 1,023 crew members.
Some passengers, apparently in panic, had jumped off the boat into the sea, a Tuscany-based government official, Grosseto prefect Giuseppe Linardi, was quoted as saying. Authorities were trying to obtain a full passenger and crew list from Costa, so they could do a roll call to determine who might be missing.
The evacuees were taking refuge in schools, hotels, and a church on the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, a popular vacation isle about 18 miles (25 kilometers) off Italy's central west coast. Those evacuated by helicopter were flown to Grosseto, while others, rescued by local ferries pressed into emergency service, took survivors to the port of Porto Santo Stefano on the nearby mainland.
Survivors far outnumbered the island's 1,500 residents, and island Mayor Sergio Ortelli issued an appeal for islanders -- "anyone with a roof" to open their homes to shelter the evacuees.
Paolillo said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm went off about 10:30 p.m. (2130 GMT), about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia, en route to its first port of call, Savona, in northwestern Italy.
The coast guard official, speaking from the port captain's office in the Tuscan port of Livorno, said the vessel "hit an obstacle" -- it wasn't clear if it might have hit a rocky reef in the waters off Giglio -- "ripping a gash 50 meters (165 feet) across" on the left side of the ship, and started taking on water.
The cruise liner's captain, Paolillo said, then tried to steer his ship toward shallow waters, near Giglio's small port, to make evacuation by lifeboat easier.
But after the ship started listing badly onto its right side, lifeboat evacuation was no longer feasible, Paolillo said.
Five helicopters, from the coast guard, navy and air force, were taking turns airlifting survivors still aboard and ferrying them to safely. A Coast guard member was airlifted aboard the vessel to help people get aboard a small basket so they could be hoisted up to the helicopter, said Capt. Cosimo Nicastro, another Coast Guard official.
A statement from Costa Cruises, the company that runs the ship, confirmed that the evacuation of the 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew had begun, "but the position of the ship, which is worsening, is making more difficult the last part of the evacuation."
Costa Cruises' statement did not mention any casualties, and said it had not yet determined the cause of the problem.
Costa Cruises said the Costa Concordia was sailing on a cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, starting from Civitavecchia with scheduled calls to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari and Palermo.
It said about 1,000 Italian passengers were onboard, as well as more than 500 Germans, about 160 French and about 1,000 crew members.
The Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters, ANSA reported. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port's dock, and suffered damage but no one was injured, ANSA said.
The Costa Concordia's tragedy is far from the worst cruise ship accident of recent years.
In July 2011, a Russian cruise boat sank on the Volga River, killing at 113 people and leaving 16 missing from the 208 aboard.
In February 2011 a Vietnamese cruise boat sank in Ha Long Bay, killing 12 sleeping passengers.
Three freak waves hit the Louis Majesty in the Mediterranean Sea in March 2010, killing two passengers and injuring 14 among the 1,350 passengers and 580 crew.
In February 2010, the Costa Europa cruise ship hit a pier while docking in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, killing three crew members and injuring four passengers.
A boiler room explosion on the S.S. Norway killed three crew members and critically injured 13 in May 2003, as it was docked in Miami. No passengers were hurt.
Frances D'Emilio contributed to this report from Rome.