Rome: A luxury cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany, gashing open the hull and 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.
At least three bodies were recovered from the sea and at least three additional persons were feared dead, and helicopters were working to pluck to safety some 50 people still trapped aboard the badly listing Costa Concordia, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo.
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. The Italian news agency ANSA reported that some people had jumped overboard in the scramble to evacuate the ship, which had just begun a Mediterranean cruise.
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.
ANSA quoted two Italian journalists who happened to be among the passengers taking the Mediterranean cruise as saying the accident happened during dinner hour.
"We were dining when the lights went out, and suddenly we heard a bang and the dishes fell to the floor," ANSA quoted one of the journalist-passengers, Luciano Castro, as saying.
"It was like a scene from the Titanic," another passenger aboard, journalist Mara Parmegiani, told ANSA.
Paolillo said the exact dynamics of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm went off about 10:30 pm (21:30 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.