"The waiters told us to put on life jackets. That's when the panic began"

Spanish family loses mentally impaired member in Costa Concordia tragedy

Porto Santo Stefano - 16 ene 2012 - 18:37 UTC

At 12.50pm on Sunday, a rescue helicopter hoisted ship's purser Manrico Giampedroni from the stricken Costa Concordia. Giampedroni, whose leg was broken and who has been hailed as a hero by news broadcasters, was found 36 hours after the vessel had sunk, its hull ripped open by rocks as it allegedly performed the dangerous ritual of sailing past the coast of the island of Giglio. According to locals, the boats regularly come perilously close to shore so that the passengers and residents of the island can wave to each other.

"I don't know if somebody will admit it now, but all of us who live in the area know about it," said Andrea, one of the firefighters deployed from the island to help with the rescue. "Sometimes, the cruise ships come close to the shore, the passengers come up on deck, applaud, take photos and toast the health of the captain. It usually takes place when the sea is calm and the sky clear."

Although it has not been confirmed, this is thought to be the cause of the shipwreck. The owner of Costa Cruises, which runs the Concordia, said on Monday that the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, who has 30 years' experience in the job, had made an "unapproved and unauthorized" change of course. Schettino was arrested on charges of manslaughter and dereliction of duty after the disaster. He says he was the last to leave the boat, a claim that has been widely disputed. Giampedroni, however, is said to have helped load passengers into lifeboats before going back and searching the vessel for more survivors.

His rescue was the last piece of good news to emerge. The bodies of an elderly couple were recovered later that day and on Monday a sixth fatality was discovered. On Monday a total of 16 people, including a father and his daughter, were still missing.

Late on Sunday night, the news that the Tomás family was dreading was announced. Guillermo Gual, 68, who had been with the Tomás' on the liner, was found dead. The rest of the family, Juan and Ana Tomás, their four children- an 18-year-old girl, twin boys of 16 and a boy of seven- and two friends of their eldest daughter, had managed to flee the keeling cruise ship, some in lifeboats and some in the water. But Guillermo, who suffered from mental disabilities, was missing.

The Tomás family, which runs a bar in Can Pastilla on the Balearic island of Mallorca, had decided to take a cruise in the Mediterranean during the off-season. "We had already said that next year we would try and do the same thing again," Juan recalls. Juan Jr. had all the visits on the route- Cagliari, Palermo, Rome- memorized.

But at 9.30pm last Friday, the Tomás' cruise, like that of the rest of the 4,200 passengers and crew aboard, turned into a nightmare. "When we heard the crash," says Juan Sr., "we all got up, and the kids started running off in all directions without knowing where. It was their natural reaction to panic. It took me and my wife a good while to find them all. At first the voice on the loudspeaker- I suppose it was the captain ? said there was no cause for alarm, that the problem was a mechanical failure that they were trying to repair. But the waiters, Filipinos and Pakistanis, I think, started to point to the exits and told us to put on life jackets. That's when the panic began. People wanted to get out but, like us, they didn't know where to go. And we didn't know where my eldest daughter was."

Eventually, the nine managed to convene on the third floor of the Concordia. But the situation worsened as the boat began to list more and more. "We didn't know anything, whether to head for the right side or the left side of the boat. The waiters tried to look calm, but you could see they were also nervous and didn't know what to do. The boat was sinking further and further and we were told to wait for the captain's instructions, but they never came," says Juan.

"In the end, we decided to save ourselves. The inclination of the ship made it very difficult to get people onto the lifeboats and into the water. After an hour of waiting, with everybody fighting against each other, we got some of the family on a boat. My wife, the youngest, my daughter, one of her friends..."

"When I saw part of my family still on the ship I tried to get out of the lifeboat but they pulled me back in," says Ana. Juan remained with the rest of the men, including Guillermo. "It was chaos, total panic. To avoid slipping and falling into the sea, we formed a chain. Sometimes we all went flying as though on a toboggan. Until we reached the other side of the boat we didn't realize how close the shore was."

They decided to try their luck in the water, all jumping at the same time. But once in the freezing sea, it became apparent that Guillermo was not with them. They didn't know if he had jumped or not.

Juan swam half an hour to reach the coast, just as dawn was breaking. He then set about trying to find his family. Freezing yet safe, he found them all, except Guillermo. "Maybe I should have pushed him," says Juan, "and not trusted that he would be capable of saving himself."