SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. An enormous cruise ship is lying on its side in the Mediterranean today. The Italian ship, Costa Concordia, ran aground off Italy's Tuscan coast, killing at least three people. Passengers described scenes reminiscent of the Titanic. Fabio Costa was working in a shop on the cruise liner when he felt a jolt.
FABIO COSTA: Everything just started to fall. All the glasses broke. We could only see that the boat had hit something. We had no idea how serious it was until we got out and we looked through the window and we saw the water coming closer and closer. Everything happened really, really fast.
SIMON: He said people began to panic, pushing and shoving.
COSTA: A lot of people was falling down the stairs and they were hurt because things fell on them, and people, when they had to get on the ship, on the boat, the lifeboats, everybody was pushing each other...
SIMON: People grew frustrated waiting for lifeboats, he said, and some took their chances and jumped into the sea. Search and rescue operations continue with almost 70 people unaccounted for. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is with us from Porto Santo Stefano. Sylvia, how would you describe the scene there?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Well, here I'm in a school, an elementary school, that has been set as a sort of emergency center. Many of the passengers and crew were brought here; not all, some were taken - there's a lot of confusion, a lot of chaotic - lack of organization here. Some passengers have been evacuated to other towns. But most are here in Porto Santo Stefano. They are huddling in corners and then some of them are being taken to other hotels further away from this town.
I've spoken to several people. I've heard similar accounts of what you've just played. A French woman told me that it was so - the ship started listing so fast that it was too difficult to lower all the lifeboats. So many fishermen from the island very nearby, a few hundred yards from where the ship ran aground, came out with their own boats and they lowered themselves down with a rope ladder down the side of the boat.
The women - as you said, it was dinnertime. They were dressing in evening clothes and many of them, of course, had to take off their high-heel shoes. And they arrived here freezing cold. The local townsfolk here in Porto Santo Stefano came out in full force, bringing food, blankets and everything. But what is very surprising is the total lack of organization. There's nobody really seriously here in control to give us a sense of exactly what's happened. There are people who don't know where their husbands, their wives, their fathers have ended up, and there's a great deal of tension, and it's very sad.
SIMON: Sylvia, is it known what happened to the ship? How did it run aground?
BYLINE: This is a very mysterious thing. I know this part of the sea myself. I've been here many times. The stretch of sea between the island of Giulio and the mainland is almost like a highway of the sea. Everyday three, four - these big cruise ships go up and down. This is not a dangerous stretch of water. I talked to a fisherman who knows these waters very well. He says it's mysterious; must have been human error because what happened is, the ship must have gone too close to the shore of the island of Giulio and it hit rocks under the surface of the water, and left a gash, 150-foot gash in the ship. The sea was calm, there was no current. It will be up to investigators to determine exactly what happened.
SIMON: And what happens to the evacuees who are beginning to accumulate there?
BYLINE: Well, buses have been taking some of them to other towns where there are more hotels, there are better facilities. So many people unfortunately, you know, there was panic, and they left everything on the boat, the ship. They left their wallets, their credit cards, their clothes. They are without papers. And so we are unable to speak to anybody from the ship and the Costa Shipping Company is not talking to the reporters. So we don't know exactly what they're doing, but they're taking them to other cities in Italy.
SIMON: Sylvia, is the ship in danger of sinking?
BYLINE: Well, it certainly looks - if you've seen the pictures, it is lying flat on its side, very, very close to the shore of the island. Giulio and - I think that is another - because it's a huge boat. It was carrying some 4,200 people; 3,200 passengers, 1,000 crew. It's a big, big boat.
SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks so much.
BYLINE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.