As stories emerged Monday of frantic escapes from a sinking, lacerated cruise ship, recollections from Canadian survivors painted a picture of chaos and a delayed or nonexistent emergency response.
The Costa Concordia hadn't held any safety drills for passengers to act on Friday night, survivors said. Amid the ensuing panicked scramble in inky darkness, Canadians Alan and Laurie Willits were among the first to board lifeboats and reach shore.
At first, there was no alarm, no evacuation call. Local media reports Monday suggested Captain Francesco Schettino, who's in custody for possible charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship, didn't send out a mayday distress call for close to an hour after the Concordia ran aground on a reef barely 100 metres from shore.
The Willitses didn't wait around. They dashed to their cabin and fumbled in the dark for coats and life jackets. The first lifeboat they reached was on the fourth level of the ship's starboard side – the side sinking deeper into the water.
They were lucky: Lifeboats on the listing ship's upper port edge jammed, rendering them useless and stranding those on board. Amateur video shot by those escaping recorded screams as people on port-side boats realized they were stuck hanging. Several people leaped into the ocean to swim for shore; others were later rescued via helicopter.
The Willitses "were better off: They were able to get on a lifeboat," their daughter Jory Willits said from the family's home in Wingham, Ont. "The panic was in other areas, when people realized there weren't enough. … They're pretty level-headed people. I think they dealt with the situation."
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said a dozen Canadians were on board the Concordia – all of them safely accounted for. Spokeswoman Claude Rochon said she can't say how many of them are back in Canada, or when they're expected to return.
This was the Willitses' fifth cruise, their first to the Mediterranean. The moment Laurie Willits touched solid ground, she borrowed a stranger's smartphone and sent her daughter a hurried, telegram-style Facebook message.
"We're okay. Safe on land. Have to find somewhere to stay. Ship hit rocks, is sinking," her daughter recalls. "I can just imagine her frantically trying to type out a message on someone else's phone – she doesn't know how to run it."
The next Ms. Willits heard from her parents was three hours later, when they called around 10 p.m. ET. They were in an emergency shelter in a school, preparing to bed down on their life jackets. The next day they were on a boat to the mainland, then a Rome-bound bus.
Calgarians Andrea and Laurence Davis were among those swimming to shore, emerging bruised and scratched but otherwise unharmed. The couple made their way to Rome and went to the Canadian embassy Sunday to get emergency passports and a ticket home.
"Very hard and emotional day but … we are homeward bound & feeling great!" Ms. Davis posted on her Facebook wall Monday. They were due to arrive in Calgary that evening.
The Willitses, meanwhile, were in no rush to return to a Canadian winter: They decided to tour Italy before flying back to Canada next Saturday. They were in Naples as of Monday, Ms. Willits said; they may head to Venice as well.
"They're kind of saying, 'We're here, we won't be back for a while. Might as well have a vacation.' "