PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy — The first course had just been served in the Costa Concordia's dining room when the wine glasses, forks and plates of cuttlefish and mushrooms smashed to the ground. At the magic show in the theater, the trash cans tipped over and the theater curtains turned on their side. Then the hallways turned upside down, and passengers crawled on bruised knees through the dark. Others jumped alone into the cold Mediterranean Sea.
The terrifying, chaotic escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from "Titanic" for many of the 4,000-plus passengers and crew on the cruise ship, which ran aground off the Italian coast late Friday and flipped on its side with a 160-foot gash in its hull. At least three bodies were recovered. But late Saturday, nearly 24 hours after the capsizing, rescuers had reason to celebrate: A South Korean couple on their honeymoon responded in the door-to-door search of cabins and was brought to safety in good condition, officials said.
Close to 40 others remained unaccounted for.
The Friday the 13th grounding of the Concordia was one of the most dramatic cruise ship accidents in recent memory. It immediately raised a host of questions: Why did it hit a reef so close to the Tuscan island of Giglio? Did a power failure cause the crew to lose control? Did the captain — under investigation on manslaughter allegations — steer it in the wrong direction on purpose? And why did crew members tell passengers they weren't in danger until the boat was listing perilously to the side?
The delay made lifeboat rescue eventually impossible for some of the passengers, some of whom jumped into the sea while others waited to be plucked by helicopters.
"We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side," said Mike van Dijk, from Pretoria, South Africa. "It was a scramble, an absolute scramble."
Van Dijk said the boat he was on — on the upended port side — got stuck along the ship's wall as it came down.
Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn't address the allegations of delayed evacuation.
The captain, Francesco Schettino, was detained for questioning by prosecutors, investigating him for suspected manslaughter, abandoning ship before all others, and causing a shipwreck, state TV and Sky TV said. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying Schettino deliberately chose a sea route that was too close to shore.
Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti told the agency, "I'd like to say that several hundred people owed their life to the expertise that the commander of the Costa Concordia showed during the emergency."
France said two of the victims were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 49, a crewman from Peru. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.
Late Saturday, firefighters who had been searching the Costa Concordia for dozens who remained missing heard distinct shouts, "one in a male voice, other in a female voice" coming from the cruiser liner, Coast guard officer Marcello Fertitta said.
They turned out to be a honeymooning South Korean couple, who were brought out in good condition, Prato fire Cmdr. Vincenzo Bennardo told The Associated Press from the scene.
A risky search by divers of the sunken, water-filled half of the ship for the missing was suspended at darkness Saturday night.
The trapped survivors were found more than 24 hours after the ship ran aground and lurched violently.
Passengers described a scene of frantic confusion. Silverware, plates and glasses crashed down from the dining room's upper floor balcony, children wailed and darkened hallways upended themselves. Panicked passengers slipped on broken glass as the lights went out while crew members insisted nothing serious was wrong.
"Have you seen 'Titanic'? That's exactly what it was," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents. They all bore dark red bruises on their knees from the desperate crawl they endured along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells, trying to reach rescue boats.
"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest strobe flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61 said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."
She choked up as she remembered the moment when an Argentine couple handed her their 3-year-old daughter, unable to keep their balance as the ship listed to the side.
"He said,'Take my baby,' " Georgia Ananias said, covering her mouth with her hand. "I grabbed the baby. But then I was being pushed down. I didn't want the baby to fall down the stairs. I gave the baby back. I couldn't hold her."
Whispered her daughter Valerie: "I wonder where they are."
The Ananias family was among the last passengers off the ship, left standing on the upended port side. They were forced to exit from a still-attached lifeboat that became impossible to use once the ship began to tip over; so they climbed a ladder dropped too them off a deck and shimmied down a rope to a waiting rescue vessel.
"We thought we were dying four times," Valerie said, recounting the most terrifying moments in their escape.
A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia's captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef. Italian coast guard officials said the circumstances were still unclear, but that the ship hit an unknown obstacle.
Despite some early reports that the captain was dining with passengers when his ship crashed into the reef, he was on the bridge, Onorato said.
"The ship was doing what it does 52 times a year, going along the route between Civitavecchia and Savona," a shaken-looking Onorato told reporters on Giglio, a popular vacation isle off Italy's central west coast.