Nightly News   |  January 14, 2012

Disaster at sea

Panic ensues after a luxury cruise ship dubbed the “Floating Temple of Fun” runs aground off Italy. NBC’s Claudio Lavanga reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> with a deadly cruise ship disaster near a small island along italy's tuscan coast. it happened in the dark of night when the huge vessel carrying thousands of vacationers including over 100 americans ran aground, took on water and tipped on its side. tonight, at least three bodies have been recovered. 40 people remain unaccounted for and the ship's captain is under arrest. survivors some who have who swam for their lives are telling harrowing stories of panic, fear and confusion as they desperately looked for a way off the stricken ship. eventually, they were evacuated to porto santo stefano where our correspondent is standing by to bring us the very latest. claudio, good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, lester. well, from here in porto santo stefano , the passengers are being taken to the city of rome from which they will go back to their home country. much earlier of course than they expected. the u.s. embassy has got back to us, saying that none of the 126 passengers -- american passengers that were on board of that ship were injured, but for all of the passengers, this was the longest day . a shocking scene today off the italian coast. as rescuers frantically searched for any survivors across the board. the luxury cruise ship dubbed the floating temple of fun was caring are 4,234 people including 126 americans when it ran aground last night. survivors would go to land in lifeboats. day break revealed the gash 150 feet long on the right side of the ship. the survivors recall the first terrifying moments.

>> all of a sudden, everything shifted on the ship. fell off out our table at dinner. and they said everything was fine. obviously, it's not fine.

>> reporter: at first, the crew tried to reassure passengers saying it was simply a technical problem. but there was panic.

>> we had a blackout, and everybody was screaming and yelling. all the passengers were running up and down. and then we went to our cabin to find out what was going on.

>> at the very end, before we jumped off, the crew members were telling us to stay on.

>> reporter: the ship had left a few hours before it hit a reef or a rock off a tiny island of gigio. passengers said it reminded them of the movie "titanic."

>> i could easily understand the comparison to the film. there were people scrambling all over each other.

>> reporter: the costa concordia is one of the largest ships in the fleet and makes its trip around the mediterranean weekly. and after the concordia began the faithful voyage. well, in the last few hours the captain of this ship was arrested on allegations of manslaughter and abandoning the ship before his passengers were accountable. the company -- the parent company also issued a statement saying that it is deeply saddened by this tragedy and it is working to fully understand what happened. lester?

>> claudio, thank you. and a short time ago, we spoke with a college student from bowling green , kentucky, who was on vacation with friends aboard the ship when it ran aground. here is lauren moore described to us what happened.

>> it started during dinner. we were all seated. suddenly, there was a loud noise and the boat started tilting and you could hear glasses and plates hit the ground and shatter. the lights started flickering and people just started running in all directions. some people were telling passengers there was no need to go to the boat. some people were telling others to put their life vests on, but there was no directions and that went on for about -- at least an hour before the siren finally went off, that signalled go to the boats. but it was completely tilted at that point. we ran really toward a lifeboat and that's really where the chaos set in. everyone was trying to fight their way on to a boat. and the crew members were having to knock people back. the crew members were definitely having a hard time controlling the situation at this point.

>> american passenger aboard that ship