Survivors of the Costa Concordia shipwreck gathered Sunday, Jan. 13, for a reunion to remember what happened a year ago when the passenger ship they were on struck a reef and capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.
Reluctant to talk to the media until now, the group of El Dorado County residents — Joanna and Adam Lynch, Phyllis Eggan, and Brenda Miller — recalled what happened that day and afterwards. Their story is a tale of survival, kindness, friendship and faith.
The tragedy began on Dec. 29, 2011 when the four of them — longtime traveling companions — set off on a 19-day dream vacation touring Spain, Morocco and Gibraltar using all modes of transportation including planes, ferries, donkeys, camels and horses.
The last part of the trip was a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the passenger ship the Costa Concordia. Boarding her on Jan 9, 2012, they joined more than 4,200 other passengers and crew members.
On Jan. 13 they docked in Rome and spent a glorious day exploring the city which they all agreed was the highlight of the trip. At the time, they thought nothing could be more exciting than that.
The crack up
Later that day they headed back to the ship in time for dinner, a game of cards and a magic show in one of the ship’s theaters. Around 9:45 p.m., they said they experienced a jarring bump and scraping that caused things in the theater to crash to the floor. People in the nearby lobby screamed and ran.
Over the intercom came instructions to stay where they were. They were told it was just an electrical problem and a crew was on its way to fix it.
At this point, they said the boat was just starting to tilt. Then an hour later, it began to tilt the other way. Meanwhile the intercom kept telling them that everything was fine.
Trying to keep themselves and others calm, Brenda and Phyllis, both of whom are members of the El Dorado Storytellers’ Guild, got up on the stage and started telling stories and performing.
About that time they saw some of the ship’s entertainers walking by wearing life jackets. They asked if they should get one but were told no.
Around 10:45 p.m., an emergency blast sounded. Hearing that, they rushed downstairs to their cabins to get their life jackets. However, someone on the stairs yelled at them, “go up, go up.”
So instead they scrambled up a level of stairs to where the lifeboats were. At that point all they had with them was what they had brought to the magic show — a deck of cards, a camera and whatever they had in their pockets.
Once on deck they could see the lifeboats were full but had not yet been deployed. But when the crew started deploying them, they ran into problems because the mechanism wasn’t working properly. Some boats ended up being dropped from four levels up into the water, landing with a loud splash. Other boats would go down halfway and stop or tip. They recalled seeing a couple with a 1-year-old baby having to climb out of a lifeboat and back onto the ship.
“While we were waiting, we heard over the intercom ‘abandon ship’. Talk about sending chills through your spine,” said Eggan. “After that, the intercom went dead.”
With that announcement, the level of panic and pandemonium increased especially as the captain and some crew members were seen abandoning the ship.
“It was every man for himself,” said Eggan, as they saw one woman pushed aside by a burly man trying to get into a lifeboat, another woman pushed to the bottom of a boat, and another pushed overboard.
However, they also witnessed individual acts of heroics such as people who helped others get into their life jackets and aboard the lifeboats and those who ran the boats between the ship and the shore at great risk to themselves.
Deciding to make their way to the sinking side of the ship, the group found that deck to be relatively uncrowded. Eggan and Miller got into a lifeboat together. But a beam was impaled into it. With one passenger pushing against the beam while other passengers pushed against the ship, the lifeboat was free. “If we hadn’t freed ourselves, the beam could have dragged us under,” said Eggan.
Joanna and Adam also finally made it to a lifeboat which they believe was the last one to leave the ship.
All told, more than 3,700 people were transported to a nearby island with another 400 people forced to remain overnight on the ship. Some people tried to swim ashore in the icy waters and later had to be rescued clinging to rocks. Others may have drowned in the attempt.
The kindness of strangers
The short trip from the ship to Giglio, a small island off the Italian coast, only took 10 minutes but was filled with anxiety.
“I told Phyllis I think we’re going to die,” said Miller, who was praying for their safety.
Eggan agreed as she began thinking about all the things she was grateful for, such as her camera battery not running down and her paperwork being in order in case she should die, since none of their families knew they were on the Costa Concordia.
Miller said she doesn’t remember arriving at the island, in part because she had to keep her eyes closed most of the time. An epileptic, she was trying to avoid seeing flashing lights that might trigger a seizure since she didn’t have her medication.
When they arrived, it was very cold and most people had very little in the way of warm clothing. Some people cut off their life jackets and wrapped them around their feet or shoulders to ward off the chill.
But coming to the rescue of the thousands of people who landed in the middle of the night on their island were the locals who took them into their homes, gave them clothing, and fed them. “The population on the island was only 600 to 800,” said Eggan, “and at 4 a.m. in the morning 4,200 people were dropped on them.”
The foursome ended up at a church preschool. In a nearby church, it was wall to wall people.
“The nuns stayed up all night serving us tea to warm us up,” said Eggan. “The local people also brought cookies, bread and chocolates to the survivors. They opened restaurants and bars for us even though no one had any money. Others would say, ‘come in to our home, come in to our home.’”
“The local people were the heroes,” said Eggan. “They gave with no strings attached to people who had nothing to give them in return. There was kindness all night long.”
Meanwhile, as they tried to sleep, overhead they could hear the sound of helicopters searching the ocean for survivors as well as the wailing of the ambulances.
Ferried to Tuscany and home
The next morning, the Costa Concordia lay on its side, a dead ship with a gaping hole in its hull. The survivors were then ferried to Tuscany, processed and bused to different hotels.
Phyllis said that on the ferry ride over to the mainland, Joanna and Adam gave half of the cash Adam had on him to a French couple who had lost everything in the disaster. ”They have a gift for leadership and compassion,” she said.
Once in Italy, a different series of hurdles faced the travelers as they tried to arrange new passports so they could return home. Embassy personnel from the Philippines, Spain, Britain, Australia and France were at the dock to help their citizens. But the American embassy made its citizens come to the embassy to get new passports even though most of them had no money for transportation.
“The American embassy only helped us as little as possible,” lamented Joanna.
Later at the their hotel, Joanna and Adam gathered all the Americans staying there for a meeting and to share information and e-mail addresses since most of them were leaving the next day.
On Jan. 16, the foursome boarded a plane for home. Home being Placerville for Eggan, Shingle Springs for Miller, and Cameron Park for the Joanna and Adam. The group believes they were the only ones from El Dorado County on the boat although Joanna thinks there might be one other person.
It was during the trip home that some of them experienced the aftershock of the experience they had just gone through as they went through the airport in Germany and were asked if they had any luggage. “That’s when I started to cry,” said Joanna as she explained why she had no luggage or stamps from other countries on her passport. “Everyone wanted to know what we had to declare and we had to explain we were on the ship that went down and had nothing to declare.”
They noted that in the last year, some people have accepted a settlement from the cruise ship line of around $15,000 per person. Others have joined a class action lawsuit or retained their own attorneys.
Most said that since returning they have experienced nightmares while others have had stress related symptoms. Adam says when he sees water he has a panic attack. “This is something we will deal with the rest of our lives,” said his wife.
In the meantime, the captain of the Costa Concordia remains under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and leaving the ship before all the passengers were evacuated. According to preliminary reports on the disaster, it was the captain who made the decision to take the ship off its pre-programmed course, resulting in it ending up on a reef.
On Jan. 13 the group gathered for a one-year reunion of the event although they have gotten together occasionally throughout the past year and continue to stay in touch via e-mail.
They said they all went to church and then spent the day together. Joanna said they wanted to keep it low-key, “Just the four of us.”
Later in the day they gathered around the dining room table at the Joanna and Adam’s home, sharing their experiences as they looked at photos taken by Eggan that are loaded on her laptop, the deck of cards from that night on the ship still with them.
During the day they e-mailed other survivors to see how they were doing. They continue to stay in contact with 60 of the Americans aboard the ship.
Eggan said she captured her experiences in a book she has written called “Lessons from a Sinking Ship.” In it she tried to recall everything that happened — the sights, sounds and smells.
“They remind me ultimately that God is in charge and knows where we are,” she said. “I learned survival, friendship, and what it’s like being a refugee. I wrote this book as a tribute to my family. It was a life-changing experience.”
Echoing her sentiments, Miller said, “On the island I had nothing but what I had on. No money, nothing. I never felt that way before. I found a 10 cent Euro coin on the island. With it God said, ‘You do have something. You will be taken care of.’ He showed me what I lost wasn’t important. The most important thing was the relationships I formed.”
That 10 cent Euro coin has since been turned into a ring that she wears.
Joanna and Adam also feel blessed to have survived the ordeal. ”My friends helped calm me down,” said Adam. “God poured over me and through my family and friends.”
Joanna agreed saying, ”Every day we get up because he wants us to be alive. God saved our lives for a purpose, so we can give back. He is not done with us yet.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.