PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (Reuters) - Passengers leapt into the sea and fought over lifejackets in panic when an Italian cruise ship ran aground and keeled over, killing at least three and leaving dozens missing.
In the chaotic aftermath of the Friday evening accident near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany, Italian officials could still not say how many of the 4,229 passengers and crew on board the 114,500-tonne Costa Concordia were missing.
"I was sure I was going to die. We were in the lifeboats for two hours, crying and holding on to each other," said Antonietta Sintolli, 65, breaking down in tears as she recounted the event.
"People were trying to steal lifejackets from each other. We could only gets ones for children."
An official involved in the rescue operation said two French tourists and a Peruvian crew member were dead. Around 70 people were injured, at least two seriously.
Authorities opened a criminal investigation for possible manslaughter and Italian news agencies reported that the ship's commander, Francesco Schettino had been detained by police.
The vessel's operator, Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp & Plc, the world's largest cruise operator, said it had been sailing on its regular course when it struck a submerged rock. In a television interview, the ship's commander said the rock was not marked on any maritime charts of the area.
However it remained unclear how the 290 metre-long ship had been able to run aground in calm waters so close to the shore.
"We'll be able to say at the end of the investigation. It would be premature to speculate on this," said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini.
The vessel was left capsized on its side in water 15-20 metres deep, with decks partly submerged, not far from the shore. A large gash was visible on its side.
Officials said the search would continue overnight although darkness and the cold seas would make the work difficult.
Different officials gave varying estimates of the number of missing, with some talking of as many as 70 but there remained considerable uncertainty over how many were really missing and how many had simply not been counted in the confusion.
"We are not sure of the numbers, we cannot exclude that some people are missing, in fact it is very probable," said Ennio Aquilini, head of the fire service rescue operation.
"It could be 10, 20 up to 40 but I cannot give anything more precise. There is a possibility that no one is missing."
Passengers had just sat down to dinner, a few hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia near Rome on a week-long cruise to Barcelona and Majorca, when a loud bang interrupted the piano player and the ship began to list.
"We heard a loud rumble, the glasses and plates fell from the tables, the ship tilted and the light went off," said passenger Luciano Castro.
"What followed was scenes of panic; people screaming, running around the place, close to us a five-month pregnant young woman was crying and panicking."
The ship, a vast floating resort with spas, theatres, swimming pools, a casino and discotheque, was carrying mainly Italian passengers, but also many foreigners including British, Germans, French, Spanish and Americans. Many were elderly; some were in wheelchairs.
Passengers crowded into lifeboats, but the mainly Asian staff, few of them able to speak Italian, struggled to bring order to the evacuation.
"It was complete panic. People were behaving like animals. We had to wait too long in the lifeboats," said 47-year-old Patrizia Perilli.
"We thought we wouldn't make it. I saw the lighthouse but I knew I couldn't swim that far but lots of people threw themselves into the sea. I think they are some of the dead."
Angel Holgado, 50, a guitarist who had been performing when the ship foundered, said he got into a lifeboat but decided to abandon it after it became dangerously overcrowded.
"There was terrible panic and fear and I jumped into the water and swam to the shore," he said.
Officials said rescue efforts were continuing on Saturday after a night-time operation involving helicopters, ships and lifeboats. The picturesque harbour of Porto Santo Stefano was lined with ambulances and green tents for the victims.
"We have about 40 men at work and we're expecting specialist diving teams to arrive to check all the interior spaces of the ship," said fire services spokesman Luca Cari.
"We don't rule out the possibility that more people will be lost," he said.
Officials said however there was confusion over the numbers of missing and on identifying all the passengers transferred from Giglio to Porto Santo Stefano on the mainland.
"To have a more precise idea we are still waiting for a full list of the people identified in Porto Santo Stefano to make a comparison with the passenger list," said Giuseppe Linardi, police chief in the nearby town of Grosseto.
Passengers were heavily critical of the response by the crew and said they had been left with no information.
"After approximately 20 minutes a voice told us there was a problem with the electricity that they were trying to fix," said Luciano Castro.
"The ship continued to tilt further, after 15 minutes they said again it was a problem with the electricity, but no one believed it," he said adding that once the evacuation began, the increasing tilt of the ship made the operation more difficult.
"Of course panic makes things worse and the crew members struggled in calming down the most active and worried passengers," he said.
The ship was built in 2004-2005 at a cost of 450 million euros at the Fincantieri Sestri shipyard in Italy.
Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Florence and Ed Taylor in Frankfurt; Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; editing by Myra MacDonald