Three vacationing South Florida couples said they were lucky to be alive Sunday after piling into lifeboats to flee an Italian cruise ship that keeled over after running into rocks near the island of Giglio.
"We came to celebrate our 10th anniversary, but it turned into a nightmare," said Karen Camacho, 34, who was aboard the Costa Concordia with her husband, Luis Hernandez.
Camacho and Hernandez, of Homestead, were among an estimated 124 Americans aboard the luxury liner when it ran aground Friday evening.
"Thank God we got into the lifeboat," said Camacho, the mother of two children.
At least five of the 4,200 passengers and crew on board were killed, and 15 are unaccounted for, according to Italian officials Sunday afternoon.
Also on board the ship were David and Denise Saba of Aventura, who waited a year after marrying to go on what was to be a dream honeymoon cruising the Mediterranean aboard the 950-foot luxury liner.
"They were very excited," Joseph Saba said of his brother and sister-in-law. "She had never been on a cruise ship before."
Camacho and Hernandez abandoned the ship in a lifeboat that carried them to shore on the island. From there they and many of the other Americans aboard were bused to the Hilton Hotel at Rome's airport.
None was injured.
The couples described the harrowing descent in the lifeboats that banged into the side of the listing ship before plunging down into the water in what felt like a free fall.
"I was terrified," Camacho, 34, said Sunday in an interview with The Miami Herald. "I cried. I screamed. I couldn't stop thinking about my kids.
"I told my husband...'We're going to die.'"
In phone calls late Friday and on Saturday, David Saba, 26, told his brother that the couple were in the dining room enjoying dinner when they "felt something hit below, and the ship shook a lot."
Very quickly the ship began to list, alarms sounded, and the Sabas "went directly to the lifeboats," said Joseph Saba. "They were very lucky, one of the first ones in the boats."
The liner had sailed from the port of Rome just hours earlier, and evacuation drills had not yet been held, officials said.
"David said he wasn't that scared at the time, but she was," said Joseph Saba. "They said it was horrible."
The Sabas were unable to retrieve their passports or any of their belongings from their cabin, said Joseph Saba. They did have wallets and credit cards.
On Sunday, the couple were talking to American consular officials about travel documents that would allow them to return to South Florida.
"They were so lucky, so lucky to have a happy ending," said Joseph Saba, 32, a real estate investor like his brother. "But they saw some horrible things — people jumping into the water and swimming for shore, old people injured."
Connie Barron, of Pembroke Pines, and her Miami boyfriend Jay Garcia, both 62, were sleeping in their cabin when they were awakened by the sound of a loud crash, said her daughter, Arlene Sanchez, who lives in Sunrise.
With the power off, the couple were told by crew members that there was an electrical problem, Sanchez said. But as the ship began listing, Barron and Garcia grabbed their cellphones and fled their cabin, leaving all else behind.
It was around 1 a.m. when Barron called her daughter to tell her the ship was sinking.
"She said she was trying to get on a lifeboat," Sanchez said. "There was a lot of screaming and sirens in the background. It was hard for me to hear her. Of course, I was freaking out."
Desperate for word on her mother, Sanchez checked TV news programs and called the U.S. Embassy, but the offices were closed.
"She called me an hour later and said she was on land and she was safe," Sanchez said Sunday night. "She told me it was pandemonium. People were fighting for life vests. It was a free-for-all."
Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of the Fort Lauderdale-based franchise travel agent network Cruise One, said the image of the listing ship "is dramatic and frightening to look at. It's a scary sight."
He said the parent company of Cruise One had booked eight people on the Costa Concordia voyage, but he did not know whether any were from South Florida.
In phone calls in the first few hours after the incident, "what agents are hearing is that people want more details about security measures." But, said Wall, "there was no immediate dip in bookings."
"This is rare," he said. "Millions of people leave on cruises every week. This has caught everyone off-guard. But I would encourage people not to over-react."
Added Wall, "This is going to be an interesting week to see how it plays out."