By a Newsnet reporter
At least three people are confirmed dead and up to fourteen still missing after a cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy.
A major rescue operation is currently underway after the Costa Concordia began sinking near the island of Giglio, off the Tuscan coast.
Reports say that the ship suffered a seventy metre gash to its hull and began listing after hitting a submerged obstacle two hours after leaving the port of Savona.
The ship was sailing to Civitavecchia, its first port of call, when disaster struck when it hit a reef at around 9pm local time.
Passengers spoke of glasses starting to fall and smash and panic as people tried to get to lifeboat areas. Some people were reported to have leapt from the ship into the water as the ship started listing. Sixty passengers who couldn’t reach lifeboats had to be airlifted by helicopter.
Amongst the passengers on board are a confirmed 24 from the UK with some thought to be entertainers, however early reports suggest that they are not among those killed or injured.
Passenger Luciano Castro told Italian media: ”We were having dinner when all of a sudden the lights went out. It seemed as if the ship struck something and then we heard a loud bang and everything fell to the floor.
“The captain immediately came on the tannoy and said that there had been an electrical fault but it seemed very strange as the ship almost immediately began to list to one side. The glasses just slid off the table.
“We were then told to put on our life vests and head to the lifeboats just to be safe but there was a real panic on board you could see it in the faces of the people especially those with young families.
“Then a few minutes later there were seven whistles which meant everyone had to get in the lifeboats.”
The 114,500 tonne ship was carrying 3200 passengers and 1000 crew as it headed on a 7-night Mediterranean cruise. The £450m Costa Concordia is one of the biggest ships in the Costa cruise fleet. It has 1,500 cabins and was at the start of a seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean.
Unconfirmed reports suggest the vessel may have been as much as seven miles off course when it hit a sandbank or reef. The ship tried to return to the harbour at Giglio and is now lying on its side in the port.
Image courtesy of http://cruiseship.net