A local family on a dream vacation wound up literally fighting for their lives in the midst of chaos and confusion in the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia.
Jim and Jo Salzburg, of far northwest suburban Richmond, and their daughter Mary-Jo were just settling down to sleep when they heard a loud noise, and a forceful jolt sent glasses flying across their cabin.
The ship began to tilt and Mary-Jo Salzburg went to the corridor to see what was happening. She was confronted with a scene from the movie “Titanic.”
“People were just running everywhere with their life jackets and no apparent clear direction, they were just running around screaming.”
Then the lights went out.
At first crew members said it was just an electrical outage. Salzburg said she found some other crew in a corner by the elevator laughing and chatting. “You’d go up to someone and say, ‘What’s going on?’ 4 they’d either look at you funny because they didn’t understand or say ‘Everything is fine, just go back to your cabin.’ “
Then came the order to abandon ship. The English version was the last of four or five languages piped over the ship’s public address system.
Mary-Jo Salzburg helped her father, 71 and her mother, 70 get dressed. They grabbed their cell phones and life jackets.
“We would see somebody from Costa running up and they would say ‘go to Deck 5′ and we’d run up to Deck 5, then it would be ‘Go to deck 4,’ “ said Mary-Jo Salzburg. “We were going up and down back and forth.”
People did not know where their life boat stations were because it was the first night of the cruise, and no drills had been conducted.
Salzburg’s father remembered that life boats were on Deck 4 and there they found hundreds of people struggling to get in four or five boats. However some of the life boat doors were locked, Mary-Jo Salzburg said.
“They just let everyone pile on top of each other. My mom has difficulty walking and said ‘I can’t do this.’ I said ‘You have to do this. If we’re going to get on one of these boats we’re going to have to push through and just do this.”
They somehow managed to get on a boat, but Mary-Jo Salzburg’s father was being held back by crew. She pulled him in just as the lifeboat boat plunged into the sea.
Because it was dark, Mary-Jo Salzburg didn’t know if her dad had made it until after the lifeboat was headed toward shore. “That was probably when I was most afraid because I thought he’s gone,” she said.
The people that were running the life boat were cooks and waiters, she said. “They didn’t know CPR they didn’t even know how to tie the life boat to the pier when we got there.”
Things were barely better on shore. With a thousand people huddled in an unheated church in 35-degree weather sharing one bathroom, it took hours to find out they were on an island.
In the early morning hours they caught a ferry, then a bus to a hotel. Salzburg said Costa Reps were on the scene would not talk to them. However they found out from other Americans that the cruise line would pay for the hotel.
Thanks to a superhuman travel agent and passport help from the American Embassy, the Salzburgs were able to fly home the next day.
But Salzburg said the cruise line was no help and that other passengers got stuck with paying extra for the early flight home.
“You we’re on your own if you wanted to get off that ship alive and with your family,” Mary-Jo Salzburg said. “To get off the island you had to do it yourself, and at the hotel finding out how to get back to the states you were on your own.”
Costa Cruises did call later to ask if they had arrived home safely and to say their fares would be refunded. There was no apology, however.
And when Mary-Jo Salzburg called Costa to ask about compensation for the cash and her mother’s medical equipment left in the cabin, “All I got was a ‘Welcome aboard,’ message and put on hold.”
On Tuesday her father, a retired Sun-Times composing room supervisor, was in bed with a cough and cold. Her mother was nursing a leg injured in the scramble to get on the life boat.
“I think we’re all pretty much through cruising for a very long time,” Mary-Jo Salzburg said.