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Verona Couple Survives Italian Cruise Ship Disaster


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Angelo Pezzino knows that he was one of the lucky ones this past weekend. Pezzino and his wife, Danielle, Verona residents, were among the more than 4,200 people on board the Costa Concordia when it ran aground and capsized off the coast of Italy last Friday evening.

“I am one little person at the bottom of this tragedy,” Pezzino said Tuesday night. “There are 4,200 people that this happened to, 11 of them permanently. I didn’t swim through water to an island, I didn’t climb down a ladder from the ship, I didn’t get put into a lifeboat that got swamped, I didn’t get left behind when the first ferry left. I found everyone that I cared about and found that they were OK. Not many other people got that lucky.”

And luck was a good thing to have. Pezzino and his wife were first time cruisers. They didn’t have a wealth of travel experience to guide them through one of the more unlucky Friday the 13ths in recent memory. They also, however, didn’t have the benefit of a full-on muster drill, which Pezzino says their Costa host, Sean, scrapped shortly after they began their cruise in Barcelona in favor of a presentation on shore excursions. They had their wits and the help of a few crew members who were often in the dark, literally and figuratively, about what was transpiring around them.

“The crew was in the same boat as us, if not worse,” said Pezzino during a 90-minute interview. “Unlike us, they didn’t have any time to get their things.  This boat was essentially their home. A lot of them have lost everything– and on top of that, they have lost their job.”

“They were the ones that were putting their lives on the line,” he added. They made a human chain to make sure we got into the life boat. For the captain to leave the ship,” he paused to gather his words, “travesty doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

By now, the broad lines of what happened on Friday, January 13, 2012 off an Italian island called Giglio are well known to anyone with a cell phone, Internet connection or TV. But Pezzino’s account of what happened inside the ship and during the rescue efforts should probably become required reading in how not to manage a crisis–at both Costa Cruises and U.S. diplomatic missions.

On Friday, the Pezzinos had spent 11 hours on shore in Rome. They had an 8 p.m. dinner reservation at the Club Concordia on the ship’s deck 11 and, as luck would have it, the captain turned up there for dinner at 8:30 p.m. and sat down at a table near them. About an hour later, while the Pezzinos were waiting for dessert, a crew member appeared and whispered something in the captain’s ear. “He finished his dessert and calmly walked out of the restaurant,” Pezzino recalled.

View Larger MapAnd then all hell began to break loose. There is a rumbling and the ship begins to tilt. Dishes begin to roll off the table and people fall out of their chairs. Pezzino wonders to himself if they have been hit by a wave. A crew member tells Pezzino and his wife to return to their room, which is on Deck 7. They had to walk the four flights of stairs because the ship’s elevators were out of commission. Once in their room, they are told, as the lights flickered around them, that there was an “electrical problem” on the ship and the “situation is well in hand.”

Except of course that it wasn’t. The ship righted itself, Pezzino said, and then began to list in the other direction. His view of Giglio disappeared. “Now I’m looking at only water,” he said. “I’m thinking this is more than an electrical issue.” Soon thereafter, the muster alarm sounded–the signal that there was a  major emergency on ship. Pezzino and his wife stuffed a few valuables in their pockets, donned their life vests and headed for their assembly point on deck 4.

“The muster station was in total chaos,” Pezzino recalled, “there doesn’t seem to be any management of the people, and people are scared.” The ship’s list was so pronounced at that point that people were having hard time standing up.

And then came the call to abandon ship. What happened next, as Pezzino recounted it, calls into question the preparedness of the Costa Concordia–or perhaps any large venue–to handle a major catastrophe. Conflicting orders, poor communication, non-existent communication and perhaps even deliberate obfuscation added to the stress of those now desperately seeking a way to the life boats–boats that were increasingly difficult to launch because the ship was at such an extreme angle to the water. “If they had told us, look there is an issue, dress warmly, put on your sneakers, there would have been less confusion,” Pezzino says. “They didn’t start putting anyone into boats until it was too late”. (It’s not known exactly when the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, left the Concordia that evening. But on Tuesday, Italian coast guard officials released a conversation they recorded in which they repeatedly ordered him back on his ship to check on the condition of passengers still on board.)

The Costa Concordia off Rhodes, in happier times

“We ran into our waiter and our cabin steward,” Pezzino said. “He started to cry when he saw us. He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I should have told you earlier. We knew the ship was going down, but we were ordered not to tell people.” Costa Cruises has squarely blamed the captain for the accident and largely disavowed his actions. It could not be determined last evening what, if anything the captain had communicated with his crew.

Though they had to wait for a life boat to return from Giglio to get them off the stricken liner, the Pezzinos did eventually make it to the island, where Angelo Pezzino says, the tiny population of islanders did their best to feed and shelter an influx of more than 4,000 people in the middle of the night. As dawn approached, they were taken by ferry to the mainland, through a Red Cross processing station, and loaded onto buses. They arrived in Rome at a hotel that, Pezzino said, extended full hospitality though it had not been warned of their arrival.

But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal. While Costa offered the Pezzinos a flight home, they needed passports to board and theirs were locked in a purser’s safe that was likely under water. The American embassy in Rome could help them get new passports, but it couldn’t send a cab to help the Pezzinos–or the other Americans staying at the hotel who like them had no money–to get across Rome to the Embassy.

“There were 30 Australians on the trip,” Pezzino said. “Their ambassador came out to each of the hotels, got the passport process started, took them to the mall, got them a loan to buy toiletries and shoes, they were set up immediately with flights. Australia was the norm not the exception,” added. “America did nothing for us. Our embassy did nothing.” (The Embassy’s Facebook page does seem to have been a way for it to disseminate some information about the 120 Americans on the Costa Concordia, all but two of whom have been accounted for. As of Tuesday night, a couple from Minnesota was still missing.)

Just what U.S. authorities can do for Americans in crisis abroad is more limited than you might think. The U.S. State Department, under a section on its Web site called “Emergencies and Crises” says, basically says it is impossible for the U.S. to do some of the things that Pezzino wishes the U.S. Embassy in Rome had done. “It is almost impossible for the U.S. government to provide in-country transportation service to individuals or specific groups during a foreign crisis,” the site says. “You should therefore pay close heed to our travel and safety information for the country they are traveling to or residing in, monitor local conditions, and have a plan of action in case of emergency.” Of course, that sort of goes out the window when the transportation service is the emergency.

Beyond that, State has an exhaustingly detailed operations guidebook, the Foreign Affairs Manual, that is required reading for any American in diplomatic service abroad. It says that officials may, at their discretion provide emergency medical, dietary or financial assistance to eligible, non-incarcerated Americans, but are not required to do so. And before any financial aid is given, officials must have contacted “at least three possible sources of private assistance” provided by the affected citizen.

The Pezzinos and their fellow Americans weren’t looking for financial assistance. They were looking for a way home.

“Many people are upset at Costa,” Pezzino says. “Yes, I’m upset at the captain. He killed people with his recklessness. But I’m also upset with our government and our embassy. It’s unthinkable that this is the way people are treated.”

Photo top right from Wikipedia. Photo of the Costa Concordia in Rhodes by Cyr0z via Flickr.


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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]


  1. Great article, Virginia. So glad our fellow Veronians made it home safely.

    As for the piece—nice example of journalism. All that research and info on Americans traveling and what the embassy can or cannot do. Way to go.

    Now, let’s move to Australia. THAT’s what you hope for when you’re in trouble in another country without shoes, much less all your papers and money!


    Great job, Virginia!

  2. Virginia,
    This is among the best coverage of this unfortunate event that I have seen to date. Well done!

  3. I learned a lot about international travel that I never knew before, Virginia. You are a thorough journalist. What a sad story for so many people.

  4. So glad the Pezzinos made it home safely. What a horrific ordeal for them. I commend them for waiting and talking to our local Verona reporter first. But the message needs to get out there…that the ship line was not prepared for disasters and our embassy did not step up to the plate. Your story needs to be on national news. My prayers to you.. and to the families of the missing.

  5. Bravo, this is one of the best articles I’ve read yet about the Concordia tragedy. The mainstream media’s recycled formulaic junk pales in comparison to this. Good work, Virginia!


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