NEW YORK – S.O.S. Spirit of Survival – One Family’s Chilling Account of the Costa Concordia Disaster is the title of the book written by the Ananias Family about their near-death experience almost two years ago.
Look at the book jacket. Carnival Cruise Line’s Costa Concordia is a pretty ship, isn’t it? Tall, stately, sleek. Modern.
Look again. The angle of the sea. The Mediterranean’s eternal blue is not the serene body of water beloved of tourists. On January 13, 2012 the sea became a sword that suddenly slashed in two the world of 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members: Here was life, here was death – and no one was sure of his fate.
For 32 passengers life came to an end, but for the more than 4000 survivors life would never be the same. The book tells the story of four of those passengers who returned to familiar homes but not to their old lives.
Dean and Georgia Ananias were lifelong devotees of cruising – they have been on more than 60 cruises – and their daughters, Debbie, Cindy, and Valerie also grew to love the pastime.
“It was always our safe haven, our happy place, where we enjoyed life the most, ”Georgia told TNH, but now “we can never set foot on another ship until we know that the safety of passengers is put first.”
Their main reason for writing the book was to prod “cruise lines…we want this book to be a catalyst for change,” Georgia said.
The book is the start, and they will continue meeting with officials to promote policy changes worldwide. They already met with the coast guard, who interviewed them for 4½ hours.
“We were given the gift of life and we cannot sit back and do nothing,” Dean told TNH, and Georgia added, “You can’t have that kind of a trauma happen without having a different ‘normal.’”
They never imagined that would be the case when they boarded the Costa Concordia, the state-of-the- art craft that was launched on September 2, 2005.
Four of them were enjoying a meal in the ship’s dining room when Dean noticed the sound system was playing the theme song from the movie Titanic. Debbie did not go on that cruise. She had just gotten married at Los Angeles’ St. Sophia Cathedral five days earlier. Her passport had expired, besides.
“All of a sudden, the ship started vibrating,” Dean said, but at first he thought they were just putting the ship in reverse. “Then it started getting more and more violent and all of a sudden I notice the water in our glasses was tilting, and then they was a big – BOOM! The lights went off, they went on and the ship began to list immediately.”
Everyone began screaming and yelling and running for the door. Dean’s instinct and experience told him to hold everyone back safe under the overhang and avoid the crush of people.
The four were together through the ordeal. “That was our plan. I said the first thing is that we have to stay together and we were lucky enough that we were all at dinner,” Dean said.
Five and a half hours of painfully slow movement followed as they tried to crawl their way to the highest point of the ship. At one point they were put on a lifeboat that was itself in danger of going down, because “they didn’t’ know what they were doing,” Dean said.
The most harrowing moment was when a man surrendered his baby to the Ananiases thinking they were safer. They began to feel the ship begin to roll over, and “when that happens, it’s over with,” Dean said. Georgia then said “this is it, and I gave the baby back to die with its parents.”
The incident occurred in the dark, after 9PM and they had no idea what was happening because they were not told they were near land.
“When we climbed to the 17th deck we saw that boats and helicopters all around us and thought we were about to be saved, but we just sat there for hours in the cold and rain.”
They finally spied lifeboats just off the ship. She said “we decided to crawl on our hands and knees of slide on their backsides down 17 levels across the ship to the middle. There were ropes, but they could not hold onto them, they were there to guide them down.
“If one of us went down, they rest of us would go down,” she said, but they made it, only to see that the waves dangerously tossing the lifeboat from side to side.
“We had to make a five second decision: stay on a sinking ship or jump for our lives – so we jumped 15-20 feet into the lifeboat,” Dean said.
He was the last to jump, but the boat was moving too much. “I was ready to jump but I probably would have missed it and landed in the water or been crushed.” They pulled him back, but when he finally jumped he landed in the boat.
Asked if at that moment they felt the hand of God, Georgia said “there were many, many times, there were so many miracles,” which they describe in the book, because they didn’t believe they could have conveyed that dimension of their experience in the their talks with the media.
LONG DISTANCE TRAUMA STRIKES HOME HARD
Debbie learned about what was happening when relatives called her. It took 24 hours to speak to her family and she did not know if they were dead or alive for about 10 hours.
Like the rest of the world, Debbie was stunned by the initial reports. The ship crashed into a reef off the Italian island of Giglio after the captain went off course in what has been described as “stunt” to bring the ship closer to the island in order to wow the locals.
A 70-meter (230-foot) gash in its hull caused water to begin to pour in as the Concordia rolled onto its side.
Debbie told TNH that at the time of the incident when she spoke to the media, including TNH, she was in a daze for weeks and Cindy said that writing their stories was therapeutic.
Valerie summed up the family experience: “I am very thankful. I feel very blessed…it makes you appreciate what a precious gift life is…I pray every day. I think about all the blessings I have and I think about those people,” who died unnecessarily. “I believe in miracles but I honestly believe the family bonds and the love that we have for each other saved us. Georgia told TNH that four times they believed they were close to dying. “At those points we knew it was the end, and when we didn’t die, the last time we said ‘if we don’t die there has got to be come reason for us to keep living…when we got off and realized how many people had died and that the truth was not being told , we felt that we had to tell the truth about what happened and give a voice to those who died.”
The book has a memory page for the passengers that did not survive. The Ananias Family dedicated the book both to them “and to those who survived and struggle every day to get over this nightmare that didn’t end when they got off the ship.”
She said “people were lied to immediately on board the cruise and there was no help from anyone…during the accident and in the aftermath.
“People were told to go back to their rooms when the ship was taking on tons and tons of water and they knew it. Those people are not alive to tell that.”
“We never saw any officer. We found out later that they were off the ship within an hour,” Dean said. Their main point is that cruise lines must have competent, well-screened, well-trained employees.
The family emphasized the importance and value of counselling. Dean noted “the more we talked about it, the better we felt. He rejects the false “old world wisdom that says ‘just forget about it you’ll be OK.’” He said “You can’t just forget about it…because it digs at you.”
Georgia said that in the book they make an explicit plea that “if you know anybody who has been in any kind of disaster, reach out to them and don’t forget what they have gone through.”
“The first five or six months you can’t even comprehend what you’ve gone through,” Georgia said. In the aftermath she told Dr. Phil “I can tell you every detail of what happened, but I can’t feel it yet.” He replied that she should be happy that she was like that then and that the feelings will come. “And they did,” she said.
But their emotions were not merely noted, they became fuel for a noble cause.