Elderly cruise ship survivor says crew was no help

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 10:34 AM

Robert McCoppin

CHICAGO -- If Jim Salzburg learned one lesson from surviving the wreck of the Costa Concordia, it's to depend on himself and his loved ones in an emergency.

His only other advice: Keep your cell phone and passport at hand.

Salzburg, 70, his wife Jo, 69, who live in far northwest suburban Richmond, and their daughter Mary-Jo, 39, were among the passengers who survived the ordeal -- with no thanks, he said, to the ship's crew. At least 11 people were reported dead and another 29 missing.

Recounting the drama on Tuesday, Salzburg said the family had retired to their cabin Friday -- their first night on the Italian cruise ship -- when they heard a scraping sound and a "big bang," and then everything slid off their table.

They peeked into the hallway, where a steward told them the sound must have been his cart banging into the wall.

Then the lights went out. Again, the steward said everything was fine, to go back to their room. But when the boat slowly started to tilt 10 to 15 degrees, passengers knew something was seriously wrong and flooded into the hallways. Other passengers told them they had been watching a magic show when the ship ran aground, and the magician ran offstage leaving his assistant in a box.

Still, crew members downplayed any danger even as the scene grew more chaotic, Salzburg said. They told passengers to go first to the fourth floor, then the third, then the fifth.

Jo Salzburg has fibromyalgia, her husband said, which made it difficult for her to get around, but with her daughter pulling and her husband pushing, they made it from their second-floor cabin to the fourth floor, near the lifeboats.

They waited and, more than an hour after the accident, just made it onto the fifth lifeboat, which started dropping into the water even as Salzburg was boarding with one foot still on the ship. The powered, enclosed lifeboat made it to the nearby island of Giglio, but the passengers were stranded there with no information about where they would go.

Despite air temperatures reportedly of about 45 degrees, Salzburg had time only to put on a shirt and pants, while his wife wore a light jacket and sandals, and their daughter was in pajamas. Other passengers were shirtless, and many of them huddled in a church.

Eventually that night, they got a boat to the mainland and then a bus to a hotel near the Rome airport. Because their daughter, a marketing executive for Kemper Insurance, had a cell phone with international usage, they were able to reach the U.S. consulate that night. Although the ship had taken their passports, fortunately, they had their wallet and purses with identification, and were able to get new passports issued within a couple of hours.

"Another 15 minutes (on board), I don't know where we would have been," Salzburg said. "Without my daughter, we probably would have been underneath the ship. There was absolutely no help from Costa. The passengers determined what to do."

The next day, a kindly cab driver took them to get pizza and for a whirlwind tour of the Ancient City, complete with coins to throw in Trevi Fountain and a rosary he picked up at St. Peter's Basilica. When they tried to pay him, he refused.

The family made it safely home on Sunday, though Salzburg, a retired composing room supervisor for The Chicago Sun-Times, caught a bad cold.

Next vacation, he said, they'll probably drive.


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