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Dream cruise holiday turns to hell

After a busy year managing a bar and mini-market in Galé, Albufeira, the Murzacova family relished the prospect of a luxury cruise planned for early January.

This would the first time the family – Constantin, Carolina and 13-year-old daughter Biatricia – had been cruising and the prospect of a five star experience while visiting some of Europe’s most famous destinations had often provided motivation during the hectic months of the Algarve tourist season.

Little did this hard working family realise that they were soon to be centre stage in a tragic drama with the world looking on at increasingly nightmarish TV images being projected across the globe.

The car trip from Galé to Lisbon had been marked by a rising level of anticipation. Similarly, the pleasant flight to Barcelona was characterised by the family’s growing sense of excitement as the scheduled departure on the cruise liner, Costa Concordia, grew nearer.

Various locations, including Seville, Palma, Sicily and Rome, held the promise of interesting and fascinating experiences. Five days into the trip, however, the dream holiday turned into a living hell.

13-year-old Biatricia with the ship’s captain, Francesco at the gala dinner
13-year-old Biatricia with the ship’s captain, Francesco at the gala dinner

Constantin, Carolina and Biatricia were separated from each other as the bright lights and soft music dramatically gave way to sudden darkness and violently crashing glass. What they did not know at the time was that their ship had just struck rocks off the tiny Italian island of Giglio and was taking on water having been holed on the left-hand side.

The sounds of screaming echoed around the ship as terrified passengers were brutally plunged into the dark horror of a sinking ship. The possibility that they were about to die in a freezing Tyrrhenian Sea was a terrifying reality.

Tragically, 30 people are now known to have lost their lives on the ill-fated Concordia. As survivors, the Murzacova family are simply grateful to be alive and for the fact that each of them emerged relatively unscathed. Inevitably, though, the terrible memories of those chilling hours remain and Carolina visibly shivers as she recalls some of the haunting scenes:

“The worst point was when, at first, the family was separated. We were in the bar after dinner and Biatricia had gone back to the cabin for something. She had not been away for long when the first terrifying tilt was felt. Then came the sounds of sliding and crashing and the ship was in total blackout. Of course, my husband immediately went to search for Biatricia telling me to stay where I was. Biatricia was already returning from the cabin and was in a corridor when the danger became obvious to her. Very sensibly, however, and showing great maturity, she stayed calm, held tight and remained in one place. This was where Constantin found her before bringing her back to the bar area and we were, thank God, together again.”

Constantin and Carolina in the restaurant
Constantin and Carolina in the restaurant

Carolina described how the holiday had all begun so well. The photograph of Biatricia with the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, at the Gala Dinner reflects a fun-filled happy occasion.

The 74 different nationalities on board had contributed greatly to the sense of excitement and joy as people of the world caroused together in happy harmony. However, ironically, when so many different languages frantically tried to communicate with each other aboard the sinking vessel, the panic and desperation was heightened immeasurably.

The life and death situation was so fraught that it seemed as if nearly everyone on board – passengers and crew – were only able to help themselves in the increasingly desperate attempts to survive.

Even so, when Carolina and Biatricia were safely secured into a lifeboat tethered to the side of the stricken ship, Constantin bravely went, in an attempt to search for survivors, to other decks on the Concordia where water had already submerged so many cabins.

Carolina explains: “We were on the side of the ship which was tilted at an angle away from the sea. The opposite side, though, was already partially submerged and the people there were in more immediate danger. As Constantin felt we were safe for the moment, he went to that area of the ship where people might be given assistance. It really felt as if it was every man (and woman and child!) for themselves.”

Carolina also outlined how, although initially feeling safe when harnessed into a lifeboat, it was over three, long, dismal hours later before they finally made it to the safety of the small island and dry land. They were huddled in the lifeboat together with nearly 120 other people as it remained pitch dark and freezing temperatures continued to fall.

The growing sense of unease and fear was heightened further as the island’s lights were so tantalisingly near but they were unable to set sail for them. Even more terrifyingly, no-one seemed able to explain why they were not being allowed to escape in the lifeboat. Carolina emphasised how they prayed desperately to be rescued.

When the lifeboat had eventually splashed into the icy waters, it was not long before the Murzacovas reached the safety and sanctuary of the small Italian island.

Apart from the clothes they stood in, the family had absolutely nothing. Freezing and numbed with shock, they relied on the rescue teams who had arrived to assist survivors. With no money, no passport and no mobile phones, initial attempts to contact loved ones and inform them of their safety were in vain. The family’s torture was heightened by the knowledge that Carolina’s father and sister, who also live in Galé, would be desperate for news.

The Murzacovas learned later of how their family in the Algarve had frantically been watching TV, waiting and praying for news of survivors. The Galé telephone numbers Carolina needed were on their lost mobile phones. Then the ingenious idea occurred of using Facebook to communicate that they had survived. As a result, eventually, they made tearful and deeply emotional contact with family in the Algarve.

Despite this, the family are determined to embark on another cruise ship holiday. Until their life-threatening experience, the trip had been a fascinating adventure to interesting locations and they vow to revisit them once more.

While the memories of the Costa Concordia will never entirely leave them, Carolina is determined to ensure that new, fresh experiences of cruising will overtake them and allow the whole family to move on from the trip that threatened their very existence.

The Murzacova family manage Bar Fusion and, only a few hundred metres away, Fusion Mini-Market, in Galé.

Tom is a retired deputy headteacher and freelance writer who, with his wife, now spends time between their homes in Portugal and Scotland.