Henry native survives cruise nightmare

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Special to The Henry County Local

Henry County native Joe Ryan, 23, is looking forward to a trip to Destin, Fla., with friends later this year, after he graduates from Eastern Kentucky University.

It will be a landlocked location – “No captain needed for time on the beach,” he said during a phone interview Monday.

Seems mundane, but Ryan is ready for mundane.

He and his lifelong best friend, Jordan Powell, also 23 and a Henry County native, both were aboard the Costa Concordia when it ran aground off the coast of Italy Friday, Jan. 13. That was his first trip overseas – and may be the last time he ever boards a cruise ship.

The Mediterranean cruise was an early graduation present from his parents, Larry and Jean Ryan of Pleasureville, and started with a great day of sight-seeing in Rome, Ryan said.

The next day, “we woke up early to board,” he said.

Powell recalls boarding at 2:30 p.m. “We unpacked and explored the ship,” she said.

At 9 p.m., the group was seated at dinner. They sat with another group of Americans, including a family of three.

“We had one bite of our appetizer, and the floor rumbled,” Ryan recalled.

The group turned to look at Powell, who is an experienced traveler and had been on cruises before.

“She said they might be running the engines harder” as the ship built up momentum for the cruise. “Then we heard the dishes breaking and felt the ship start listing. We got up and ran.”

As has been reported by the international media, cruisers had not yet been through any drills to prepare them for an emergency, Ryan said. “I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, and I had no long-term thought of what to do.”

He and another friend, Lauren Moore of Bowling Green, were separated from Powell and the rest of their party. He said their first instinct was return to their cabins. “It was the only place we knew that they would know where to meet us.”

For about an hour and a half, the pair went back and forth between the cabins, hoping to find their friends.

“We waited and waited for directions” from the captain and the crew over the public address system, he said. They had only two messages – one from a crew member advising passengers that the problem they were having was an electrical issue, he recalled. The second, and last, announcement they heard was to tell passengers there was a problem with a generator.

Quickly, he said, “it sunk in that it was serious,” he said.

Ryan said he and Moore went back to their cabins one last time to get their wallets and cell phones – and life jackets.

They then headed for the life boats. The first set of lifeboats they found was surrounded by frightened people desperate to get off the ship, he said.  “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. People were running and screaming to get to the boats. It was lawlessness and chaos.”

A woman calmly told them of another area of the ship where there were more lifeboats that still had space on them, and they made their way, finally getting aboard one.

The lifeboats were three tiers of panicking people, he said. Crew members used poles to push away people who were pushing to get aboard, some of them even trying to dive onto them.

“I turned to Lauren and said, ‘You know what happens in this part of the movie, don’t you,’” referring to the scene in “Titanic” where a ship’s officer pulls a gun and shoots a man who isn’t following orders and putting everyone in peril. “We were waiting for gunshots.”

Making matters worse, the winch used to lower the lifeboat failed and two crew members were forced to lower it manually, doing their best to keep it level and trying to keep it from slamming against the side of the ship.

Ryan said he was thankful the motor on the boat worked, as the current was so strong, maneuvering with oars would have been nearly impossible.

Twenty minutes later, he said, they were on shore on a nearby island. “We assumed all of our worries and fears were over. We learned very quickly that was not the case.”

Meanwhile, Powell, who knew exactly what to do in such an emergency, and the rest of her group made their way directly to the lifeboats. At one point while the ship listed, they were looking up at the sky. “Then we were looking straight down at the water,” she said.

She recalled that nearly an hour and a half passed before the crew sounded the alarm to abandon ship.

“The crew was not cooperative or helpful,” and were even trying to round up passengers into a theater. “We ignored them and stayed where the lifeboats were.”

Her group boarded one of the first lifeboats to leave the ship.

Once on the island, they waited by the shore to watch for Ryan and Moore.

“Jordan and our friends were waiting for us, which I’m sure had to be nerve-wracking,” Ryan said. They met up with the rest of the Americans who had been on board – 126 all together.

“It was so comforting to meet up with other Americans on the island,” he said. Immediately, the group felt a sense of camaradarie. “We became family, and we made sure everyone was there at every stop until we got to the embassy.”

They spent the night in the church, which Ryan said was made of marble and was very cold as the overnight temperature dipped to 40 degrees.

“All we had to eat was cheese puffs, water and chocolate,” Powell said.

In the morning, the group took a ferry to Tuscany, where a relief station had been set up offering the survivors blankets, hot tea, bread and other comfort items, she said. A taxi took them to the American embassy back in Rome, where they were able to get emergency passports and arrange for travel home.

Officials kept promising the travelers that their passports would be waiting for them, but they never did get them back, Ryan said.

The group took turns using the two cell phones, but rationing what little time they had in battery life. Back at home, family and friends set up “phone trees” so that news could be passed along after each brief phone call.

With only the clothes on their backs and little or no sleep since the night before they boarded the ship, the group was finally on their way home, arriving back in Louisville about 11 p.m. Sunday.

And that was good enough for Joyce Powell, Jordan’s mom, who said they got a phone call from Jordan about 6:30 a.m. Saturday telling them what happened and that they were all right – before the news broke on television.

Speaking from her Eminence home Sunday, Joyce said her daughter’s quick actions go her home safely. “It’s just a blessing.”

Ryan said as far as he knows, only one American he met on the ship, a young man about his own age, was unaccounted for. He still doesn’t know if the man made it off the ship.

Of the captain’s excuse for not being aboard his sinking ship – having slipped and fallen into a lifeboat and then unable to get back – Ryan isn’t buying it. “He’s a coward.”

He said officials from the parent company, Carnival, are working to reimburse travelers their money and also for their lost items, which including cameras and electronics, totaled over $10,000 for the group, he estimated.

But for now, he said, he is happy and “trying to get back to normal – a new normal,” finishing school and looking forward to those sandy – and safe – Florida beaches.