Lakeville woman, sister recount Italian cruise emergency
Rescue crews, townsfolk came to their aid
by Aaron Vehling
The air on the Mediterranean Sea was cold, as was the water, on that Friday the 13th.
Ronda Rosenthal and Vivian Shafer, joined by at least a couple thousand fellow cruise ship passengers, stood on the diminutive Italian island of Giglio, about 18 miles off the Tuscan coast. They had no money, passports or warm clothes. It was all on a capsized cruise ship not far from the shore.
It may have been Italy, known for its warmer climes, but the coastal area near Tuscany is far enough north to make for a miserable experience in January without proper attire and shelter.
“It felt like the Apostle Islands (in Lake Superior) in the winter,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal, of Lakeville, was joining Shafer, her sister on a recreational U.S. military leave from serving in Afghanistan, for an Italian vacation. They had spent some time sightseeing on land before boarding the Costa Concordia cruise ship on Friday, Jan. 13, in Rome.
The $570 million ship hit rocks in shallow water that evening while the two were attending a magic show. The ship was slowly capsizing on its side by the time the two women joined some others on a lifeboat.
Fifteen people would die in the crash and 18 would be missing, at the time this story went to press. Rosenthal and Shafer paint a picture of a community coming together to help the displaced passengers, but also indicate the mass confusion and lack of preparation on the part of Costa Cruises, the Carnival subsidiary that operated the ship.
The captain would later face prosecution for his negligence and abandoning ship before all passengers were safely off the boat.
The two women told their story to Thisweek on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at Teresa’s Mexican Restaurant in Lakeville.
As the midnight cold set in on Giglio, the 1,500-person island’s residents braced for the influx of thousands of stranded passengers and crew.
The local police and the Italian military joined in to help them distribute blankets, hot tea and some biscuits, Shafer said.
Local merchants gathered as many blankets and clothes as they could, too. They also opened up their shops so people could avoid the cold.
“A man who ran a toy store was passing out all his clothing,” Rosenthal said.
The local Catholic church also opened its doors to accommodate as many as possible.
It was crammed tight, the only open space near the altar. Rosenthal and Shafer, raised Catholic, were not comfortable with sleeping there.
“There was some space against the wall,” she said. “We sat on our life vests from 2 to 5 a.m.”
The whole scene was “mayhem,” Shafer said. In terms of figuring out how to navigate emergency measures and secure a plane home, she said she and her sister were largely on their own.
Eventually, passengers were ferried to Rome, where they stayed at an airport Hilton on Costa’s dime.
The two women sought to make the most of their situation, delaying their flight a few days so they could fit in some sort of excursion.
In the meantime they were interviewed by scores of local and national media, including CNN.
Rosenthal and Shafer were able to contact Ronda’s husband, Jeff, to acquire some money. Costa paid for their 45-minute taxi ride from the hotel to downtown Rome to the United States Embassy. The two needed temporary passports to get home.
Back in the United States, the two women spent much of their time regrouping and talking to reporters. They were not sure if their possessions could be salvaged – the ship has sat idle on its side since it hit the rocks.
Reflecting on the experience, Shafer and Rosenthal said they were not angry. If anything, they are appalled by the rampant “misinformation” and disorganization during the height of the emergency.
“The biggest heroes,” Shafer said, “are those small business owners who stayed open all night to help us.”
Aaron Vehling is at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/thisweeklive.