PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy (Reuters) - At least three people were killed and rescuers were searching for other victims on Saturday after an Italian cruise ship carrying more than 4,000 people ran aground and keeled over.
A rescue operation involving lifeboats, ships and helicopters was continuing hours after the 114,500-tonne Costa Concordia hit a sandbar near the island of Giglio on Friday evening. Photographs showed a large gash along its side.
"At the moment, we have about 40 men at work and we're expecting specialist diving teams to arrive to check all the interior spaces of the ship," said fire services spokesman Luca Cari.
"We don't rule out the possibility that more people will be lost.
"This is difficult because the ship is enormous," Cari said, adding that it was lying on its side on the seabed and would probably not sink further.
Passengers said disaster had struck during their evening meal.
"We were sitting down to dinner and we heard this big bang. I think it hit some rocks. There was a lot of panic, the tables overturned, glasses were flying all over the place and we ran for the decks where we put on our lifevests," passenger Maria Parmegiano Alfonsi told Sky Italia television.
Police and passengers quoted on television spoke of some people jumping off the listing, 290-metre-long ship.
The multi-storey luxury vessel settled on its side, partly submerged, just a few hundred meters (yards) from the shore. Authorities declined to speculate on the causes of the accident.
Many of the 3,200 passengers and 1,023 crew were taken to the mainland port of Porto Santo Stefano where they were given shelter in schools, churches and other public buildings.
The website of the ship's operator, Genoa-based Costa Crociere, had apparently collapsed under the volume of searches but the company set up a helpline to answer public enquiries. Costa said it would cooperate fully with authorities.
There was no word on the identities of casualties.
Most of the passengers were believed to be Italian but people of several other nationalities were thought to be on board.
"We are going through the list of passengers at a reception centre that's been set up but most of the passengers didn't have their papers with them of course, so it's been difficult to get full identification," an official said.