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Fla. couple survives Costa cruise sinking: ‘We’ve been blessed’

By Susan Miller Degnan, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — As thousands of screaming men, women and children ran for their lives Friday night amid the sinking Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy, Karen Camacho feared she and her husband wouldn’t make it out alive.

So, the Florida mother of two young sons waiting back home began to sob.

And pray.

“I was terrified,” Camacho, 34, of Homestead, told McClatchy Newspapers in a telephone interview Sunday from the Rome Hilton. “I cried. I screamed. I couldn’t stop thinking about my kids.

“I told my husband … ‘We’re going to die.’”

Camacho and her husband, Luis Manny Hernandez, were among the more than 4,200 people on board the cruise ship that struck a line of rocks near the island of Giglio, Italy. The massive ship turned almost completely on its left side and lay half submerged in the cold, dark Mediterranean Sea as panicked passengers crawled and ran in the darkness amid broken glass and objects strewn from the wreck.

“It was the Titanic without the water,” Camacho said.

The couple, who saved for years to take the cruise as a second honeymoon to celebrate 10 years of marriage, had their cellphones with them but lost a computer, iPods, passports, credit cards, all their luggage and every cent they had carried — about $1,000. They received temporary passports from the U.S. Embassy on Saturday, and were subsisting through the grace of two Seattle-area women they met at dinner before the tragedy struck. One of the women, who had lived her first 12 years in Miami, lent the couple enough money to survive in Italy for a few days.

“We’re planning on visiting the pope before we leave,” said Hernandez, 42, a Cuban American who owns his own low-voltage burglar alarm company. “Of course, we’ve been blessed already.”

The nightmare began just after the couple had been served their vichyssoise; they were anticipating the main course of lamb shanks with cream of polenta.

“Suddenly, we heard a crash and the boat was shaking,” said Camacho, a Honduras native who works for a company that exports raw material to make medicines in Latin America. “All the plates, the cups, the bottle of wine — everything — fell on us and then shattered on the floor. I was wearing a little dress with high heels.

“I told my husband, ‘The boat is tilting to one side,’ and then the other, and he said, ‘Everything is fine. We’re in 2012. There’s too much technology for the boat to go down.’”

The women from Washington — Lynn Kaelin, 61, and former Miamian Karen Koise, 60 — immediately left the table, but the Florida couple remained in the dining room. When the lights on the ship went dead soon afterward, the married couple grabbed metal rails along the wall and treaded in the dark up the steep incline toward their cabin. Camacho quickly swapped her high heels for low-heeled boots and slipped into a coat. They both got into their life vests. And out they went.

When they made it to the highest side of the boat, the side out of the water, Camacho and Hernandez scrambled to find a lifeboat. But it was chaos, she said, people wailing in the darkness, “families with little kids crashing into doors and walls, chairs flying everywhere.” They finally found a raft, but Hernandez did his duty by helping several others, children among them, get into the boat before he and his wife did.

When he and Camacho were ready to jump in, they were told there wasn’t enough room. Frantically, they went to “three, four” more rafts, he said, denied access each time. Finally, the normally soft-spoken, shy Hernandez said he shouted: “I’m getting in and you can’t stop me!” and the two forced their way onto the raft.

Then, more panic.

The raft wouldn’t detach from the ship, and everyone bolted.

“No one knew what was going on,” Camacho said. “I’ve been on cruises before from the United States. They give you safety classes before you leave. They tell you, ‘This is where you have to be in case of emergency.’ Here they did nothing. They knew nothing.

“It was chaos.”

Said Hernandez: “I was scared, but I didn’t let her know.”

He grabbed his wife’s hand and led her back through the dining room to the other side of the ship. This time, instead of going up, they slid all the way down on the floor filled with food and beverage, toward the submerged portion of the massive vessel, using couches to cushion their arrival. “There was glass all over,” Camacho said. “Tables. Chairs. It was dark. It was slippery.

“My husband just kept saying, ‘Keep going!’ I cut my finger, I hurt my knee, but we got to the other side. It felt like we were skating.”

They finally entered an orange raft from the fourth floor of the ship, but the vessel was tilted so far down that “we were maybe 2 feet from the water,” Hernandez said.

The two were taken to Giglio off the Tuscan coast, then ferried to a bus that took them to a school. Later, they were driven 2 1/2 hours to Rome, where they reunited with their new friends. The 100-plus U.S. citizens onboard had an informal meeting among themselves, which included Aventura, Fla., honeymooners David and Denise Saba.

“We are freaking survivors!’’ said Kois. “Karen and Manny are wonderful people,” she said of her new Miami friends.

Added Kaelin: “We’ve bonded. Now it’s like we’re related.”

Camacho and Hernandez would like to leave next Sunday on their originally scheduled flight back to Miami. But if they get “kicked out” of the hotel, presumably being paid by the cruise company, Camacho said, they’ll have to find a way to change flights and leave earlier.

She said she’s willing to take another cruise — as long as it originates in the United States.

He said he’s afraid, at least for now.

Camacho and Hernandez said they now appreciate life more than ever.

“From now on I’m going to live every moment like it’s my last,” Camacho said. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

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