Lakeville woman, sister had harrowing escape from ship

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2012 - 9:24 AM

A Lakeville woman and her sister were among survivors from the sinking Costa Concordia. A White Bear Lake couple are still missing, as five more bodies were recovered Tuesday.

The Italian cruise ship shuddered, but the crew aboard the luxury liner assured Ronda Rosenthal of Lakeville and her sister Vivian Shafer that it was a "minor issue" and nothing to worry about.

So the two went back to their cabin and climbed into bed.

"But when the ship started to tilt and things started to fall off the table, they said, 'We're out of here,'" said Jeff Rosenthal, who spent anxious hours this past weekend waiting to hear from his wife. "When they got up on the deck, it was pretty frightening. There was a lot of chaos. Some people were calm but most people were running back and forth, not knowing what to do because there wasn't a lot of direction from the crew. So they kind of had to find their own way to the lifeboats. People were in total disarray."

Hundreds of people jumped into the sea, swimming to shore, Rosenthal said. "There were a lot of people in the water," he said.

The lifeboat that his wife and sister-in-law boarded ran aground but eventually made it safely to shore. Safe on land, the two called Jeff Rosenthal, waking him in the Rosenthals' Lakeville home at 4:30 a.m. Saturday.

"She said, 'I'm on an island and I'm OK,'" Rosenthal recalled. The sisters had left the ship with nothing but what was on their backs and have spent the past few days in Rome arranging for temporary passports and an airline flight back to Minnesota, Jeff Rosenthal said. All of their valuables are in the "safe, in their room, under water," he said.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported that another five bodies were located Tuesday, raising the confirmed death toll to 11. Before the latest find, 29 people had been unaccounted for, including a White Bear Lake couple, Gerald and Barbara Heil.

Parishioners at St. Pius X Catholic Church have been holding a round-the-clock prayer vigil for the couple, who they say were on "the vacation of a lifetime." The Heils have been members of the White Bear Lake church for nearly 40 years.

Family members have declined to comment except for a voice recording on the Albertville home phone of Aaron Heil, the couple's son. "We are waiting patiently for the rescuers to safely try to find our parents. Our prayers and thoughts are with our parents, those others that are still missing and their families, and the brave rescuers."

Rough seas battering the ship are now raising fears of an environmental catastrophe if the ship's fuel leaks into the pristine waters off Tuscany that are part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Italy's environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe if any of the 500,000 gallons of fuel leaks into the waters off Giglio, which are popular with scuba divers and which form part of the protected Tuscan archipelago.

"At the moment, there haven't been any fuel leaks, but we have to intervene quickly to avoid an environmental disaster," Corrado Clini told RAI state radio.

The Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino intentionally strayed from the ship's authorized course into waters too close to a perilous reef near the tiny island of Giglio.

The maneuver was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter who is from Giglio and wanted to wave to his parents, who live on the island, local media reported.

Waiting for wife's return

As he awaits his wife's return, Jeff Rosenthal can't help but think about what the Heil family is going through.

"It's just sad," he said. "The thing that bugs me is that this was totally preventable. You have a perfectly good ship and some idiot runs it on the rocks because the crew wants to wave to someone on shore. ... And that's sad. ... You can't deviate from the rules and expect that bad things won't happen."

Ronda Rosenthal left Minnesota Jan. 9 to meet her sister in Rome. Shafer is on a three-week leave from her Army tour of duty in Afghanistan, and the sisters saw the sights before boarding the 1,500-cabin luxury ship for a weeklong Mediterranean cruise. They had only been onboard for three or four hours when they felt as though the ship hit a bump, Jeff Rosenthal said. Their cabin steward assured them the ship was experiencing a "small technical difficulty."

In an interview with CNN, Shafer said they soon heard announcements regarding lifeboats and muster stations.

"We peeked around the corner to kind of see what people were doing ... and, my gosh, people were actually getting in a lifeboat," she said.

Survivors have recounted the chaos as passengers got to the lifeboats. "There wasn't anybody to help you," Shafer told CNN. "I mean, the passengers were loading the lifeboats by themselves."

Jeff Rosenthal said the Italian cruise was his wife's third vacation aboard a ship and she was familiar with the life jackets and getting to the lifeboats. That may have helped his wife stay calm, though he hasn't been able to get too many details.

Although some people remained calm during the evacuation, there still was a lot of chaos, Ronda Rosenthal told her husband.

"For most people, this is the first time in their life faced with this kind of situation, and some are going to do well and some aren't," Jeff Rosenthal said. "In all fairness to the ship's crew, they practice these drills when the boat is straight up and everything goes well and they get these high marks. But when the ship is listing 20 or 30 degrees to the side, you know the lifeboats aren't going to come off just right. ... You know things aren't going well."

Staff Writer Tim Harlow and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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