01/14/2012 10:57 EST | Updated 03/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Costa Concordia Cruise Ship Disaster: Canadians On Board Stricken Luxury Liner

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TORONTO - Thousands of people from all corners of the world, including a dozen from Canada, lived through a night of horror when the luxury cruise liner they were on ran aground off the coast of Italy and flipped on its side, leaving three people dead and forcing more than 4,000 aboard to evacuate.

The stories of their terrifying escapes from Costa Concordia emerged Saturday as Italian divers were searching for about 40 people who remained unaccounted for. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.

The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed all the Canadians who were on board the doomed ship are well have been accounted for.

The cruise ship had 4,234 people aboard when it ran aground hundreds of metres off the tiny island of Giglio near the coast of Tuscany late Friday.

Italian coast guard officials said the exact circumstances of the accident were still unclear, but that the first alarm aboard went off about 10:30 p.m., about three hours after the Concordia had begun its voyage from the port of Civitavecchia to Savona, in northwestern Italy. No SOS was sent.

Many of the evacuees, including a couple from Ontario, complained that crew members told passengers they weren't in danger until the boat was listing dangerously to the side. The delay made lifeboat rescue eventually impossible for some of the passengers, some of whom jumped into the sea while others waited to be plucked to safety by helicopters. Some boats had to be cut down with an axe.

Alan and Laurie Willits from Wingham, Ont., were watching the magic show in the ship's main theatre when they felt an initial lurch, as if from a severe steering manoeuvre, followed a few seconds later by a "shudder" that tipped trash cans over.

They said that the subsequent listing of the ship made the theatre curtains seem like they were standing on their side.

"And then the magician disappeared," Laurie Willits said, saying the magician left the stage and panicked audience members fled for their cabins as well.

Once at their life boat station, crew members directed passengers to go upstairs from the fourth floor deck; Alan Willits said he refused.

"I said 'no this isn't right.' And I came out and I argued 'When you get this boat stabilized, I'll go up to the fifth floor then,' " he said. Eventually, his lifeboat was lowered down.

Back home, the couple's children said their parents were tired and shaken, but otherwise fine and recuperating in a hotel in Rome.

Jory Willits, 20, said her parents had been on many cruises and Friday's experience, while harrowing, isn't likely to deter them from booking another trip.

"My dad's an adventurist and last night... I said, 'Just look at it like an adventure because you can't do anything about it,' " she said.

She said her parents mentioned meeting at least one other Canadian on board, a man from Toronto.

On Saturday, the ship was lying virtually flat off Giglio's coast, its starboard side submerged in the water and the huge gash showing clearly on its upturned hull.

According to the Italian news agency ANSA, the Concordia had a previous accident in Italian waters. In 2008, when strong winds buffeted Palermo, the cruise ship banged against the Sicilian port's dock, and suffered damage but no one was injured.

_ With files from The Associated Press.

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