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Richmond family recounts nightmare on cruise ship

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014 10:42 a.m. CDT

RICHMOND – Jim and Jo Salzburg, along with their daughter Mary-Jo Salzburg, were supposed to be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

The three hope that the trip will happen only once in their lifetimes.

The Richmond family was on the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship that ran aground Friday off the Tuscan coast. They were scheduled to be on the ship from Jan. 13 to Jan. 20.

The Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 people when it hit a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio when Capt. Francesco Schettino made an unauthorized deviation from the cruise ship’s programmed course.

Recordings were released Tuesday.

An exasperated coast guard officer shouts at the captain of the grounded Costa Concordia: “You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me?” A dramatic recording makes clear that Schettino left his ship before all the passengers were off and resisted going back to coordinate the evacuation.

Five more bodies were found Tuesday, raising the confirmed death toll to 11. Before the latest find, 29 people had been unaccounted for.

Italian prosecutors have accused Schettino of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship before all passengers were evacuated.

Jim Salzburg, 71, described the situation as complete chaos.

The Richmond trio, who returned Sunday evening, have been on about a dozen cruises including Alaska, Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera and the Caribbean.

The experienced travelers, however, had never been to Europe. They were looking forward to days in Rome, Palermo and Barcelona, among other places.

Mary-Jo Salzburg, 39, who paid for the trip, said Costa contacted her on Monday to confirm that the cruise line will reimburse her for the trip.

However, she said she would never book with the company again.

The family had the weather as an obstacle on the way to the cruise.

They were scheduled to fly out of Milwaukee, with a connecting flight in Philadelphia, on their way to Rome.

Because of the snowstorm Thursday, they had to be bused to Chicago and caught a flight to Zurich on their way to Rome.

While flying from Zurich to Rome, the plane’s de-icing equipment had to be repaired before takeoff.

They made it on the ship about 5 p.m. Friday, but were late and couldn’t get anything to eat on board, except for some slices of pizza and water.

By 8 p.m., they were exhausted and decided to go to bed in their second-deck cabin.

About 15 minutes later, they heard scraping sounds and a large thud. The lights then went off, and items fell to the floor.

Cruise staff initially said a generator had blown out and that everything was OK.

There was confusion among crew members of what deck passengers should go to, whether it be the fourth, third or fifth deck.

The ship was scheduled to have its first lifeboat drill on Saturday. There were some passengers, however, who already had been on the ship for four days.

“A day late and a dollar short,” Jim Salzburg said.

They eventually got into a lifeboat that took the passengers to a nearby island.

When they boarded the lifeboat, they were told that only Jo Salzburg could get on.

The 70-year-old Jo Salzburg, who has trouble walking, said, “I’m not leaving without him.”

The temperature on the island was 25 to 30 degrees, and the family had only the clothes on their backs. Jim Salzburg only had a shirt and pants, Jo Salzburg had a coat, and Mary-Jo Salzburg had only pajamas.

Costa employees were not spreading information to passengers, said Jim Salzburg, who was battling a cold on Tuesday.

The family didn’t have their passports, money or any spare clothes. However, they were able to call their travel agent and family to tell them they were OK and needed to get home.

“All we had on were our clothes [on our back] and our cellphones,” Jim Salzburg said. “My advice to anybody, if they’re going overseas, is get an international package on your cellphone.”

They eventually were able to get back to the mainland, where the Red Cross provided blankets and something hot to drink.

“All this while no one from Costa said a word to us,” Jim Salzburg said.

However, there were some people during the trip who were helpful.

After reaching Rome, they had a cab driver named Stephano drive them around, to the U.S. Embassy and to some sights including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum.

He bought the family lunch and refused payment for his efforts.

“He was really fantastic,” Jim Salzburg said.

Jim Salzburg remains very upset with the Costa Cruise line.

“If it wasn’t for the passengers [helping each other], there would be a lot more casualties than there were,” Jim Salzburg said.

When asked when his family will go on their next cruise, Jim Salzburg laughed. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the way it looks to be,” he said.

“I don’t know, it will be quite a while before we go an another,” Jim Salzburg added. “Next time we get on a ship, that’s all we’ll be thinking about.”

Mary-Jo Salzburg said this is such a rare event.

“You don’t think something like this will happen,” Mary-Jo Salzburg said. “Lifeboats are an afterthought.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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