Passengers fought over lifeboats, a mother crawled up almost vertical corridors in pitch blackness with her daughter, and elderly couples sobbed as icy decks slipped under water.
A harrowing picture is emerging of the chaotic evacuation of more than 4,000 people from the luxury cruise ship that sank into the Mediterranean off the coast of Tuscany.
Three survivors were found on the Costa Concordia on Sunday, more than 24 hours after it ran aground off the Italian coast.
Five passengers were confirmed drowned and 15 are still missing following the panicked evacuation of the ship as it listed on rocks, yards from the coast of the island of Giglio.
The captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino, has been arrested on suspicion of causing deaths. Prosecutors say he left the £375 million ship before evacuation was complete.
The captain was earlier praised by experts for trying to bring his stricken vessel as close to shore as possible.
Meanwhile, divers continued to search for missing or trapped passengers and crew, survivors described scenes of panic and confusion aboard as crew were at first unwilling then unable to launch lifeboats while the ship listed into the freezing sea. Survivors described climbing down ladders and ropes to escape.
Kirsty Cook, one of eight British dancers working on the cruise, said she was "lucky to be alive" after using a rope ladder to climb down to a rescue boat.
Another dancer, Rosie Metcalf, 22, from Dorset, had to cling to a fire hose before being winched to safety by a helicopter crew. The liner was only three hours out of port and passengers had not yet been given a safety drill.
There was also confusion over some 50 to 70 people who were still unaccounted for, but the picture remained unclear as rescuers struggled to keep track of survivors who were being ferried to different ports.
"The crew couldn't unhook the lifeboats," said Giuseppe D'Avino, a pastry cook from Modena, who eventually got aboard a boat after waiting for about an hour. "There was a lot of panic. There were people screaming. There were children bawling. And even some fisticuffs among the passengers."
A party of German survivors said the messages relayed to passengers were misleading.
"It was just 'Not to worry. Not to worry'," said one.
Then, said a man who would give only his surname, Schmitz, passengers were left alone to queue for the lifeboats: "For more than three hours, we did not see any member of the crew." Some passengers were apparently stranded on the lower decks of the ship.
"I and my friends lifted up 13 or 14 people," Schmitz said.
"Have you seen Titanic? That's exactly what it was like," said Valerie Ananias, 31, a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was with her sister and parents.
"We were crawling up a hallway, in the dark, with only the light from the life vest flashing," her mother, Georgia Ananias, 61, said. "We could hear plates and dishes crashing, people slamming against walls."
Costa Crociere, the company that owns the ship, said it was not immediately possible to determine the cause that led to the incident.