Three dead and dozens missing in ship accident, as thousands are ferried to the mainland at Santo Stefano port.
At least three people have died after a luxury cruise ship ran aground off the Italian coast in an accident which forced the coast guard to evacuate more than 4,000 people to safety, media reports say.
The 114,500-tonne Costa Concordia was on a trip around the Mediterranean when it "hit an obstacle" near the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany late on Friday, a coast guard official told the Associated Press news agency.
But the exact circumstances of the accident remained unclear and dozens of people remain missing.
"At around 8:00pm (19:00 GMT) the 290-metre-long Costa Concordia cruise ship ... began taking on water and tilting over by around 20 degrees," the coast guard said in a statement, after most of those aboard were rescued with lifeboats.
"There are three certified dead," Guiseppe Linardi, the top official in Grossetto told Italian media, saying that difficulties in mounting the passenger rescue effort had led to earlier confusion over the death toll. Authorities fear the casualty figure could rise.
Sonia Gallego reports from Italy
One of the victims was a man in his 70s who died of a heart attack caused by the shock to his system when he jumped into the icy waters, reports said.
Dozens were also injured in the accident, at least two of them seriously.
Most of the 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members had already been evacuated to safety on Saturday, as the search continued to see if anyone remained trapped inside the ship.
Helicopters were being used to help rescuers, while hundreds of others were transferred by ferry to the mainland at the Santo Stefano port.
"It's a very complex operation because some of the passengers may have jumped into the sea and not been picked up
by rescuers, while others may have been sheltered in private houses and therefore not been identified yet," said Giuseppe Linardi, police chief in Grosseto.
"The ship is a pretty formidable sight to say the least and you can clearly see the enormous gash, as rescue operations are still taking place," said Al Jazeera's Sonia Gallego, reporting from a firefighting boat nearby.
"At this moment, it looks like it could have been a technical error, but that still needs to be verified," our correspond said, adding that a probe into the accident had already begun.
Some passengers heard a large bang and were initially told the ship had shuddered to a halt for electrical reasons, before being told to put on their life-jackets, a passenger from the boat told the ANSA news agency by telephone.
"We were having supper when the lights suddenly went out. We heard a boom and a groaning noise, and all the cutlery fell on the floor," passenger Luciano Castro said.
Emily Lau, another passenger, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that people were afraid as the ship began to tilt.
She said that crew members tried to reassure the passengers, but that they had trouble handling the situation.
"When we got to the deck, people were just utterly hysterical, mostly not because something was scary, but because there was no control.
"It was just utter madness. People were falling because the ship was actually sinking quite fast. And the next thing we heard was 'abandon ship'," Lau said.
"We had to embark onto our lifeboats, and people were rushing onto the lifeboats and there was no order of any sort. No one told us what to do," she added.
'Like the Titanic'
Some passengers jumped into the sea in a hurry to get off the sinking ship, according to reports.
"It was like a scene from the Titanic," said passenger Mara Parmegiani.
The local mayor said they were trying to find room to accommodate the rescued passengers, including pregnant women and children.
"We are trying to accommodate them anywhere we can - in schools, nurseries, hotels, anywhere that has a roof," said mayor Sergio Ortelli, who added that some passengers were bedding down for the night in a church.
The Costa Crociera company, which owns the vessel, said that it was not yet possible to say what caused the problem, but that the evacuation had been fast.
"The ship was on a cruise in the Mediterranean, leaving from Savona with planned stops in Civitavecchia, Palermo, Cagliari, Palma, Barcelona and Marseille," the company said.
"There were around 1,000 Italian passengers on board, as well as 500 Germans and around 160 French people," it added, without giving details about the rest.
The cruise ship - which boasts 58 suites with balconies, five restaurants, 13 bars, five Jacuzzis and four swimming pools - had set off from the Civitavecchia port near Rome earlier on Friday when it ran into difficulties.
On Saturday, the cruise liner was taking in water through a 50m hole in its hull, and the condition of the vessel appeared to be worsening.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies