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Michigan couple escapes from Italian cruise ship

4:50 PM, Jan 17, 2012   |    comments
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Steve and Kathy Ledtke of Fort Gratiot were on board the Costa Concordia when it capsized. AP Photo, above; Port Huron Times Herald

(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - As St. Clair County's Steve and Kathy Ledtke hung in a lifeboat from the side of the Costa Concordia on Friday night, a beacon of light flickered from a hillside.

With the ship leaning precariously, they couldn't see shore. Sitting in a lifeboat packed with nearly double the people it was designed to carry, they waited to be lowered down into the cold, dark waters of the sea.

But over the top of the listing ship, Steve Ledke, a family physician from Fort Gratiot, saw lights from a house flickering up on the hill.

"You couldn't see the town," Steve Ledtke said this morning, safe at home with his wife, Kathryn, 53, a nurse and flight attendant for Pinnacle Airlines. But he choked back tears as he recalled the horror of that dark night. "But what you could see above the rocks...you were only a few hundred feet from shore. You wonder how this huge ocean liner could be a couple hundred feet from shore and not hit something. I was so happy, thinking, 'No one is going to die here.' "

The Ledtkes flew back to metro Detroit, arriving Monday night at Metro Airport. The pair, who enjoy traveling, had spent a couple of days exploring Rome before they boarded the Concordia on Friday, Steve Ledtke said today.

But as they sat at a round dining table at their late-seating dinner Friday night, the boat grounded off the coast of Italy.

Earlier, authorities had said 16 people were missing. But an Italian Coast Guard official, Marco Brusco, said late Monday that 25 passengers and four crew members were unaccounted for. He didn't explain the jump, but indicated 10 of the missing are Germans. Two Americans also are among the missing.

The two Americans have been identified by their family as Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife Barbara, 70, of White Bear Lake, Minn.

This morning, recalling the ordeal, Steve Ledtke confirmed earlier reports the grounding was like the Titanic.

"We heard and felt a big thud and it seemed to me almost immediately -- it could have been a minute or so --- the boat started listing," he said. "There's hundreds of people there; all the glasses are starting to drop to the floor and break. Then the tables started going to the left."

Still seated, Steve was pushed in his chair by the tables sliding en masse. Kathy, who was up, began to help falling elderly passengers grab a nearby railing as the floor began to tilt.

No ship workers were around, and a person on overhead speakers tried to calm passengers with claims of an electrical problem, Steve Ledtke said.

"To many of us, it seemed like the boat was going to go down, regardless of what they said overhead," Steve Ledtke said today. "Once things started happening, all the staff was gone - they disappeared."

The Ledtkes headed to a lifeboat, where they waited. Then another employee ordered them back onto the ship.

It was an hour and a half before they heard "abandon ship," Steve Ledtke said. "Once we opened it up again, it was almost like a stampede, like a panic after the abandon ship announcement," Steve Ledtke said. The boat was only supposed to carry 150 people. "It must have been 250 people in the boat.I thought we were just going to fall to the water there was so much weight. It jerked dramatically but then they lowered us to the water, and we headed to shore."

With their cell phones, wallet, purse and all personal items still in their cabin on the ship, the Ledtkes borrowed a cell phone to let their family -- including a daughter who lives in Berkley -- know they were OK.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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