The stars were beautiful that night.
Though, of course, we didn’t notice the stars at all until much later.
On January 13, 2012, at about 9:45 in the evening, the Costa Concordia cruise ship crashed into a reef and sank just off the coast of Giglio, a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea.
Emily and I were passengers on that ship. It was our honeymoon.
Both of us wore lightweight jackets — much too thin for the coldness of the winter wind blowing across the hull of the ship — and neither of us had any socks. It hadn’t occurred to us at the beginning of the disaster that the ship would really sink, or that we’d have to wait five hours to be rescued. In our minds, it was probably just a drill, or maybe a temporary glitch, so we didn’t dress for the occasion or gather up any of our belongings. We thought we’d spend fifteen minutes at our emergency “muster station” and then return to our cabin to enjoy the rest of our voyage.
But this was no drill. It was the real thing.
And we didn’t escape on the lifeboats.
The ship had listed too severely to one side, and our own lifeboat couldn’t be lowered to the water without getting stuck, or flipping over, or crashing into the side of the cruiseliner.
Or maybe the crew just didn’t know how to deploy it. We couldn’t tell the difference, and it didn’t really matter anyhow. They seemed just as scared and confused as the rest of us. Eventually they gave up trying, and we all got back on the ship.
We had been abandoned. Left behind to die.
By that point, all the working lifeboats had long-since gone, and with them most of the passengers and crew.
The ship was sinking. Fast.
We could feel it moving beneath us, being sucked into the sea at an accelerating pace, as though pulled toward its doom by some enormous undersea monster with ten thousand tentacles and a voracious appetite.
The starboard side flooded first, and the ship leaned hard to the right. Tables and chairs overturned, leaving broken glass everywhere, and the walls became floors. As the staircases flooded with water, we stayed on the outside of the ship along the perimeter, searching for safety.
Ultimately, we climbed over the railing and used a sequence of ropes to lower ourselves down the outer hull of the ship. The windows of the cabins on the lower decks gave us footholds until we got down to the lowest part of the hull, the part that would usually be underwater if the ship had been upright.
It was at this point, with nowhere further to go, that we waited for the ship to finally finish sinking.
I told Emily that I loved her. She kissed me. I sang her a song. We cried a little. With one hand each, we held onto the rope. And with the other hand, we held each other.
And then we waited.
We didn’t know whether the ship would finish sinking before we could be rescued, but we felt in our hearts that either our rescue or our demise was imminent. Beneath us, the ship lurched and moaned, collapsing into the gaping mouth of the sea. Things were moving so quickly, there was so much adrenaline, so much movement, and water all around us…
And then nothing happened.
An hour passed. Then another hour.
The ship stopped sinking. The rescue boats didn’t rescue anyone.
And while we waited, we noticed the stars. The cloudless nighttime sky was bright with starlight, and under that illumination, we looked into each other’s faces and saw some measure of hope. We sang songs in the moonlight. We cried a little, out of relief and hope and exhaustion and despair.
We told jokes. Crazy morbid jokes.
And we held onto the rope.
This book tells the story of our escape from that sinking ship.
But I’m also going to tell the story of the institutions that failed us. The cruise company. The Italian police. The U.S. and Chinese Embassies. The major news networks. The United States Congress.
In every case, they ignored and dismissed us. One after another, they shrugged their shoulders at our safety and turned their backs on our well-being. We entrusted them with our lives and with our stories and with the pursuit of justice, and one after another, they broke that trust and left us to fend for ourselves.
And we did fend for ourselves.
Not just Emily and me, but also our family and friends, and the four thousand strangers who became our brothers and sisters in the midst of this tragedy. We fought hard to escape, and now we’re fighting hard to tell our story. When the news media edited our story into sound bites and ignored the institutional failures, we vowed to take the story back from them and tell it ourselves. This book is my humble attempt.
But this is also a spiritual book. Not because it’s a religious book — we’re not religious people — but because the characters and events in this story represent a microcosm of humanity. A morality play on the sea. Probably more than anything else, this is a book about islands of compassion in a sea of indifference.
Finally, this is a story about an astonishing journey. A journey that took us someplace unexpected — like all important journeys do — and then changed our lives forever.
Sometimes a physical journey becomes a spiritual journey. Sometimes you visit a place, and it changes you.
But all spiritual journeys are physical journeys, because you can’t get outside yourself unless you leave the house first.
Sometimes you embark upon a journey deliberately, but most of the time, the journey is thrust upon you.
This is our journey.