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Costa Concordia Disaster: Surviving Peruvian Cruise Ship Workers Tell Harrowing Stories

Costa Concordia Peruvian Crew

By CARLA SALAZAR and MARTIN VILLENA   01/19/12 11:38 AM ET   AP

LIMA, Peru -- To the Peruvian crew on the Costa Concordia, a job on the Italian cruise ship was an economic plum that earned them a high wage along with free food and lodging while crossing the seas of Europe in style.

Latin American crew members said they were earning the equivalent of more than $1,300 month, many times the $250 minimum wage in Peru.

But the 44 Peruvians who signed up to work aboard the ship didn't count on the disaster that killed at least one from their ranks when it slammed into a reef and flopped on its side Friday off the Italian island of Giglio. One other Peruvian crew member was still missing Wednesday. Another eight Peruvians were traveling on board as tourists.

Rather than get rich, some of them lost everything.

"He lost his laptop, the money he earned, the clothes he brought from here," Carmen Burga, mother of 28-year-old crew member Angel Paredes Burga, said Wednesday in Peru where the surviving 42 Peruvian crew members were returning with the help of the Peruvian consulate in Italy.

"Now he only has the clothes that the Red Cross gave him," the mother.

Paredes Burga is an Italian and French teacher who was recruited by the Costa cruise ship company in October.

In Peru, there is a huge demand for cruise ship jobs that command monthly salaries ranging from $712 to $4,000, said Patricia Betalleluz, general manager of CRC-Peru, a company that recruits workers for those positions.

Betalleluz said there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Peruvian applicants for every 1,000 cruise ship job openings.

Burga said her son told her that on the day of the accident he felt the ship crash into the rocks and heard the wail of an emergency siren, prompting him and other crew members to calm passengers and get them onto lifeboats.

Later, when her son boarded one of the lifeboats himself, he fell and fractured his arm, Burga said.

"He told me, `I feel like I'm in a movie. Everything happened so fast,'" she said.

Far less lucky is the family of 25-year-old Erika Soria, among the 22 missing crew members. Her parents and sister traveled to Italy to urge authorities to not give up the search. Costa is paying their travel costs.

Soria, the youngest of six brothers and sisters, studied tourism at the Andean University in Cusco, where she was born. She worked for Costa since 2009 and traveled regularly between Italy and Peru.

"My sister was disciplined," said her brother, Manuel Soria. "When she left the university she began to look for work. Logically they pay little here, even what Costa pays is little, but compared with what she could have earned in Peru any work is better."

He said his sister earned the equivalent of a bit more than 1,000 euros a month, or a bit more than $1,300.

Erika's sister, Berzabeth Soria, said that cruise ship workers told her that her sister had boarded a lifeboat after helping evacuate passengers. But the small, overcrowded craft flipped and everyone aboard fell into the sea.

"They swam to get to shore, but she never arrived because the boat had already fallen on top of them," the sister said.

In Bogota, a flight arrived late Wednesday carrying the first five of 10 Colombian crew members on the Costa Concordia. Like the Peruvians, they said they lost everything in the accident and were even carrying provisional passports and loaned clothing. The Colombians were hugged by family members in the airport.

Asked if she would try to work again on the cruise ship, 41-year-old Ines Montana said she had had enough.

"I'm staying in Colombia; I'm staying in my home; I'm staying with my family because I want nothing more," said Montana, who said she had been earning about $1,300 a month on the ship, five times the minimum wage in Colombia.

"When gets a chance to live again, one says thanks to life, thanks to God for having another opportunity," she said, adding that she wanted to spend time with her mother and nine siblings.

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |