British teenager James Thomas had only been working aboard the Costa Concordia for six months when the cruise ship capsized off the coast of Tuscany last Friday.
But when panic erupted in the rush to get the ship’s 4,200 passengers to safety, the 19-year-old dancer demonstrated composure beyond his years by turning himself a human ladder to allow dozens of men and woman to climb to safety, the Daily Mirror reports.
Thomas told the Mirror that some passengers accidentally went to the wrong floor, one level above the loading dock, as they raced to reach the ship’s life boats.
Realizing crew members “were going to have to do something drastic,” Thomas stretched his 6 foot 3 inch frame across the gap and allowed passengers to climb down his body into the rafts below.
“We couldn’t get the lifeboats off and the life rafts the staff use were stuck to the side of the ship. It was frightening. People couldn’t get down, the drop was too far, so I lowered myself into position. I grabbed the lifeboat with one arm and the upper deck rail with the other and let people climb on my shoulder and down my body,” Thomas told the Daily Mirror.
As for his own escape, Thomas said he was later pulled into a lifeboat by other passengers.
“The last people I helped were a Frenchman and his disabled wife. He grabbed me by the cuff and pulled me into one of the boats,” Thomas told the Mirror.
Thomas was working on the Costa Concordia as part of a dance group contracted by the ship’s parent company, Carnival Cruiselines.
The dancer’s story is exceptional, particularly considering that much of the crew were insufficiently trained for such a disaster.
According to Reuters, most of the ship’s 1,023 crew members were hired to run its many bars, casinos, swimming pools, and theaters and were not qualified seamen.
“I wouldn’t blame the crew. I think they behaved as professionally as possible,” Marco Mandirola, President of the IBLA, an association representing tugboat operators and harbor pilots,” told Reuters. “Onboard personnel that aren’t part of the ship’s crew do a series of courses but they’re not sailors.”