Two Western Washington women were among the passengers who escaped the sinking cruise ship in Italy.

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The first sign of trouble was a single fork that fell from the second floor of the ornate cruise-ship dining hall.

Karen Kois, of Seattle, had just finished her vichyssoise and was waiting for her entree — lamb shanks with polenta — on the first night of a Mediterranean cruise with her good friend Lynn Kaelin, of Puyallup.

The fork was followed by a scraping noise. The lights flickered off, and then the drinks slid off the table and into their laps.

The Costa Concordia had run aground and was taking on water from a large gash on its side. They were three hours into their cruise. What followed was a chaotic and terrifying evacuation as Kaelin and Kois joined thousands of other passengers in trying to escape before the ship tipped onto its side in the cold Tyrrhenian Sea.

In the dining room, the crew began reassuring passengers that it was just an electrical problem, the two women said. As the ship listed, dishes and crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor. Doors were coming off their jambs.

“I had the horrible feeling that we were going to go on our side,” said Kaelin, speaking by phone from a Rome hotel room Saturday.

Kaelin and Kois ran to their cabin for comfortable shoes, coats and life jackets, money and jewelry from the safe. When Kois went back for a flashlight, the two became separated.

On the ship deck, people were arguing about who should get into the lifeboats first, Kois said. Many were wearing high heels and evening wear.

As passengers boarded the boats, it seemed no one knew how to operate them, she said. Men pounded on the cables to try to get the boats to release. As her lifeboat was being lowered into the water, Kois thought of her family in Seattle — her husband and grown sons.

“You’re hanging from a cable and you have 50 people in the lifeboat. Everybody’s screaming, you have babies in the lifeboat that are crying,” she recalled. “I’m sitting there in the dark. I’m by myself. Am I going to get to see them again?”

On the ship, the crew was searching frantically for more life jackets, the women said. Crew members seemed to be waiting for instructions, but none came.

Miami residents Karen Camacho and her husband had dined with Kaelin and Kois on Friday, and later were evacuated to the same Rome hotel. Camacho said the couple was caught in a crowd pushing and shoving to get into the lifeboats. Families with young children were struggling to get through the throngs of people.

When the Camachos finally got into a boat, it wouldn’t release from the ship. They abandoned it and found another, but after 15 minutes of pushing, it wouldn’t go down, either.

“At that point I started crying again and yelling and telling my husband, ‘Where are the police? Where are the helicopters? How come nobody’s coming to save us?’ ” Camacho said.

Desperate to find a lifeboat, they crossed through the dining room to the other side of the ship. The steeply angled floor was treacherous, covered with glass and water, Camacho said. But on the lower side they found a boat that would take them to shore.

From her lifeboat on the dark sea, Kaelin called her husband in Puyallup. It was just before 1 a.m., and he answered to hear his wife of 42 years — his high-school sweetheart — sobbing and frantic.

“Scared me half to death, said the ship was in trouble, sinking,” said her husband, Ed Kaelin. “When your loved one calls you under those circumstances it’s the worst thing that can ever happen to you.”

On shore, it was freezing and chaotic. People were cold and hurt, with bloodied feet and nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Residents of the island tossed blankets and tablecloths to the thousands of people coming ashore. Kaelin and Kois found each other and boarded a ferry to the mainland, where they got on a bus to Rome.

Saturday afternoon, they were warm and dry and had managed to secure passports for the trip home.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” said Kois. “The adrenaline is just letting down.”

Kois and Kaelin planned to stay a few days in Rome. It was, after all, Kaelin’s first trip to Europe.

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.