Schenectady County

Cruise ship vacation fiasco continues for Duanesburg family

First, their cruise ship crashed and tipped over into the sea.
The cruise ship Costa Concordia leans on its side today after running aground on the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Friday evening.
The cruise ship Costa Concordia leans on its side today after running aground on the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, on Friday evening.

First, their cruise ship crashed and tipped over into the sea.

Then, they couldn’t reach their embassy to get new passports so they could fly home.

So when the cruise company sent them to Albany, Ga., rather than New York, it was a bit more than just the last straw.

Joan, Brian and Alana Aho of Duanesburg are among the more than 100 Americans who were aboard the Costa Concordia cruise ship that crashed along the Tuscany coast Friday. For them, getting to shore safely was just the start of the ordeal.

Their friend Cheryl Ratner reached out to local media in an effort to help them get home after they had difficulty with the U.S. Embassy in Italy. She told their story as Joan Aho told it to her, through text messages and Facebook posts.

It was their first night aboard. They had planned for the trip for a long time, scheduling it for when their daughter would be on winter break from her freshman year at SUNY Cobleskill. It was to be their only vacation of the year.

“It was very exciting,” Ratner said. “They always vacation together. They work very, very hard. They take one vacation a year, and this was it.”

They had several days on shore, exploring Italy, before boarding the ship for a seven-day cruise. As they ate dinner the first night, they heard — and felt — the crash. The ship hit a rock after what the cruise company described as an unauthorized maneuver by the captain. He is now being held on manslaughter charges related to the six or more passengers who died after the crash.

The family heard plates breaking and hurried to the top deck, ignoring the often contradictory directions given by the staff.

“Everybody was issuing orders and every second or third person was contradicting the others,” Ratner said.

At one point, Brian Aho snagged two life jackets, for his wife and daughter. He turned and handed them to his wife.

“Some woman ripped them right out of her hands,” Ratner said. “People were panicking.”

The family finally got to a lifeboat, but passengers were pushing and shoving so much that Alana Aho nearly got separated from her parents as they climbed into the boat. Her mother grabbed Alana’s leg and held on until she was able to get aboard.

“Someone was pushing Alana out of the way,” Ratner said. “Joan had to hang onto Alana’s legs.”

Once they got to shore, they found that embassies had sent officials to the local hotels to help the stranded passengers get new documents. Most people had nothing with them — not even a driver’s license. The Aho family had only a cellphone. Officials for the British and other embassies were able to begin processing new passports right away.

But the U.S. Embassy, which had relatively few citizens on board, didn’t send anyone to help. At one point, Joan Aho said she had been advised to borrow money from strangers, take a taxi to the embassy, and fill out the family’s passport paperwork there, Ratner said.

Joan Aho wasn’t happy.

“There was a point at which she started getting angry. And this is a woman — they’re a very calm, laid-back family,” Ratner said. “It was just frustrating. You’re stranded, you have no identification.”

The Americans finally banded together at one hotel to come up with a “strategy” to force the embassy to help them. Ratner never heard the results of that meeting, but shortly thereafter the Americans received their temporary passports — allowing them to go home.

Then came the next battle: getting the cruise company, Costa, to pay for their tickets. Without their wallets — still sinking with the ship — they had no way to pay for airline tickets themselves.

On Sunday night, Joan Aho posted on Facebook that Costa had “finally come through” with tickets for a Monday flight.

“Hopefully tomorrow night we’ll be safely home,” she posted.

But instead they were given tickets to another Albany: the one in Georgia.

Joan Aho called Ratner from the airport in Atlanta on Monday night to tell her about the mistake.

“Costa screwed up,” Ratner said. “She sounds so completely exhausted.”

But she believed Delta Airlines was going to reroute them to the right location, Ratner said.

She’s just hoping they get home soon.

“I love this family,” she said. “I hope they get to sleep for a week.”

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