The sign at the Atlanta airport wasn’t necessarily meant for them, but the Aho family of Duanesburg took it as such.
“I saw ‘Welcome back to the U.S.’ ” 18-year-old Alana Aho recalled Tuesday afternoon as her parents, Brian Aho and Joan Fleser, finished recounting their three-day Italian odyssey that began in a dining room on the doomed cruise ship Costa Concordia. “I took a picture of it. I was like, ‘We’re stateside.’ ”
Even in Atlanta there was still more to come — but at least they were alive.
Leading up to that point, they had heard the sickening grinding sound of the ship hitting the rocks. They escaped the Concordia dining hall, broken glass everywhere. They made it to the muster station, immediately realizing the gravity of their situation — that the ship was taking on water — and knowing that trying to get to their cabin and belongings could mean being trapped.
There was the chaos of the deck as Brian Aho secured life jackets for the family, only to see one ripped from his wife. Giving his to her, he had to find one for himself. And then there was the lifeboat, where the mother and the father made it onboard, only to see a man try to elbow his way ahead of teenaged Alana Aho. With Aho’s feet at eye level to those on the boat, her parents gave one last pull to get her on.
What they had been through didn’t hit them until the next morning, though, with the light of day. There sat the massive ship on its side, within view of the small dock off the small Italian island.
Search teams suspended operations today at the stricken ship for safety reasons. For more, click HERE.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Fleser said. “I saw it and was like ‘Oh my God.’ I lost my breath at that point.”
With that began the family’s next struggle, with the cruise line and even the U.S. Embassy, just to get home.
The trip was supposed to be a celebration. Up until that horrible grinding sound, it had been.
The family trip marked 20 years of marriage for Brian Aho and Fleser, though a few months after their Aug. 11 anniversary. Aho, 51, who works for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and Fleser, 57, an employee of the state Health Department, brought along their daughter, a SUNY Cobleskill student planning to be a veterinarian.
The cruise caught their eye as they searched for a trip, offering seven ports in seven days. They left Albany for Rome on Jan. 10, touring the ancient city as they waited for their sail date on Friday, Jan. 13.
Once on the ship, they found their cabin, took a tour and made their way to the dining hall. Their appetizer of grilled zucchini stuffed with goat cheese had barely arrived when that grinding sound came. Food went flying, glass shattered and the lights briefly went out.
“That’s when everybody started screaming and panicking,” Fleser said.
Receiving little guidance from the crew, the family made their way one deck up, to the level of the life jackets and lifeboats.
The boat started listing, leaning quickly onto its side. They knew it was serious and that they should not go to their cabins. After Fleser’s life jacket was ripped from her and in half, her husband handed his to her. He doesn’t know where he found one for himself.
Through the chaos, they tried to stay calm.
“My daughter is a perfect example of that,” Aho said. “Here she is, with her own life threatened, and she’s helping the little kids with their life jackets.”
Enough order was imposed by someone with a voice loud enough to get children on the lifeboats, then the others pressed in.
Inept crew members barely figured out how to launch the boats, the family recalled. By that time, the cruise ship had listed so severely that the boat swung out, swinging back to hit the ship. Still, the ship loomed above, threatening to come down on top of them.
“We really couldn’t get a deep breath until we were disconnected and away,” Aho said.
On land, the generosity of the Italian people showed itself, the family recalled, even if the cruise line and even the U.S. Embassy seemed to be indifferent to their plight. Rescuers offered them blankets, which became one of the few belongings they carried home. A local family took them in for the night.
The cruise line did get them back to Rome, to a hotel near the airport. But they got few answers from company officials, just an empty series of smiles.
From the U.S. Embassy in downtown Rome came the prospect of new travel documents, but they also got an official who offered nothing but a suggestion to take a cab, despite their making it clear they had no money. This was happening as ambassadors from other nations were at the hotel, mingling with survivors and offering assistance.
Even when the hotel arranged a shuttle, they had to ask to come in from the chilly Italian weather before the normal 10 a.m. opening — their coats were gone.
A U.S. State Department official told The Daily Gazette on Tuesday that the embassy had been told that the cruise line would get passengers to the embassy. The official had no explanation for why that wasn’t relayed to the family.
Despite their harrowing exit, the family said they also realize they were fortunate just to be in that position. Their hearts go out to those who never made it off the ship.
The cruise line finally came through with plane tickets, taking them from Rome back to Albany, through Atlanta. They found the connection through Atlanta to be unusual, but at least they were going home. It wasn’t until they got off the plane, after Alana Aho snapped that photograph of the ‘Welcome back’ sign, that they saw the flight list.
The cruise line had booked them for Albany, Ga., not Albany, N.Y.
Though it wasn’t the airline’s fault, Delta agents rebooked the family on the next flight home, once they explained their story. Delta even offered meal vouchers and to put them up in a hotel.
The hotel wasn’t needed. Just after midnight Tuesday morning, on a day they might have seen the Spanish island of Majorca, they were content to instead see the wintry Capital Region.
“I’ve never been so happy to see snow,” Fleser said.
More from The Daily Gazette: