Costa Concordia - AFP - January 2012
The Costa Concordia, after running aground Friday. Photo by AFP
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Three people have been confirmed dead and at least 50 were reported missing after a luxury cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers ran aground off Italy's coast overnight on Friday.

The 290-meter-long Costa Concordia reportedly hit a rocky reef off the Tuscan coast, ripping a 50-meter gash across the left side of the ship.

A major rescue operation was launched after the ship began to sink near the island of Giglio. Helicopters plucked those trapped on the sinking ship to safety, while rescue teams combed the cabins for survivors. As the ship went down, divers searched the Costa Concordia for missing passengers.

One of those confirmed dead was an older man who reportedly suffered a heart attack after jumping into the icy cold water.

The Costa Concordia, one of the biggest ships in the Costa fleet, had been setting out on a seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean. It left the port of Civitavecchia at 7 P.M. local time and was sailing to Savona, its first port of call, when disaster struck at around 9 P.M.

"We were having dinner when all of a sudden the lights went out, passenger Luciano Castro told Italian media. "It seemed as if the ship struck something, and then we heard a loud bang and everything fell to the floor."

"The captain immediately came on the PA system and said that there had been an electrical fault, but it seemed very strange as the ship almost immediately began to list to one side," Castro said. "The glasses just slid off the table. We were then told to put on our life vests and head to the lifeboats just to be safe, but there was a real panic on board. You could see it in the faces of the people, especially those with young families. Then a few minutes later there were seven whistles, which meant everyone had to get in the lifeboats."

According to Costa Cruises, 3,206 passengers - most of them European - and 1,000 crew members were on board at the time of the crash.