PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy - Three people died and about 70 were missing Saturday after an Italian cruise ship with more than 4,000 people on board ran aground and keeled over, sparking scenes of panic.

The Costa Concordia was on a trip around the Mediterranean when it apparently hit a reef near the island of Giglio on Friday, only a few hours into its voyage, as passengers were sitting down for dinner.

Local officials also said at least 14 people were injured. Other sources spoke of about 40 injured, two of them seriously suffering from concussion and spinal injuries.

Around 20 people were rescued by helicopters, which scoured the sea with searchlights during the nighttime rescue operation.

Some of the passengers jumped into the icy waters.

"There are three certified dead," Giuseppe Linardi, the top public security official in Grosseto near the Tuscany coast, told Italian media, explaining that difficulties in the rescue had led to confusion over the death toll which was put at six earlier. "There were scenes of panic like on the Titanic. We ran aground on rocks near Giglio island. I don't know how this could happen. The captain is crazy," Mara Parmegiani, a passenger, was quoted by Italian media as saying.

"We were very scared and freezing because it happened while we were at dinner so everyone was in evening wear. We definitely didn't have time to get anything else. They gave us blankets but there weren't enough," she said.

Linardi quoted Costa Crociere, the Costa Concordia's owner, as saying that 70 people out of the total 4,234 passengers and crew were still missing but they could be on the island.

The people on board included some 60 nationalities and about 52 were children up to the age of six. Cruise ship worker Fabio Costa was quoted by the BBC as saying: "Everything just started to fall and everybody started to panic and run."

"We had no idea how serious it was until we got out and we looked through the window and we saw the water coming closer and closer. Everything happened really really fast," he said.

"Everybody tried to get on the boats but people started to panic so they were pushing each other and the crew was trying to help. A lot of people were falling down the stairs," he added. "It took hours for people to be able to get off the ship." Indian Mondal Mithun, 26-year-old restaurant manager on the Costa Concordia, who was on his first cruise, said: "We heard the ship hit the rocks but the alert only came after one hour." "There was only one lifeboat for 150 passengers" in his area, he added. Shocked passengers crammed into the island's few hotel rooms and a local church overnight. Hundreds were being transferred by ferry to the Tuscan resort town of Porto Santo Stefano, which is linked to the Italian mainland.

Luciano Castro, another passenger, was quoted as saying: "We heard a loud noise while we were at dinner as if the keel of the ship hit something."

"The ship started taking in water through the hole and began tilting." One unnamed passenger quoted by the ANSA news agency said: "It was hell."

"They told us to stay calm but you could see the fear on everyone's faces, including the crew," he said. Silvana Caddeo said: "They told us over the loudspeakers that it was an electrical fault to keep us calm.

"But people were shouting, children were crying and all the lights went off. It was a nightmare," she said. Passengers had been initially told the ship had shuddered to a halt for electrical reasons, before being instructed to put on their life-jackets and head for lifeboats. Francesco Paolillo, a local coast guard official, said there was a 30-metre hole in the ship but that it was too early to say what exactly had happened. "We think this happened as a result of sailing too close to an obstacle like a reef," he said.

One of the victims was a man in his 70s who died of a heart attack caused by the shock to his system when he jumped into the sea, reports said. The Costa Crociere company said it was "shocked" by the news and expressed its condolences to the families of the victims. The company said it was not yet possible to say what caused the problem, but that the evacuation had been fast, although made more difficult as the ship took on more and more water and keeled over.