As the navy frigates and merchant ships that plucked stranded Canadian high-school students from the South Atlantic began to arrive in Brazil Saturday, the first details of their ship sinking - and nearly 40 hours that followed as they waited in life boats for assistance - began to emerge.
And the anxious parents waiting at home heard for the first time just what their children had been through.
Windows dipped into the water and cracked. The floors tilted steadily upwards. And as 17-year-old Keaton Farwell clambered out of her biology classroom on board the Concordia, images filled her head.
"Her description was, it was like the Titanic," Darren Farwell said from his home in Toronto, after speaking to his daughter over the phone. Ms. Farwell was among the first 12 of the shipwrecked brought to Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. Farwell said when he first heard there was trouble, he wasn't too concerned because he knew the program to be well organized and secure.
"I consider her to be safer on that boat than at home," he said. "But when I heard the details on the phone, I was breaking down crying … the strength that it takes to endure something like that."
Caught in a fierce downdraft of wind called a microburst, the boat was blown on to its side, giving the students and crew bare minutes to scramble to the starboard side of the ship that was still above water, and get into the three large and two smaller life rafts.
"We were so shocked but … we followed orders, helped each other, lifting each other's feet out and then finally we got out the starboard side," said 16-year-old Katherine Irwin from Calgary, who immediately remembered her safety training. "The only thing going through my head was, 'get out, take off your shoes, get in your immersion suit.' " Just as she had done in countless emergency drills, Ms. Irwin then had to follow the other students who climbed up on the side of the boat and jumped into the Zodiac life rafts in the churning waters below.
"You couldn't see anything … the waves were huge," she said.
The experience of the crew and diligence in running those safety drills - "just like a fire drill in a school" - were responsible for saving the students, said Nigel McCarthy, who heads up the Class Afloat program in Lunenburg, N.S., along with its founder. The program is a floating high school of sorts, teaching students aged 16 to 19 on the tall ship Concordia as it sails to ports in Europe, South America, Africa and the Caribbean.
As parents began to hear from their children yesterday, they echoed that sentiment.
"They drilled and they drilled and the kids knew what to do," said Christie Johnson, whose son, David Saabas, was among those rescued.
"How do you rescue 48 children from the ocean without losing one of them?" Mr. Farwell said. "It's amazing. Something went right."
It was a long road to something going right, however: the students hunkered down in life-rafts for nearly 40 hours before they were found, collecting rain water to drink and battling their own fear, the cold and bouts of seasickness.
"Life and death thoughts were going through our heads," Ms. Farwell said of her time in the raft. "We were thinking the worst." On the phone to her father once safely on dry land, she described "over and over" her fear that they may never be found.
An EPIRB distress radio on board signalled Brazilian authorities. Air force spotter planes eventually found the rafts, and used flares to direct nearby merchant ships and navy frigates to their location, about 500 kilometres southwest of Rio de Janeiro.
We saw a light in the sky. We forgot our exhaustion. We were hopeless, and then the plane appeared. I can't explain it. Lauren Unsworth
"We saw a light in the sky," recalled Lauren Unsworth, 16, a Canadian citizen living in the Netherlands. "We forgot our exhaustion. We were hopeless, and then the plane appeared. I can't explain it."
All 64 students, teachers and crew on board are safe, Brazilian officials said.
As the students land on Canadian soil - most likely early on Monday - crowds of relieved family members will gather, parents saying yesterday that all they wanted was to give their kids a hug. But one thing will hover above the crowd: a large piece of chicken paper.
"You use it when you get baby chicks in the barn," said Shelley Piller. "It's like brown construction paper … my son made a sign out of it: 'Welcome home Elysha.' " Ms. Piller's voice shook with joy yesterday afternoon after she had heard from her step-daughter Elysha, and she said she could not wait to welcome the 12th-grader home to their chicken farm 40 minutes north of Guelph, Ont.
Her brother Trevor, 14, rallied the family around Saturday night, including Elysha's two other brothers, to colour in the letters and happy faces he had drawn.
"I'm totally punch drunk. I've been crying all day and all night last night … we are over the moon happy, and exhausted," Ms. Piller said. Elysha lost her shoes in the ordeal, and asked Ms. Piller to bring her a pair of rubber boots. "She's walking around in her bare feet all over Brazil," Ms. Piller giggled.
"What I'd really like to do is just bring her home, make a tubby for her, put her in fresh clean jammies and just put her to bed, and maybe feed her a big bowl of spaghetti or something," she said. "This is a miracle. It's a miracle she's okay."
With files from freelance reporter Pedro Widmar