Emergency officials are desperately searching for missing people after an Italian cruise ship ran aground off the country’s western coast with about 4,000 people on board.

Coast guard ships and divers are probing through the submerged decks of the luxury liner Costa Concordia, which is laying on its side, as well as the adjacent waters.

According to reports, three people died in the disaster and about 70 remain unaccounted for.

The casualties were identified as two Frenchmen and one Peruvian crew member, according to Italian media.

Most passengers and crew members reached shore by lifeboats or with the assistance of helicopters, while a hardy few swam to safety on the beach of the small island of Giglio.

However, a local official named Giuseppe Linardi told media that some of the people listed as missing might actually be safely on land in Giglio.

A captain of the Italian coast guard told local media that no bodies have yet been found, but added that there might be some folks trapped “in the belly of the ship.”

Reports indicate that about 40 people from the doomed vessel are hospitalized, while many others are suffering from shock or hypothermia.

The liner had departed from Civitavecchia near Rome on Friday morning before it smashed into rocks near Giglio later that evening.

Luciano Castro, a passenger, told the ANSA news agency: 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.

Another survivor, Fulvio Rocci, told reporters: “There was panic, like in a film, dishes crashing to the floor, people running, people falling down the stairs.”

Other passengers compared the adventure to the sinking of the Titanic.

Richard Westcott, BBC’s transport correspondent, wrote of the upcoming probe of the tragedy: “Investigators will now look into every aspect of this accident, but one of the key elements they will examine will be the electrical systems. Modern ships tend to use electrical generators to drive the engines, so a power cut can leave the captain unable to steer away from danger.”

Westcott added: “Human error could also be a factor, and there will also be concern at the speed which the ship listed onto its side. Not only would that have been frightening, it seems to have affected the crew's ability to launch some of the lifeboats. All ships have to meet safety standards set out by the International Maritime Organization. Crews are trained to deal with emergencies, and cruise companies stress this kind of accident is rare.”