A dancer who helped to direct petrified passengers off the Costa Concordia said today the instruction to abandon ship should have been given "an hour earlier, if not more".
James Thomas, 19, had been working as an entertainer on the ill-fated cruise liner for six months when it ran aground in the Mediterranean, killing six people.
He was thrown out of bed when the boat began to tilt into the water off the Tuscan coast on Friday evening.
He said: "We started to lean to the port side... it got more and more dramatic and everyone seemed to know that it wasn't just a normal turn, we were turning unbelievably sharply.
"I was thrown out of bed and then as I stood there all my aftershave and a bottle of wine came towards me as I was catching things and smashed on my foot."
The teenager said an announcement over the ship's intercom system urged passengers to stay calm and assured them that there was simply a "minor technical fault". But a coded series of beeps was sounded to let crew know that there was a leak on board.
Mr Thomas, from Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, said: "We had an announcement saying please stay calm, everything is under control, it's just a minor technical fault.
"Then we had the coding of two short blasts followed by alternate tones which means there is a leak on board and so the crew were divided, very much so.
"A lot of people said, 'no just tell everyone to stay calm, that's what we've been told to say'.
"But then other people took the initiative and said, 'Okay, let's tell everyone to stay calm but hand over life jackets'."
Mr Thomas said he put on warm clothes and a life jacket before making his way to a pre-arranged meeting point, helping passengers along the way.
He said: "We thought it was a 'just in case' scenario but then we started to lift and started to tilt and we knew something was deadly wrong.
"We knew we were going to have to do something drastic to get out of the situation we were in."
He added: "We finally got the call after quite a long wait. We went to the muster station and waited.
"We waited for the abandon ship (instruction).
"We waited for it to be called and it was finally called after some of the life boats were deployed. We had reached such a tilt that we couldn't deploy any more life rafts or life boats on the port side so we had to run round to the starboard side to get onto a life boat.
"Some of us went one way, some of us went the other. The people who didn't go the way I went didn't make it to a life boat, they had to swim.
"Even if it was 'just in case' it should have been called an hour earlier, if not more."
Mr Thomas said passengers were in an initial state of panic as the cruise liner began to rock and described the scenes on board as "like a film".
He said some of his colleagues were in the middle of a magic show as the drama unfolded, including a magician's assistant who was hidden inside a box as part of a trick.
He said: "Three of my cast were in the show that was going on, the magic show, and one girl was still in a trick so she was inside one of the many boxes that they have to be in."
He said two stage hands had to free the girl from the box, dodging pieces of the set which had begun to fall from one side of the ship to the other.
Describing the rush to get everyone off the ship safely, he said: "It was initial panic but then the majority of us went, 'Okay, we've got to do this, we've got to pay attention to what we're doing'".
Describing a spirit of camaraderie, with strangers risking their safety to help others, he said: "I was willing to give my life to make sure they (passengers) reached safety".
He added: "I know a Bulgarian engineer, he swam with an Indian man on his back because he had no life jacket and had injured himself.
"Some of the stories are phenomenal... you just see people's true nature and how caring everyone was for people on board.
"I genuinely feel like it was a film. I feel like I have observed it and now I am telling everyone else the story.
"It's crazy because it's not in my character to even think that I could do any of those things that I did, but I managed to pull myself together and help people and be helped myself by another passenger and I couldn't thank him any more.
"All I came off with was wet trousers and wet shoes, luckily without any injuries.
"But I saw people with some horrific injuries and that is one thing which I am never going to be able to get out of my head which is the worst thing.
"I am never going to be able to get out of my head some people's faces when they realised their friends weren't around them."
Despite his ordeal, Mr Thomas said he would consider returning to work on a cruise ship. He said: "I can see myself back on a ship, I can. This sort of thing can only happen once, hopefully."Suggest a correction