Authorities said most of the nearly 1,200 passengers on the Greek-flagged Sea Diamond were American tourists. At least two school groups from Canada, more than 100 Spaniards and a crew of almost 400 were also on board when the ship hit the rocks off the island of Santorini shortly before 4 p.m.
"A lot of us were taking pictures from when we were coming into Santorini. All of a sudden, there was this big jolt," said Catherine Small, 17, one of more than two dozen students from North Carolina on board.
"The ship was really far tilted. It was actually kind of freaking us out - scary," Small, who attends Chapel Hill High School, told the Associated Press.
Passengers said most people remained calm though there were some tense moments waiting for the rescue.
"People were nervous, women were screaming and it was a struggle to get to a life jacket," said passenger Ben Kucenko, a telecom technician from Jeelong, Australia. "We were scared the boat was going to tip over. We could barely walk."
Tiffany Gittens, an event coordinator from New York, said at first passengers mistook the sound of rocks screeching against the boat for an anchor dropping.
"We were all sitting in the dining room, and the boat started to tilt and it started to tilt more to the other side," Gittens told the Associated Press, speaking by telephone from Santorini after her rescue.
"Everyone was pretty calm. A lot of the kids that were under 18, they looked pretty nerve-wracked. ... You'd see glasses fly by, and things got broken but everybody was pretty calm," she said. "They got us all on one side of the boat and we put on our life jackets. The (crew) did a pretty good job, they were well prepared for what happened."
More than a dozen ships were involved in the rescue effort, along with six navy rescue helicopters, two military transport planes and four warships.
"The ship was evacuated quickly and successfully. ... No one had as much as a nose bleed," Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis said.
"With a ship this size, it's like dealing with a 12-story building. It's a difficult operation," he said.
The Merchant Marine Ministry said 1,195 passengers and 391 crew members were on board.
David Land, 17, of Middle Creek High School in Apex, N.C., said in a telephone interview with the AP that he was taken to a restaurant after being evacuated and was due to travel to Athens on an overnight boat. "Everybody is perfectly fine," he said.
His mother, Deniece Land of Raleigh, N.C., said she had talked to her son several times this week during the trip.
"They had been around Greece and Athens and were coming back from Turkey. He called ... and he said â€˜This ship is taking on water and we're going down.' I said, â€˜Don't play with me.' He said, 'I have a life vest on.'"
Before reaching Santorini, the ship had stopped at the Greek islands of Rhodes and Mykonos and the Turkish resort of Kusadasi.
A group of 21 teenage students from Alberta, Canada, were "a bit shaken up," Tofield School Vice principal Clayton Roe said by telephone. "But they're OK."
On Santorini, tourists watched the rescue from the clifftops of the volcanic island, looking down on the cruise ship stranded in a deep lagoon.
Hundreds of people were on the deck of the ship waiting to be evacuated.
Giorgos Stathopoulos, spokesman for Louis Cruise Lines, a Cyprus-based tourism group that operates the Sea Diamond, said the ship had taken on water and listed 12 degrees. But it was stabilized when watertight doors were activated.
Passengers were taken by a small ferry and small boats to the island's main port.
Authorities said tugboats had been used to pull the ship free of rocks, helped by moderate prevailing winds. Tourism Minister Fani Palli Petralia said the rescued passengers would be housed in Santorini hotels and return on chartered ships to Athens' main port of Piraeus early Friday. "We are very happy with the outcome of the rescue operation. ... This is the start of an important tourism season with strong cruise bookings, especially from the United States," she said. The 469-foot Sea Diamond vessel was built in 1986 and refurbished in 1999. Also Thursday, a Filipino sailor was killed in an accident involving a different cruise ship on the western Greek island of Corfu. The 47-year-old man died and three other crew members were injured when a lifeboat harness snapped on the Bahamas-flagged Astoria, authorities said. The Astoria is operated by the Transocean cruise lines based in Bremen, Germany.