Louis Bellomo was 17. He and his family left their small town in southern Italy and, amid hugs and tears, left for Naples and boarded one of the most beautiful passenger ships in the world, the Andrea Doria. His mother had put her foot down, they wouldn't make the journey unless they went on the Andrea Doria. She was a veteran of more than 100 crossings - luxurious, safe and fast.
But almost as soon as they passed Gibraltar and hit the open sea, regret slapped them in the face as the wind rose and the ship heaved and rolled. "By the second day you couldn't stand on the deck," he says. "Waves were slapping against the sides. Ma was sick. And we were saying, 'How are we ever going to get back home?' " There were five of them: Louis; his father, Frank; his mother, Mattia; his sister, Marie; and his brother, Joe. They were following his father's brother to Seneca Falls, N.Y., to find work and a new life.
There were 1,706 passengers on the Andrea Doria, many of them enjoying the luxury for which the ship was famous. For the Bellomos, down below in third class, the accommodations were still impressive.
July 25, their last full day at sea, dawned beautiful and calm. Like many of the other passengers, the family went up on deck to have photographs taken. "All of a sudden, the fog started rolling in," he remembers. "The ship's alarm went off and we had to go back downstairs. "All you could see was solid white fog. Everybody started to worry, 'What's happening?"'
By 10 that evening, waiters were clearing the dining room for dancing. He, his father, sister and brother had just finished dinner - his mother still too sick for meals. Did he want to see the movie? They were showing "Foxfire." Maybe for a few minutes, he said. They'd be in New York the next day, and he was tired. His sister said she wanted to dance. The movie didn't hold his attention, so he went down to their cabin, donned pajamas and got into bed. It was just after 11 p.m.
"All of a sudden, there was a loud crash," he says. The engines stopped immediately and the ship was strangely quiet until passengers, flooding the hallways, began screaming. Like the Titanic, they had hit an iceberg, some said. For others, it was worse than that. "By the time I got out of bed, the ship was already listing. When I opened the door to our cabin, it swung into the passageway. There was a lot of confusion. People were yelling, 'Where's my baby? Were is my son?' " His mother, too: "Where's your father?"
"My father and brother - we didn't know where they were, or whether they were alive or dead. We didn't know whether we were going to make it or not."
He struggled with his life vest and helped his mother up a long, slanting stairway to the deck. His sister went back to get her gold bracelet and rejoined them.
With the Andrea Doria now listing, passengers had to crawl across the deck on hands and knees, clinging to railings, hatches, ventilators and to each other. People cried and prayed and called out for loved ones. When the signal finally was given to abandon ship at 2:25 a.m., the sea had calmed and the fog had lifted, revealing a starry, moonlit sky. By then, more than a dozen nearby ships had steamed to the rescue and sent lifeboats to the stricken vessel. But getting into those lifeboats proved difficult. And the passengers, instead of being lowered to the sea in lifeboats, had to drop into the boats already in the water. Louis' mother and sister dropped 20 feet or more and fractured their legs as they landed on lifeboat seats.
The three were taken on board the liner Ile de France, where his mother and sister were attended to. The family members were covered with diesel oil. "You could tell they'd been through hell," he said. It was not until they were safely on the rescue ship that they were reunited with his father and brother. They had lost everything and had to accept donations of ill-fitting clothing.
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