Recollections of my last night on the Andrea Doria, July 25, 1956
By Anna Maria Conti Greene
My mother, Lucia Conti, and I were returning from a trip to Italy where we visited with the families my parents left behind in 1920 when they came to America as newly weds. We were on the Andrea Doria in May 1956 when we went to Sicily where my parents were born. I met aunts, uncles and cousins I had only heard about. They were happy to see my mother again after 36 years and to meet their American niece and cousin. It was an emotional and glorious reunion.
It was the last night at sea of our Trans-Atlantic trip from Naples, Italy to New York on the Andrea Doria. It was a very foggy night and the fog horns had been sounding regularly for hours. The ship was due to dock at 9:00 a.m. the next morning and our family would be waiting to pick us up and bring us home to Hartford, CT. Earlier that evening, we had placed a ship to shore phone call to my sister, brother and fiancé. We had been gone over 2 months and were getting anxious to see them. After our call, we proceeded to the ballroom and listened to the band for a while before retiring for the night.
About an hour later, we were startled from our sleep by people screaming and yelling outside our cabin and opened the door to see what was going on. People were scrambling around trying to find other family members in other cabins. Someone shouted that we were sinking, others thought there was a fire. Many of the passengers were barefooted, in their nightclothes, and panic stricken. My mother and I decided to get dressed quickly, put on our life jackets and report to our muster station as we had practiced on our second day out to sea. Our muster station was located in the main ballroom of the cabin class section of the ship. We had difficulty getting dressed as we were staggering and trying to stand upright and assumed it was the rough ocean. When we left our cabin, we noticed the floor was no longer level and we could not close the door. I know now the ship was listing. It was difficult to walk and stand upright while trying to get to our muster station. We had to hold on to the railings in the corridors to move. There was panic, confusion and chaos. There were no announcements on the intercom.
When we finally reached the main ballroom, we found many of the other passengers already assembled there. For hours we waited for instructions or information on the intercom but it was silent. The only sounds we heard were those of distant screams, broken glass and furniture sliding across the room as the ship continued to list. We still did not know what was happening. Tables, chairs, and musical instruments slid across the room while we waited and prayed. Two nuns that were in the room with us left. A priest came in and gave general absolution to everyone and also left. Where were they going? For sure we thought this was the end.
Thinking we had nothing to lose, we decided to go up the stairs and on deck. Some passengers had gone before us and others after us. To reach the upper deck on the starboard side of the ship we were forced to crawl up the stairs on our hands and knees due to the severely listing ship. It was impossible to stand up. While crawling, we had to dodge sliding furniture and broken glass which was all over the floors and stairs.
We finally reached the upper deck and couldnt believe what we saw. Passengers were leaving the ship. If we had not ventured up on deck from the main ballroom, we might never have known that the ship was sinking and that passengers were being evacuated. The fog had lifted and in the distance were the bright lights of the Ile de France. It seemed like a mirage in the middle of the ocean. The lifeboats were evacuating the passengers of the Andrea Doria to the Ile de France with the assistance of other smaller boats. Crew members and some of the passengers helped women and children to climb up over the side of the ship to rope ladders and descend to waiting life boats. It was a long way down and many people fell into the ocean screaming. My mother urged me to go first and she would follow. As terrified as I was, I knew that at 19 I could physically climb down that rope ladder. I had doubts that my 56 year old mother would follow or be able to climb down. I couldnt take the chance that she would not and the crew was rushing us to move quickly as time was running out. I refused to climb over until my mother did first and with the aid of others we helped her over the side of the ship. I remember yelling down to her to "hold tight" reassuring her that I was right behind her. We made it to a waiting lifeboat safely. Praise the Lord!
A few minutes later someone handed me an infant to hold. A parent or crew member threw the child overboard into the waiting arms of people in the lifeboat. I held that child as if it were my own until sea- sickness took over and I was forced to hand it to someone else. I think that child may have been a twin who stayed in a cabin near ours, as I remember seeing them during our voyage. We were taken to the Ile de France where we climbed up a rope ladder to get on board. Many of our crew members and stewards were already there sitting in lounge chairs. Some were asleep. How long had they been there?
The hospitality and warmth shown by the crew of the Ile de France will never be forgotten. They gave us blankets and food and asked if we needed medical attention. Then we relaxed in lounge chairs as the ship headed back to New York. My mother and I sat side by side on lounge chairs on the deck still in shock over our experience and unable to believe the ordeal we had just been through. We were concerned about our family, both in New York and Sicily. How worried they must be not knowing if we were alive or not. We knew we were safe but they had many anxious hours waiting to find out if we were alive. We were thankful to have each other and to be safe.
We arrived in New York around 4:00 p.m. and our family was anxiously waiting to see us. Tears of joy were shed as we all embraced. We were among the very lucky. Other people still waiting on shore were desperately seeking information about their loved ones offering us descriptions and photographs. Unfortunately we could not help. We realized once again that only a miracle saved us. Thank God for miracles!
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