45 Years Ago:
Aboard the "SS
The once proud "Andrea Doria" is breathing its last! We – the shipwrecked passengers of the "Andrea Doria" and the passengers of the "SS Stockholm" – are standing by the railing of the Swedish ship, silently and passionately watching the incredible event before us. The horror of the preceding night is still marked clearly on all faces. Many are dressed in cloths only that they wore when the tragedy happened; a great number more, scantily clad, have covered themselves with a blanket only …
Meanwhile, the "Andrea Doria" had listed until she lay on her side, surrounded by all the ships which came to our help. Apparently she cannot be rescued any more, since few moments ago even the captain and the last officers of his crew have left the ship. It is an awesome spectacle: slowly the bow begins to sink and the stern rises out of the water. Planes of the American Coast Guard and helicopters of the US Navy circle constantly over the wreck, still searching for survivors. The struggle of the ship seams to end now – with increasing rapidity the body of the once proud ship is disappearing. Once again, the stern sticks up, turns around its own axis. For the last time we can read the large letters on the stern of the ship, then only a roaring and foaming spray marks the spot where the "Andrea Doria", flagship of the Italian-America Line", has died. I check my watch – it is exactly 10:10 a.m. American time, almost 11 hours after the great catastrophe. The bright sun shines on the Atlantic, the ocean it peaceful and calm, and only the planes are circling over the grave of our "Andrea Doria". Gustav, the exchange student from Vienna, points at a large transatlantic clipper above which has just joined the smaller planes and circled majestically several times before it resumes its westward course.
Do the passengers of the Clipper have any idea what happened last night on board of the "Andrea Doria"? I wonder – even we can hardly grasp it, everything happened so fast. I recall when last night the younger passengers had been sitting without worry in the tourist class lounge. The bags were already packed and everybody awaited the arrival at Manhattan with a universal joy. The air was almost exuberant, to which the rhythm of the ship’s orchestra contributed not too little. Suddenly, a mighty shudder traveled through the ship, as though its forward motion had been stopped by a great force, followed by a bursting crash. The floor of the hall rolled heavily and many couples were thrown to the floor. Outside in the dreary mist I saw the lights of another ship skim by within arm’s reach. Moments later, the "Andrea Doria" had tilted already very badly so that all people ran to starboard, grasping for a hold. Out on deck a shrieking mass wallow about, wildly seeking a sound footing. With great difficulty the passengers labored through the corridors onto the deck, obtaining a small comfort from being in the open.
The ship had already such a strong list that forward progress was only possible on all four. More than one lost his footing, slid across the slippery deck and crashed into the opposite railing. Shrieks of fear and cries for help were mixed with groans of the injured. The universal panic mounted from minute to minute. The people cried constantly for help, but the loudspeaker remained silent …
It was exactly 11.17 p.m. by my watch when the Swedish ocean liner "Stockholm" had rammed the "Andrea Doria". Armored with strong icebreaker-steel, the bow of the Swedish ship had torn a gaping hole in the flank of the Italian ship and with it dealt the death blow. In spite of modern equipment of radar, two of the greatest and fastest ocean giants crashed together. The fate of the "Titanic" appeared to have been repeated 45 years later.
It may have been one hour before the first signals could be heard. However, we could see nothing – the fog hung too heavily over the Atlantic. Then suddenly, the lights of the "Ile de France" broke into view, the French Liner which had hurried to our aid. A few lifeboats danced like phantoms on the water. A sudden feeling of salvation traveled through the crowed which screaming and moaning still hung onto the railing. The deck, meanwhile, had tilted so strongly that the railing appeared to touch the waves. I saw Señor Ramirez who with his wife and small son Isi wanted to obtain the freedom of the open deck – all three besmeared with dark oil slick and wearing a horror-stricken face. Besides me, a lady from Naples whimpered, suddenly lost her nerve and collapsed with a wild trashing about. Ghostlike the flames of a fire flickered that must have broken out somewhere amidships. Now and then, the motor of a water pump clattered until these noises finally stopped. And the loudspeaker still remained silent….
Meanwhile, the people from starboard attempted to reach the boats. The small bell over outdoor the swimming pool hung so slanting that I realized the dangerous list of the ship – at 45 degree it would possibly capsize completely. Along the chains of the promenade deck moved a virtually endless line of desperate people. By a pillar stood Gustav, the young Viennese – also without a life jacket. He too had not had the opportunity to go down to the cabin where the life jackets were properly stored! Together we fortunately brought the four small children from California over the dangerously slippery deck. The mother appeared to be halfway out of her mind.
The was also Myriam, the pretty French girl from Casablanca who gestured about as though she had lost her mind. Also Jim, from Detroit, had abandoned his usual superiority – pale and unsteadily, he grasped an Italian woman who like a maniac turned on him. Only Aldo, the young Florentine, controlled his nerves, sat like a king in the net stretched over the swimming pool and enjoyed the whole affair as though it were a huge, expansive spectacular. The loudspeaker, however, remained silent …
Oh the ship’s personnel, nothing was to be seen so far. A few sailors had dropped long ropes down the side and had than disappeared. There was no rope ladder, no lifeboat, no help. Finally the lifeboats of the "Ile de France" appeared which, in spite of the relatively smooth sea, were carried away by the waves or were threatened to be dashed to pieces on the ship’s hull. Gustav and I worked our way to the tow. With great difficulty we managed to hold back several people who wanted to rush madly to the few boats. What was the old rule of the sea: Women and children first! Two women tried to climb down the tow lines. It succeeded except that the boats had been driven away in the meantime and they fell into the water.
The children needed to be brought to safety first. But how? The deck was still approximately 15 meters above the boats. One desperate father tossed his small daughter without hesitation into one of the boats where it fell with a hollow thud. A deep desperation seized me for the first time. This would not do! Gustav had an idea – he cut the ropes from the awnings which had been fastened to the railings as a shelter from rain and wind. One child after the other was bound up like a package and lowered; most of them lost their balance and were lowered head-first to the sailors below. The people applauded- none of the little ones were harmed. The women also recovered from the initial shock as they saw their children in safety, and climbed down the tow lines.
Next in order were the men. But what should be done with the grandfather who we knew was blind? Would the small ropes hold for so heavy a man? We had no choice. With great care we lifted him over railing. Halfway to safety the cord broke – and he crashed into the boat below where he lay bleeding. We hardly dared to look …
Very suddenly the mist disappeared. Constantly, more boats came to our aid and fished those people out of the water who on their desperation had leaped overboard. Thank God, the distress signal lights of the ship still burned, but the loudspeaker was silent …
The position of the "Andrea Doria" became constantly more precarious. It became imperative that Gustav and I also abandon ship. We landed in a lifeboat from the "Stockholm", the same ship that had rammed us. "Oh horrors, said Gustav, that means we must soon abandon ship once more!" The Swedish sailors, however, assured us their was out of danger.
And so it was that we came aboard the "Stockholm". Up along the railing stood Kathy, our friend from Philadelphia who had spent a year in Madrid as a student and had come aboard in Gibraltar. She had instructed me in Spanish now and then – that was happy reunion now!
The staff crew of the "Stockholm" did their best. Everybody was intensely concerned with the shipwrecked. The fancy drawing room of the first class resembled a camp. Stunned and crowded, the passengers of the "Andrea Doria" sat there – the shock of the past experience plainly inscribed on their faces. The "Stockholm" also had received her portion of damage. The bow was a heap of ruins of steel scraps, torn clothing and bits of wood. A steel barrel pounded rhythmical against an iron plate as though it were beating the time to this symphony of horror.
However we were saved! Even though our clothes were besmudged beyond recognition and we had lost our belongings – of what import was that! A sincere thankfulness came over us all, primarily for the weather which in spite of all had remained so calm and the that so many ships had come to aid us.
As it became dawn we met the ship’s doctor who anxiously awaited the arrival of the requested helicopters since certain of the injured ones hovered in peril of life. Gustav managed to obtain a small radio from which we heard the first reports of the size of the catastrophe. Apparently, the "Ile de France" had rescued the greater part of our passengers, yet approximately 600 survivors were taken aboard the "Stockholm".
When the helicopters arrived, I saw an incident that could not be excelled for elegant flight technique and impressiveness. Like a huge bumble-bee the yellow Coast Guard helicopter hovered low over the foredeck, lowered a wire-rope basket with which one after the other of the wounded on board were removed. Ingrid, the lovely nurse from the sick bay, told me that the first patient to have been removed was the little girl that had been thrown into the boat and apparently had received a fractured neck. Please God, that the child will be saved.
Meanwhile, the "Stockholm" has again been made seaworthy. The bulkhead had hindered a further entrance of the sea. Two small American warships to the right and left flank us whose bright superstructures stand out beautiful against the blue sky. The "Ile de France" has resumed its westward course this morning and now the "Stockholm" set sail for New York, where she had left only a short time previously, never imagining that this Swedish ship that very same night would deal the "Andrea Doria" a stabbing blow – the kind that would have given the old Vikings a great deal of pleasure.
Our beautiful "Andrea Doria" is gone once and for all, and only a few small ships keep the death watch over her grave, while under reduced power we travel westward. The world, however, has one more sensation upon which it can reflect for many years to come – another night to remember!
P.S. Meanwhile, we have arrived in new York. At the pier scenes are being enacted for which there are no words of description. All the American charity organizations have joined in one giant effort of help. Radio and TV are informing all America of all the details of the catastrophe. The total loss has not yet been determined but the material loss alone will surely reach millions! Once more it has been shown that human errors cannot be fully equalized by technical progress – as indicated by the sinking of the "unsinkable" Ocean Liner "Andrea Doria".
© Klaus C. Dorneich
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