I experienced the Sinking of the "Andrea Doria"
Kathy Kerbow of Philadelphia, August 1956
I was so happy when the smiling man from the Italian ship agency in Madrid handed me my ticket for the Andrea Doria. He said, I should be glad to get a ticket so late, just three weeks prior to departure! Later, when I waited for the “Doria” in Gibraltar, I was full of travel excitement and sadness that I was leaving the Country that had been my second home for an entire year. We were all just a little bit impatient having to wait so long. The ship was almost two hours late, but when we got on a small tugboat, my impatience changed to amazement. There she was – long, white and black, a sleek body, which stood out in the deep blue sky and the blue-green water. She really looked like a queen.
It was fun to go an board, because most of the passengers were on deck watching us board. Some people were talking, some shouting and laughing with the tanned boys who had com from Gibraltar in rowboats laden with souvenirs. Had someone told me, at that moment, six days later I would watch as this gleaming ship sank to her grave in the Ocean near Nantucket Sound, I would have said “You are crazy.”
I spent the first evening on board getting acquainted with my fellow passengers, as one is able to do quickly on such a ship. There was an Austrian Fulbright exchange student named “Smitty”, a young German named Klaus who we jokingly called “Santa”, a Swiss named Joe and a couple from Tangiers with their four-year old boy on the way to Texas to start a wonderful future. The days on board were filled with telling stories, dancing, learning Italian sentences and taking pictures. We did not know, of course, that no one but the fish would enjoy them! On the last day, we all packed early. I left my camera, a few books and a little suitcase in my cabin, then went upstairs for the evening meal. I was so excited. I was coming home after a year in Spain with all my photos and presents for my family. I couldn’t eat supper …
We had fun picturing where and how we would meet again in the United States. Joe, the Swiss, already had a bus ticket to Milwaukee in his pocket. We had a great time imagining how he could possibly visit every one of us on his round trip Greyhound ticket before it expired. As the evening progressed, we danced a little and made remarks about how few passengers had stayed up. The orchestra began to play “Arrivederci Roma.” When I got up to dance, instead of music, I heard a deafening crash, then screams. At the outside windows, a bright lighted ship seemed to eerily flit by. Instantly our ship tilted – listing hard. Pandemonium broke out, chairs fell over and glasses broke. Many people were pushing past me, running to the other side of the room. I stood exactly were I was, reaching behind me, grabbing my purse, telling myself over and over: “For heavens sake, don’t loose your cool, nothing is going to happen”. However, it had already happened. I began to realize the seriousness of the situation only when Joe and I decided to go down to each of our cabins to try and get our lifejackets. On the way down the stairs, many terrified people were rushing up the stairs. Some with oil stains on them, many crying or praying to be helped. The whole scene was like a terrible caricature of black (oil) painted people in their nightgowns and underwear with orange life jackets around their necks. The only thing we could do was to go back on deck and see what was happening. No life jackets for us! We could see thru the fog how the waves were slowly breaking on the side of the ship. There were only a few life boats – they were being let down with difficulty. When we didn’t see any women in them, we decided that boats would only be used in an emergency. A boy ran back and forth calling for help and then, in his despair, he jumped into the sea and swam to a life boat.
Red flares were shot into the air, giving a eerie look to the fog. Intermittently, I could hear muffled screaming from the ship’s interior. It smelled like burning oil. Life jackets seemed really important. We tried once more to make it downstairs. The deck of the Doria was extremely tilted now. When we crept past jumbled chairs on the dance floor, the lights flickered and I was afraid. I thought if the lights go out, we will really be in a jam. But they flickered only for a short time and then burned brightly again. We turned around, went back on deck – still no life jackets …
In the distance, we saw another ship, said we could possibly swim to it, if we had to. Then the fog vanished – suddenly a beautiful moon became visible. There would be no romantic, moon-lit good bye party on board this evening, at least not on the poor Andrea Doria. Now more ship lights became visible. Below us, we could see the lifeboats starting to fill up. Going down an entrance on the crew’s deck we climbed down a rope ladder step by step. I took my shoes off and waited for an order, any kind of order – nothing came. Nobody seemed to know anything. Just then the ship’s siren sounded three times with a loud blast. Asking the steward next to us if that meant all was over and we were safe? He smiled ironically and said: “Yes, all is over. This is a signal to leave the ship.” To keep the children around us from becoming afraid and to keep us from becoming afraid, we told jokes and played Tarzan. Just when one of the children got on the rail to slide down the rope, a man dashed forward and tried to get down the rope ahead of the child, however, other men held him back. One after another climbed over the railing, sliding down the rope into the life boats.
Shortly before I went over, I found two black shoes which I put in Joe’s pockets. As I was sliding down in my fluttering dress, I thought “This is really a dignified way to come home!” One of the ship’s crewmen gave me his coat and I crouched down in a corner of the almost full life boat. Joe gave me back the shoes – they were two left shoes! When we looked up, it seemed as if the Andrea Doria would fall on us any minute – she was listing so badly. I really wanted to leave and felt quite guilty because we could hear people on board shouting for help. I was painfully aware that there were human beings dying and we were going away! The waves tossed us back and forth as we pulled away. This was a row boat, without an engine – it danced like a lid. It seemed to take almost an hour before we reached the other ship. When we did, it looked like it might ram us in the dark, but then their search light zeroed in on us. When we reached the bow of the ship, we fell silent, overwhelmed. The entire front was gone – what a disaster! I was afraid this ship was going to sink, too. But when we drifted along the side of the ship, an officer called to us to come aboard immediately. We tried to hear if they spoke English. At first, we only understood English words. Then the sailors seemed to speak German and we were confused. Only after we got on board, we discovered that the ship that had rammed us was the Swedish steamer, the Stockholm.
Some of the dazed passengers sat around in their lifejackets and were given coffee and rolls. More and more survivors of the Andrea Doria climbed on board. The injured were carried on. Then the search for loved ones began. One way to keep from thinking about what happened was to try and help others. Although I was fluent in Spanish, I was not Italian, so I wasn't much help. We went on deck to watch other lifeboats arrive. No one had heard anything about our friends, Klaus and Smitty. Finally, they arrived in one of the very last lifeboats to leave the “Doria”. They had been helping people off the ship. Around 6 a.m., a man with a portable radio turned on the news. While listening to the radio broadcast, I thought about my mom and the rest of my family. It seemed as if they probably knew more details of our disaster than we did but still didn’t know if I was alive …
Later on we enjoyed watching helicopters and planes circling overhead. After a ham and egg breakfast, we went back to our new “home” on deck. Suddenly, a cry rang out. We looked and couldn’t believe what we saw. Until this moment, I think we all hoped that the “Doria” would be saved. She just wasn’t going to sink. But she was sinking lowly and surely. There was plenty of time to think about the losses, of the ship herself, of mementos going down, but mostly about the lives going down with her.
The long, slow journey back to New York began. The Stockholm seemed to go backwards. The excitement had died down and every time I wanted to feel sorry for myself, I could look around and see brave people. There was a mother, 6 months pregnant, who had been afraid that her 3 children couldn’t make it down the rope to the lifeboat. She decided to push them over the side of the ship and jump in very quickly beside them. They all swam to the lifeboat. There was the Fulbright scholar who had lost irreplaceable papers – spanning years of research and work. There was the story of an Italian girl who watched her mother die. So many brave stories. We worked at keeping our spirits up. It was easy to make fun of the way we looked. – wrapped in wool blankets like a new Indian tribe, coming from the Old World to the New. Because my bare feet and tattered appearances, I got the nickname “Dirty Barefoot Contessa” …
After spending the night on the deck of the Stockholm, we woke with rain in our faces. Then we could see the Statue of Liberty. She was the most beautiful sight in the world. A last goodbye was never said. When we landed in Brooklyn, we were bombarded by reporters, had to fill out forms and send telegrams. When I left the Red Cross station, where I got new shoes and a welcome cup of tea, I was alone and felt lonely. I went down the stairs to the bus waiting for us. When I arrived at the pier of the Italian Line, a little dazed, I heard someone call my name as I was going through the exit gate. I looked into the waiting throng of people and saw my mom with tears in her eyes – and saw the friends with her. It was wonderful to be home.
Kathy Kerbow Dickson of Maryneal, Texas
(Translated from the German by Anna Thompson, Teacher of German for the Extension Instruction and Materials Center, The University of Texas at Austin, September 2003)
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