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Dr. Lester S. Sinness

Dr. Lester S. Sinness was then a Senior Vice President of the Du Pont Company, he was on his way to Europe on the Ile de France with his family. This is the transcript of a letter he wrote to his friends. This letter is courtesy of Dr. Joseph B. Levy.

At Sea
Saturday morning
July 28, 1956

I suppose that only once in a lifetime does the average person have the opportunity of seeing the biggest news story of the year take place before his eyes, but it really happened to us Thursday morning. We came to New York on Tuesday afternoon and took "Papa" and "Mama" Freund to dinner at the Hotel Pierre (which has as good or better cuisine than the Ile de France. We had a most pleasant time.

We boarded the Ile at 10:30 A.M., Wednesday and sailed from Pier 88 at 11:30 A.M. As the tugs pushed us into the Hudson, we could see the sparkling white Stockholm also leaving her pier, and Doris commented on the beautiful lines of her clipper bow, which looked sharp as a razor.

The Ile de France was carrying nine hundred odd passengers, about two hundred below capacity. We have a very comfortable cabin near the center of the ship on "B" deck, on the port side. The sea was like a millpond in the afternoon, but very hazy and with high humidity, which promised a heavy fog by evening. And a dense fog really settled in by nine o'clock with visibility virtually zero.

We played bridge in the evening until midnight, and then turned in for our first night aboard ship. At 4:30 in the morning I awoke with a start. Everything seemed so unearthly quiet and still. I placed my hand on the wall, felt no vibration and realized that we were lying dead in the water. About this time muffled cries came through the portholes and I scrambled out of my bunk to take a look. The fog had completely lifted and the sea was bathed in moonlight. Only thirty yards from the ship I saw a lifeboat filled with people clad in orange life belts. An officer on our deck was bellowing instructions in French (presumably telling them to go around to the other side of the ship). "My God," I thought, "The ship's sinking and they didn't wake us up!" I yelled to Doris and Skip: "Get out of bed, now." And they really woke up in record time.

On poking my head further out of the porthole, I saw a brilliantly lighted passenger ship about a quarter of a mile off the port stern listing so heavily to starboard that it looked as though she would go under momentarily. In the path of the many dancing lights on the water I saw fifteen or twenty lifeboats either coming to the Ile fully loaded or returning for another load, Several other ships (freighters), fully lighted, were also standing by. It was the most spine tingling sight, I have ever seen and, believe me, my spine did tingle! Despite the stark tragedy of the scene, it was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

We threw on some clothes and dashed up to the promenade deck, where most of the deck chairs were filled with very scantily clad people (many of -them in pajamas and a blanket). Some were sitting glassy-eyed, some were sobbing, and many were jabbering in Italian at no one in particular. Many were smeared with oil. We went up to the boat deck, where we were told that the Andrea Doria had been rammed in the fog by the Stockholm and that we had been taking survivors on board since shortly after two.

The first surviving family we talked to was Mr. and Mrs. Gifford, who have a home on Nantucket. We were joined in a few minutes by Mayor Dilworth and Mrs. Dilworth, of Philadelphia. Mrs. Dilworth had a very badly bruised eye and cheek, and all were without shoes, Doris took the Giffords to our cabin for awhile so that they could clean up a bit. In the meantime, lifeboat after lifeboat was being unloaded, and I must say that the crew of the Ile handled the operation with almost military precision. They were greatly aided by a calm sea. By this time there were visible about half a dozen freighters and two Coast Guard cutters, that had obviously taken over supervision of the rescue operation. And then, half hidden by a wispy mist, we saw the ghostly white Stockholm, with a crumpled black bow.

We could see the last survivors of the Andrea climbing down rope ladders into lifeboats, but by now (about an hour after we got on deck) the lifeboats were being diverted to other ships. The Ile then came about, picked up the last of her lifeboats, and in response to some officious blasts and blinking lights from a Coast Guard cutter, we set off for a return trip to New York with 730 of the Andrea's passengers and crew.

And then we started to piece together what had happened. One man said that the collision occurred at precisely 11.10 because his wife had just asked him the time so that she could set her alarm clock as they were scheduled to dock in New York in the morning. The ship was badly shaken by the collision and immediately went into a severe list, and many passengers were injured trying to scramble around on the highly polished, linoleum floors.

I don't know what account the newspapers carried of the crew of the Andrea Doria, but if only half of what I heard was true, they were a complete disgrace to themselves and the country they represent.

In the first place, there was no boat drill on the westbound voyage - a flagrant disregard of maritime safety rules. Following the collision, there was no announcement whatsoever over the speaker system. Not a single officer was seen by any of the survivors I talked to, and all those survivors were uniformly bitter about the crew. The first lifeboat launched was full of members of the crew. Several of the crew dove off the ship and swam to the first lifeboats. As one passenger put it, "The crew went into panic, but the passengers didn't."

The "Andrea" soon listed so badly that lifeboats could not be launched, and passengers had to climb down rope ladders a distance of 20-30 feet into lifeboats from the Stockholm and freighters. An american with Navy experience had to, insist (since the crew was doing nothing about it) that ropes be tied to women and children so that they wouldn't be lost if they fell off the ladder. One survivor told me that a Coast Guard officer pulled a gun on part of the Andrea crew and threatened to shoot the next man who failed to obey orders.

A barefooted Englishman I talked to, who by some peculiar means managed to look quite composed and debonair even though clothed only in a pair of oil-stained trousers, shrugged his shoulders and made the following classical characterization of the Andrea's crew: "They had no guts - really."

A similar characterization was made by a poor nun, who was found by Doris wandering around in a state of semi-shock and worried almost to distraction because she had lost her black veil. Doris took her to our cabin and got her quieted down. She said that the only way she could get into a lifeboat was to swing down twenty feet on a three-inch line that she could barely get a grip on. She kept repeating: what horrible men". "What a terrible crew". And then she uttered what may well be the understatement of the century: "And I hear that they - do not live very Godly lives!"

Clothing was an immediate problem, and an impromptu clothes exchange was set up on B deck. There we saw human nature in better form, and between our crew and the passengers the survivors were made quite presentable'. I walked down the promenade deck and picked out a man about my size who was clad in only a pair of trousers and a pair of books. He turned out to be George Kerr, who was born in Scotland but who now represents Proctor & Gamble in Rome. I took him to our cabin and gave him a pair of shoes, an undershirt and a sports shirt. He was traveling with his wife and daughter, but hadn't seen them since they climbed into the third lifeboat, and he could only hope that they had been picked up by another ship.

Some tragic episodes came to light that afternoon in addition to the fifteen fracture cases including a broken back, in our sick bay. A retired U.S. Army colonel on the Andrea stepped into his bathroom to brush his teeth seconds before the collision occurred. When he managed to get the door opened, half of his cabin was gone and so was his wife. She is presumed lost. A doctor found his wife on the floor, pinned across her crushed chest by a ceiling beam. Efforts to move the beam were halted by the rising water, and so he had to give her a shot of morphine and leave her. A child was born on a lower deck of the Ile seconds after the mother was removed from the lifeboat. A mother dropped her small baby into the ocean when attempting to get into a lifeboat. The baby was lost.

After bringing the survivors back to New York, to the accompanying congratulatory toots and blasts from tugboats and liners we set off for Europe once more, and life has just about returned to normal. But I have seen sights that I shall never forget.

Incidentally, I would have given my eyeteeth for a better camera than I have and for a telescopic lens. I had Kodachrome film and couldn't go below 1/25 of a second and F 4.5, which was quite inadequate for the semi-darkness that prevailed until the last few minutes on the disaster scene. I gave my films to a representative of the Paris "Match" which corresponds to "Life" in this country. If they are any good, they'll be published next week. The film will be returned to me.



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