Wreck of the Andrea Doria Involves the Greatest Coordinated Sea Rescue
In dense fog on July 25, 1956, around 11 p.m. in the evening, the nearly 700 foot passenger liner Andrea Doria, bound for New York, was rammed broadside by the 528 foot long Swedish steamer Stockholm. The collision occurred 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. In one of the greatest coordinated rescue efforts between vessels and rescue services, all but 46 of the nearly 1,700 people on board were saved.
On July 17, 1956, the Andrea Doria left Genoa, Italy, was sailing west, and heading to New York City. On board were 1,134 passengers and 572 crewmembers. Of all Italy’s ships at the time, the Andrea Doria was the largest, fastest and supposedly safest vessel afloat. On the last evening of her voyage, the Andrea Doria encountered fog. Captain Piero Calamai, a 40-year veteran, ordered the foghorn blown repeatedly. However, he did not greatly reduce the ship’s speed, which would only have enabled the ship to stop within a 3-mile range. At the same time, the Stockholm, which had left New York that morning, was sailing east, bound for Sweden.
Johan-Ernst Carstens, the Stockholm’s third mate who was commanding the bridge, turned his ship to the right of the Doria from information he received from an incorrect radar reading, believing the Doria to be 14 miles away instead of its actual location only 4 miles away. He failed to signal the maneuver with his ship’s whistle, putting the two vessels on a collision course.
When the Andrea Doria emerged from the fog, the crew saw the oncoming lights of the Stockholm. Captain Calamai of the Andrea Doria saw the Stockholm’s lights and realized that it was turning directly into the Doria. Panicking, Calamai ordered to make a hard left turn in hopes of avoiding the approaching ship. This became the fatal move because it ended up exposing the Doria’s side to the bow of the Stockholm. The situation was only made worse by the fact that the ships did not communicate with one another by whistle or radio, so instead of trying to sail away from one another when each spotted the other, they ended up turning towards one another and collided. The Stockholm crashed into the Andrea Doria, killing 45 people instantly, along with 5 crewman of the Stockholm. The impact opened such a gaping hole in the Doria’s side that within minutes the ship was leaning dangerously on her right side, flooding the ship’s watertight compartments that helped to keep the monstrous vessel afloat. As a result, at least half of the lifeboats on the Andrea Doria could not be lowered because of the ships’ right side was listing dangerously into the water.
The Coast Guard monitoring station on Long Island quickly picked up the first SOS messages sent from both the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm. They were able to put into action probably the most effective rescue operations of the time. In addition, other ships in the area, the Cape Ann, the Navy Transport Pvt. William H. Thomas and the tidewater tanker Robert E. Hopkins were all hurrying to assist in the rescue effort although they only had a few lifeboats.
The captain of the Andrea Doria radioed: “Danger immediate. Need boats to evacuate 1,000 persons and 500 crewmembers. We need boats.” The captain of the Ile de France, Baron Raoul de Beaudan, was only 44 miles away from the accident site and received the Doria’s distress signal. The French liner Ile de France had just left New York with a load of passengers and was heading for France. The captain quickly decided to turn his ship around to help in the rescue effort as he had plenty of lifeboats aboard. All these ships helped to keep this accident from becoming an even greater disaster, but it was the Ile de France that rescued the greatest number of passengers. With repeated radio attempts of the Andrea Doria’s captain to have the Stockholm aid in the rescue, the captain of the Stockholm, Harry Gunner Nordenson, was also concerned with the wellbeing of his own ship. After evaluating that his ship was not going to sink, he launched seven lifeboats to aid the Andrea Doria’s passengers. The Stockholm left the collision scene, and with a massive amount of damage to its bow, slowly made it back safely to New York.
On board the Stockholm, a sailor discovered a 14-year-old girl named Linda Morgan entangled in the wreckage near the bow. He could not find her name on the Stockholm’s passenger list and was surprised when she told him she was a passenger on the Andrea Doria. She had been literally thrown from her bed on the Andrea Doria onto the Stockholm during the collision. She was known afterwards as the “miracle child,” although her half-sister and stepfather died on the Andrea Doria.
As the night wore on, rescue ships and the Coast Guard were arriving to take the passengers to safety. Some passengers panicked and jumped overboard, to be later picked up in the lifeboats, while many slid down ropes and makeshift steps to the security of their rescuers. Many families became separated from each other in the chaos. By 6:00 a.m., all the survivors had been placed onto the various rescue ships that came to help and were heading to the shore.
The Doria’s remaining crew began to abandon the ship, along with Captain Calamai by 9 a.m. The great liner began to sink at 9:45 a.m., and by 10:09 that morning, news crews witnessed the Doria fully disappearing from site. It sank eleven hours after the collision with the Stockholm, which lost 5 people instantly in the accident. With such a dramatic rescue effort, all but 46 (45 were killed instantly on impact) of the nearly 1,700 people on board were saved.
As the Andrea Doria sank beneath the waves and came to rest 235 feet below the surface southwest of Nantucket Island, accusations began to fly as to who was responsible for the collision. While Captain Calamai of the Andrea Doria swore that there was thick fog that evening, the Stockholm claimed that there was no fog, although in the month of July with such extremes of weather quite common in and around the Cape Cod region, both men may have been telling the truth. The owners of both ships settled out of court.
For many years afterwards it was commonly held that the Andrea Doria and its captain were to blame for the accident. More recent investigations have cleared Captain Calamai, who died before being vindicated. Although this was a tragic event, with so many mariners coordinating together to rescue those in peril, all but 46 of the nearly 1,700 people on board were saved. It became one of the greatest coordinated sea rescues in history and much was learned from the event to train those involved with future rescue efforts. As a result of this disaster, improved radar training was required, and ships were required to make contact by radio. In a bit of irony, two years after the collision, by 1958, airlines began offering nonstop jet travel between the United States and Europe indicating an end to the passenger liner era.
I would also like to give thanks to the Ahysen family for providing this incredible painting above of the Andrea Doria incident by Harry Ahysen for my book. He was named as the State Artist of Texas in 1980 and 1981 and he is one of ten official Coast Guard artists. Seven of his works are a part of the Coast Guard Collection. He has more than a dozen murals in various locations throughout the county and his art can be found in museums and collections around the world. He was also a full time professor teaching over 31 years in the art department at Sam Houston State University and held the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus, the first ever bestowed by the University on a professor of Art. Check out the work of this amazing man.
Thanks and have a great summer,
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