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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Wreck of the SS Andrea Doria



(Don't forget to scroll to the bottom of this page and pause the music so you can hear the video.)

In late July 1956, the ocean liner SS Andrea Doria sank on the last night of its transatlantic voyage from Italy to New York City when another ocean liner, the MS Stockholm, collided with her.

It seemed a watershed moment, almost as if morosely heralding the end of the leisurely elegance of ship travel (the first jet was to cross the Atlantic two years later), and the beginning of instant news as still photographers from Life magazine and others, newsreel cameramen, and reporters scrambled to the site to watch the vessel sink. Topping any newspaper “extras”, the film was developed and shown on television.

Most amazing about the story of the sinking of the Andrea Doria is rescue operation that began in such an impromptu fashion, among a variety of vessels and participants, and became one of the most successful rescues at sea in history. The death toll of 46 from the Andrea Doria and 5 from the Stockholm was a tragedy. That there were not more was a triumph.

Much of the information from this post comes from Richard Goldstein’s fine book “Desperate Hours - The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, 2003), as well as the interesting television documentary, “Secrets of the Dead - The Sinking of the Andrea Doria” (PBS 2006).

Her last voyage was to be a nine-day journey from Genoa, Italy to New York City in this era where travel was leisurely. The trip enjoyed clear weather, and a peaceful crossing until its final night when disaster struck off the New England coast.

An excellent book called “Shipwrecks Around Cape Cod” by William P. Quinn (Lower Cape Publishing, Orleans, Mass. 1973), notes centuries of nautical disasters off the shores of Cape Cod where a variety of circumstances have made these treacherous waters. Survival rates, in days long gone by, were not very good.

Safety, and chances of survival, had improved a very great deal by the summer of 1956 when the Andrea Doria was completing her pleasant journey across the Atlantic. But a hurdle had been thrown out by the typically unforgiving New England weather on this last evening of the voyage, the notoriously fog-bound waters south of Nantucket.

There was the usual last night festivities on ship, with champagne and streamers, and a roast beef dinner, and “Arrivederci Roma” played by Dino Massa and Orchestra. Shortly after 11 p.m., the MS Stockholm accidentally rammed the Andrea Doria, and a drama of several hours began.

Ten minutes after the collision, a ship-to-shore radio station in Chatham, Massachusetts on the Cape received a distress call, first from the Stockholm, and immediately followed by the Andrea Doria. Closest to the scene were six other ships: a commercial freighter called Cape Ann, a military transport Private William H. Thomas, the Coast Guard cutter Hornbeam, a Navy destroyer escort ship Edward H. Allen, and a tanker, the Robert E. Hopkins, as well as another grand ocean liner, the Ile de France.

Fortunately, though the Stockholm was severely damaged in the collision, the ship was still seaworthy and also rescued passengers from the Andrea Doria. The Andrea Doria lost the use of half of its lifeboats due to technical glitch brought on by the listing of the ship. Had not so many ships raced to the rescue, an enormous tragedy similar to the Titanic could have occurred with not enough lifeboats for the passengers.

The freighter Cape Ann, owned by the United Fruit Company, was the first to arrive. The Coast Guard directed the rescue, with participation to varying degrees from military installations around New England, including the Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth and Coast Guard units at Woods Hole on the Cape; New London, Connecticut; and in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Some injured passengers were plucked by helicopter and taken to the Nantucket Cottage Hospital for first treatment before being taken to Boston.

Boston Daily Globe, July 26, 1956, p. 1

A total of 1660 passengers and crew were rescued. The Andrea Doria, after a dark night of terror, could not be saved, and sank at around 10 a.m. the following morning, in full daylight, in full view of the cameras. For more on the shipboard experiences that night and rescue of two Hollywood stars, have a look at yesterday’s Another Old Movie Blog.

For more in the story of the Andrea Doria, have a look at this website.

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