Heroism on board the Andrea Doria

huge liner

Reading Time: 8 minutes

by Joni

The incident of the Andrea Doria is a study in human behaviour. Wars, natural disasters and tragedies bring out the best and worst of human nature. They test our selfishness, courage and kindness. Unexpected or accidental heroes and heroines emerge in hours of need. Could you be one? Would you only act to save yourself, or would you stay behind to help others and become an accidental hero?

I find this a fascinating subject, a psychological insight into human nature put to the test and often found wanting. My two articles on the Titanic, Women of the Titanic and Surviving the Titanic, touch on this topic. They show not just how people behave in a crisis but how human errors, no matter how small, can add to, or cause a tragedy. Life has a habit of springing the unexpected upon us. Are we ready for the test?

The story of the Andrea Doria is about a maritime disaster on the scale of the Titanic. It has a bit of action, history, human interest and even a mention of Elvis.

Irresponsibility causes Disasters

After all, we can’t blame the iceberg when a ship’s captain ignores radio warnings and orders his ship to go full steam ahead into an icefield. And what if someone had made sure the binoculars were on the bridge for the lookout watch, or if the nearby Californian liner’s radio operator had kept his radio on?

Irresponsible decisions can cause tragedies and further irresponsibility can make the outcome of the tragedy even worse. This certainly was the case for those onboard the ill-fated Titanic, in 1912. Forty-four years later, the 1706 passengers of another ship almost suffered the same fate.

The Andrea Doria and its Captain

Captain Piero Calamai of the Italian liner, Andrea Doria was a responsible man like Captain Smith of the Titanic. He was, like Smith, also due to retire after this voyage.

 Yes, Captain Calamai was doing all the right things, until his luxurious liner ran into a dense fog a day out from arrival in New York. It had been a dream trip so far for him and the nearly two thousand passengers and Italian crew. The Andrea Doria was travelling west bound from Europe in the usual shipping lane. It would be met by the Nantucket light ship and guided into the busy harbor as per usual, on this one hundred and first trip.

A Luxury Ship with Everything Onboard but Luck

This luxurious and sensuous maiden of the sea had everything a ship needed and more. Because of the changes in maritime law since the Titanic sinking, it had more than enough lifeboats for all onboard, 2000 capacity for 1706 persons. Titanic had only carried enough to rescue half of its passengers.

The Andrea Doria also had extensive watertight compartments, a reinforced hull and was rigged for fog. She had magnetic and gyrocompasses, radio direction finding equipment and a new state-of-the art long range navigation instrument called loran. She was fire proof, ballast balanced and declared unsinkable, like the mighty Titanic before her.

So, when she hit a visibly dense wall of fog, the crew and captain were not overly concerned. However, travelling just a few miles south, in the opposite direction was a smaller passenger liner, the Stockholm. This ship was not in fog. The moon was bright and the water calm.

The Stockholm, a Boat going the Wrong Way

The skipper, Captain Nordensen, was also relaxed, though he was not following the recommendation of the 1948 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. This international precaution stated that east bound traffic should travel twenty miles south of the maritime highway, which was busy with west bound ships. Nordensen thought this detour was a waste of time and so had ignored it this time, as on 423 previous voyages.

On this July 25 afternoon in 1956, both captains noticed each other’s ships by way of small pips on their radio screens. Captain Calamai noted the unknown ship seemed to be in direct line with the Andrea Doria. By that evening the distant ship was seven miles away, but slightly to the south by a few miles. He believed the ships could pass to port, as was customary etiquette at sea.

Human Errors Compound to cause Tragedy

Onboard the Stockholm there was no consistency of monitoring the radio screen, nor did the ship possess the sophisticated equipment of the Italian liner. Three young officers alternated in supervising the screens, but none of them plotted the course of the other ship. Meanwhile, on the Andrea Doria, Calamai believed the invisible ship to be on his right and the officers on the Stockholm believed the larger ship was on their left. Once both ships were in the fog, there was no way they could see each other but through radar, which they were interpreting wrongly and without plotting each other’s course.

At 11.05 pm, when they finally saw each other, it is too late. Each hurriedly turned to avert collision but the Andrea Doria  turned away from, not towards, the other ship and left her starboard side open to the also sudden turn of the Stockholm. They collided. The reinforced bow of the Stockholm sliced into five decks of the Andrea Doria instantly killing over forty passengers in their cabins. The Stockholm pulled back out of the bowels of the Andrea Doria and stopped nearby, still intact but for a crushed bow.

Living or Dying

That night it mattered whether you went to bed early, or chose to stay up and party on the exclusive Belvedere deck. Even one last coffee in the classy lounge could decide your fate.

That night it also mattered which other ships were around to assist the stricken liner, just as it had for the Titanic once it hit the iceberg. Fortunately for the passengers there were many ships around that answered the distress call, though they were only small and unable to take many of the survivors.

Bravery and Cowardice

Over the next few hours, they arrived as the Andrea Doria took on vast amounts of water and listed terribly to the starboard side. This prevented the lowering of lifeboats and evacuation of passengers. Because the ship was low on fuel, as it was due to dock the next morning, it did not have the ballast to balance the huge intake of seawater. It was top heavy and prone to sinking, despite all its safety features.

As the list became extreme, the port side of the ship rose high out of the water, also preventing the lowering of lifeboats on that side. So, despite the excess of lifeboat capacity, there were none for the passengers. They were at the mercy of rescue vessels.

The Stockholm crew helped as best they could by lowering their boats and rowing them towards the sinking liner, but it was difficult to get the passengers down to them. Nets and ropes were attached to the decks, but passengers preferred to remain on deck, despite the ever-increasing slope of the deck now slippery with oil and water. At no time did Captain Calami make an announcement as to what was happening. Instead, he left his passengers to fear the worst and scramble up and down between their cabins and the slippery decks, looking for family members.

Cowards and Heroes

However, a large number of Italian crew, mostly men, climbed down the nets into the lifeboats. Not a good look. Later they would be branded cowards just like Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic. A few crew members emerged as heroes. Giovanni Rovelli a young steward laboured for hours along with Dr. Thure Peterson trying to save Martha Peterson in cabin 56. She lay trapped under a steel bunk bed. Sadly, she died there, despite the best and bravest efforts of the two men who risked their own lives by staying below in the submerged cabin.

Bruno Donati, the ship’s physician also put aside his own safety to attend to the many injuries sustained by passengers. Young mother, Lilian Dooner took a desperate plunge off the stern into inky black waters to save her young daughter and a teenage girl. There were heroes too from the Stockholm who risked their lives to rescue the Italian passengers of the ship they had struck.

Ships come to the Rescue

The grand heroes of the day were the crew of rescue ships that braved the fog and uncertain compass readings to find the sinking ship. If the captain of the large Ile de France had not turned around and retraced its journey, many more people would have gone down with the sinking ship. There were not enough lifeboats or room on other small boats to accommodate the 1700 passengers waiting on the decks.

This captain, Baron Raoul de Beaudean was indeed a hero of the night. He risked a possible reprimand for turning around the Ile de France mid-journey, but he acted selflessly and saved many. By morning 1660 men, women and children were saved in one of the greatest ever rescues at sea.

The outcome could have been worse but for the bravery of a few. These men and women passed the test of selflessness to save others. The world is full of heroism. Heroes and heroines emerge every day when least expected, because life happens, and they rise to the test.

A Miracle

It seems miracles happen too when least expected. Young 12-year-old Linda Morgan, believed dead along with her sister, was found on the deck of the Stockholm hours later. She had fallen, still asleep, from her bunk onto the bow of the Swedish ship as it sliced into her cabin. Then, as it retracted, she was carried safely with it. Her sister, sleeping nearby, fell into the sea and was never seen again. Life never ceases to surprise us.

Elvis and the Andrea Doria

Another interesting fact is that The Andrea Doria is mentioned in the many written biographies of Elvis Presley. One of the survivors was Mike Stoller of the songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

When Mike Stoller reached New York, Leiber informed him that their 1952 composition “Hound Dog” had become the number one record in the nation in all three charts: R&B, Pop and C&W. Leiber told his colleague that “a young Mississippian by the name of Elvis Presley” had made this possible. Stoller, who had been in Europe for over 10 months, did not know who Elvis Presley was. He replied “Elvis who?”. He would get to know him well and write two more hit songs for the star. “Don’t” in1958 and the mega hit “Jailhouse Rock“.

Now, if he had not survived, Elvis and other singers, plus we the audience would have missed out. Isn’t life strange.

Andrea Doria in Book and Film

The Italian liner and its infamous sinking have attracted many film and movie makers. It is such a human story like that of the Titanic. Apart from numerous documentaries like National Geographic ChannelPBS Secrets of the DeadDiscovery ChannelHistory Channel, there are films using the fateful collision as plot inspiration.

In the Night Gallery episode “Lone Survivor”, the crew of the ill fated RMS Lusitania pick up a lifeboat from the RMS Titanic three years after its sinking. A survivor in the lifeboat claims to have survived the wreck and tries, without success, to convince Lusitania‘s captain to alter course to avoid the torpedo attack he foresees. On 26 July 1956, the same man is in a Lusitania lifeboat at the scene of the Andrea Doria collision.

Now that’s a good plot line for those of you who like a bit of spooky stuff. The collision is also believed to have inspired Paul Gallico, the writer of The Poseidon Adventure,1969, which was later made into a film.

I discovered the Andrea Doria sea disaster story when I came across William Hoffer’s Saved: The Story of the Andrea Doria – The Greatest Sea Rescue in History 1979. This book is well written and so interesting. It was the best one dollar ever spent at an op shop. I just had to tell you all this story. Hoffer also co-wrote the non-fiction book Midnight Express, also a great film. You learn something each day!

Be Brave, be Kind

I hope you enjoyed this read and never become part of a disaster, natural or man-made. But if you do, remember to be brave and kind. It is so much better to go down in history as a hero than a coward. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Get it right the first time if you can.

Photo Source. Shawn Henry, Unsplash.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.


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