The Wreck of the Andrea Doria: Ep 1 – The Events
We continue our mini series on maritime disasters with the extraordinary tale of the Andrea Doria, a magnificent Italian passenger liner lost off the coast of Massachusetts in 1956 when she was rammed by another liner. The Andrea Doria was built in the 1950s, born from Italy’s bruised pride after the Second World War, and seen as a way to put Italy back on the map as a major player in the world of transatlantic travel. She became a hugely important ship for the Italian nation, a true icon of Italian culture and history. Launched in 1953 to great fanfare and fitted with the most exquisite Italian art, she enjoyed a successful career – though cut far too short by the events of July 1956. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Pierette Simpson who, as a child, witnessed those terrible events and has since dedicated her life to sharing the story of the Andrea Doria so that it is never forgotten. Pierette is the author of Alive on the Andrea Doria!: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History and the award-winning docufilm Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?
This episode is Part 1 of 3. Part 2 will include two more eyewitness accounts including an interview with Mike Stoller of the legendary songwriting team Lieber & Stoller who wrote hits for Elvis and Ben E. King. Part 3 will be focussed on the wreck itself and includes an interview with marine explorer John Moyer.
- View The Transcription
From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.
Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. This episode is part of our mini series on maritime disasters. If you have not caught up on that yet, then please do so, there are some remarkable episodes, most recently on the Empress of Ireland, the tragedy that became known as Canada’s Titanic, when this mighty ship went down in minutes in the St. Lawrence River. We have an episode on the Titanic itself in which I speak with the man who has interviewed more survivors of the Titanic disaster than anyone else alive. We also have a separate and very interesting episode on Titanic’s anchors. Other episodes in the maritime disasters series include the Lusitania, the Mary Rose, Coffin ships, and there’s much more coming your way soon as well. But today we are investigating the tragic events of July 1956 when a true icon of maritime history, the magnificent Andrea Doria, sank off the coast of Massachusetts having been rammed by another passenger liner. The Andrea Doria was built in the 1950s, born from Italy’s bruised pride after the second World War, and she helped put Italy back on the map, a major player in the world of trans Atlantic travel. She wasn’t just any ship, she was a vitally important ship to the Italian nation, which made her an icon. Launched in 1953 she enjoyed a successful, though brief career, that was cut short by the terrible events of July 1956. To find out more I spoke with the excellent Pierette Simpson. Now if you need to know pretty much anything about this ship and the events then Pierette is the person to speak with. She has authored newsletters, blogs, books, short stories, she’s instrumental in working with museums in telling the story of the Andrea Doria. I’ve never been a survivor of a shipwreck so I’m really excited to be talking to you.
I’m alive and well thank goodness.
Well, let’s find out what happened; when was she built and why was she built
She was built in Genoa in Italy by the Ansaldo shipyard, and she was launched in, oh goodness, 71 years ago, and she was built as the pride of the Italian line. She was built as the crown jewel to represent the renaissance of Italy from the ashes of World War Two. She was supposed to be glamorous and beautiful and everything that represents the best of Italy. It was filled with artworks of every kind,ceramics, paintings. It had the most modern technical equipment, the most modern radar. It was beautiful in the interior and in the exterior. Everybody knew of the Andrea Doria.
Not very big, but they made up for that by the quality of the fittings it sounds like.
Yes, so it was not one of the largest ships in the ocean. It was probably middle size. But she made up for it absolutely in every other quality including the extraordinary captain and crew
And built for the transatlantic route. So we should remind everyone that this is the 50s but it’s before transatlantic air flights. I mean, this is basically your only option of getting across the Atlantic quickly.
Yes, it was definitely transatlantic from Genoa to a few other ports and then to New York. And it was the one hundred and first trip that it would make, I guess voyage would be a better word. So I was on the one hundred and one unlucky voyage.
Why were you on board,
I was on board for a very unique reason. I was on board with my grandparents and they were bringing me to America to meet my mother, because my mother had left Italy when I was 15 months old. And she came to America, in the Detroit area. And she would build a better life for me when I would eventually join her. So I did not know my mother, we were coming to meet her and my new family, my stepdad, and I had a baby sister. And we would have a new life. My grandparents sold everything, and left the only community they had ever known, and sold all their animals. And, you know, everything that was precious to them they left behind, so they can always be a part of my life in America.
Incredibly courageous decision. And how old were you
I was nine. So I had not seen my mother for eight years.
Gosh, but old enough to develop a strong sense of memory and being able to process events quite clearly in your brain I suspect. What was your accommodation like?
It was a tourist class, also known as third class, filled with immigrants. The room was very simple. But we had a pool and we stayed outside in the pool. Now I have to tell you, Sam, that my grandparents, especially my grandmother, were paranoid of water. So for them to allow me to go into the pool was extraordinary. And there were three pools, which had never been built on a ship before. So it was very luxurious. And I would swim with Norma di Sandra, the three year old that would later lose her life, and met some other children. And it was just great fun. To me it was luxury, was very different from the farmhouse that looked like a Van Gogh painting with the light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a black wood burning stove. So it was very luxurious. And it was fun for me. My grandparents didn’t think it was fun, but they kind of settled in, especially by the eighth day.
How long did the journey take?
Well, it was a nine day journey, Sam, and it was on the eighth night that the tragedy happened.
So take us through the events.
We were only 60 miles from the US coastline when I reread that yesterday. I thought wow, how unlucky were we? So we boarded in Genoa, Italy, we had a wonderful eight days except for one very turbulent night. Actually turbulent day, I remember being not very well that particular day, but I don’t think anybody was. It was just a beautiful trip until the eighth night. And something just extraordinary happened that was never supposed to happen in the age of radar. It was 11:10pm, and my grandmother and I were celebrating, she had let loose and relaxed and decided that she was going to have a great time because we were going to land in the New World, America, America. So she and I were dancing in the social hall along with a lot of other tourists in tourists class, immigrants, And my grandfather decided to be a responsible person as he always was, and to be in his cabin down below, and he was always watching his briefcase and at 11:10pm we heard this extraordinary noise in the middle of the Atlantic, just thunderous, and all of a sudden the ship went into the air on its right side, up in the air, and incline drastically to the left side, which is also known port side as you know. Then it went back to centre trembling, and then it settled on the right side, which is the starboard side, and it stayed there. And even the initial list was 19 degrees. Meanwhile, my grandmother and I were hanging on to each other, furniture was flying everywhere. Everyone was screaming words like Titanic a furnace blew up, we we hit a mine, we hit an iceberg, an elevator crashed, it was just unfathomable that there’s something like this, you know, what happened? And we could walk, everybody was somewhat injured or drastically injured. Fortunately, my grandmother and I were not. So we started pushing furniture up to balance the ship, this is how desperate we were. And then all of a sudden my grandfather appeared, and he had his hat on, and he had a suit on and carrying his briefcase and his pant legs were rolled up to his knees. He had been treading in water down below. And he had made it up the stairs with everybody clamouring to get up one flight, and it was just in the dark and the smell of smoke and fuel and electrical lines burning. It was just complete pandemonium. There he was in the social hall with us, how he found us in the dark I don’t know. His eyes were just bulging out of his head like he had seen a ghost. But we were together, Sam. And we sat on the floor. And we said Ave Maria, piena di grazia, and the Hail Mary with now in the hour of our death, amen, struck a chord that made people sob. And I have to say, most people really calmed down. Some were still hysterical but we just prayed and prayed thinking that was the end. And we were hearing these horrible noises underneath us. We were sinking with each noise. We thought it was the end.
Did people soon realise that there had been a collision?
Well, all of a sudden, somebody came from somewhere and said, I saw what happened. We were rammed by another ship. We were hit. And we couldn’t believe it. So we knew we were in big trouble.
Was there a kind of desire to get out on deck quickly? Or were you happy in your prayer circles waiting for others to take charge?
Well, we thought it was futile. So we didn’t think anybody was coming, we would see from from one side of the room to the other some sailors who were in beautiful white suits just covered with oil, running back and forth, they were setting up grab lines. They were trying to communicate. But it was pretty useless to try to communicate, especially since the loudspeaker system had been compromised when the cables were broken in certain areas. So later on, people would report that they never heard anything, or that they only heard a broken message, stai calmo, which means stay calm.
Difficult, is the ship still listing very seriously
Listing and listing more and more all the time. So finally, and I think it was about three hours later, hard to tell, a man came through the deck doors, and he yelled out, the rescue ships have arrived. You must come up to the deck and we will get into the lifeboats. We thought how are we going to get up to the upper part of this room, we had to crawl, furniture was all the way down to the bottom, there was nothing to hang on to. But we made it to the deck door somehow, we made a human chain. And we pushed our backs against the rail. And we tried to make it to the most inclined side that by that time was probably 20 or 30 some degrees, because it sank when it was almost 50 degrees list. So we made it, some of us made it, some did not because they were terribly injured, or hit with a deadly blow by hitting the swimming pool. I don’t think that happened too much, though, I think it was mostly a lot of injuries from people slipping in the condensation of the fog on the deck. But most of us made it to the lower side. And there were two young men there. And they had a foreign accent. They didn’t speak Italian that I remember, but they tied a rope around my waist. That was so frightening, Sam that this is at night right. Fortunately, the moon was shining, the fog that had been going on all day long, the conditions were just grey. The foghorn had been blowing throughout the day for that reason, and we made it to the lower side of the ship to be lowered. And there I was dangling on a rope. And the list was so heavy because of the continuous incline that I did not know I was being lowered into a lifeboat. I thought I was being lowered into the ocean. I couldn’t see it. The lifeboat was underneath the list. And the torrential waters were pouring in at 1000 tonnes per hour. So the lifeboat was now rocking back and forth and crashing against the ship. The lifeboat was from the French liner Il de France. And I made it into the lifeboat. And there were other people screaming hysterically. And it was very frightening without my grandparents. Fortunately, they made their way down on their own accord. I cannot believe my grandmother did that because of her fright of water. She made it down and one of her legs went into the water. And she was pulled in, she screamed. There we were huddled. My grandfather, kind of against the laws of the sea, women and children first, and then the men stayed on board to help. Well, he was in his mid 50s, which I thought was very old. And I’m now 20 years older than that right now. He made it down with his briefcase and the hat on his head, how he had time to dress, find us in the social hall. And then he made it down into the lifeboat with us, which was amazing because a lot of families were separated. Once the lifeboat was full and they filled up fast, then they would take off whether all the family members were on there or not. So some families did not know whether their loved ones were safe or where they had gone.
Hmm, was there much difficulty in launching the lifeboats in the first place because of the angle of the vessel?
That’s a very good question, Sam. It was such an unfortunate situation. The blow to the Andrea Doria from the Stockholm, the Swedish liner, was never expected to do such damage. Naval architects, marine engineers, had never imagined such penetration of 1/3rd of a ship, our ship. And so the lifeboats on the starboard side where we were being lowered from, they were out so far from the ship, I think it was 20 feet. So we could not get into them from the muster stations where we had been assigned during the drill. So we had to either jump into the ocean or go down by rope or by whatever means it could be. The captain was brilliant and had his crew lower nets from the swimming pool. He had seen that in World War two movies and some people climb down these. What are they called again?
Like a cargo net.
Yes, cargo nets. Everybody made their way down how they could on the on the right side, the starboard side. On the port side, Sam, the lifeboats would not launch, they could not be lowered from their davits because the incline was so extreme. So, Officer McDonnell, who is in charge, tried and tried. And so the people that had gone to their muster stations on the port side just sat there waiting for some kind of announcement. And it was hard to walk anywhere, it was all greasy and fog condensation. So yes, the lifeboat situation was drastic.
You mentioned the IIe de France. Were there other ships that came to your aid. I mean, you weren’t far off the coast. Was there a way that people could have grouped together and come out to help?
Absolutely. We had so many rescue ships, thanks to the vicinity of the US shoreline. We had cargo ships, we had Cutters, we had the Coast Guard, of course, Navy training ships. It was like magic, really that we had so much help. And of course, the IIe de France had turned around in the fog, just because of one message from Captain Calamai saying, Captain, we need help immediately. Captain de Beaudean did not know what Captain Calamai needed, or what the urgency was. He turned the ship around in the fog against all insurance regulations, of course, taking a big risk of running into other ships in the ocean. And they save 730 of us, including the three of us from my family. Yes.
Let’s talk about blame. This kind of event couldn’t happen without someone having to shoulder the blame. Well, what happened?
Well, history has changed quite a bit from the beginning. Because it was reported in real time. I think it was the first event to ever be covered in real time. So a lot of the information sent back to shore from helicopters, aeroplanes, the rescue ships was very inaccurate at first about how many survived, what had happened. It couldn’t be discerned right away. And then in the summer, or the beginning of fall, there were hearings in New York. And the hearings went very badly for the Italians. The Swedish American line soon after the accident decided that they were going to blame us so they filed a suit and said that we were culpable. Not much later the Andrea Doria Italian line representing the Andrea Doria filed a countersuit saying that it was not our fault, it was their fault. So it was a very strange situation so that the hearings were scheduled in New York, and it was very bad because Captain Nordensen was always, and I put in quotes sick, when it was time for him to to testify. And the Italians didn’t know English. The Swedish interpreters did their best, but I don’t think it was a great translation of what was going on. Captain Calamai was very stoic. He wasn’t speaking up for himself the way he should have. And things were going so badly and so slowly. Meanwhile, Sam, survivors were claiming loss of life, loss of property, that was mounting into the millions, 85 millions to be more precise, and it was not going well for the insurer that was Lloyd’s of London, because the payout would have to be quite large. So they decided to make a settlement out of court, and there would be no blame. Lloyd’s of London was the insurer for both ships. So that was the end of that. Oh, however, the media had a heyday with the Italians, because we had not so good a reputation after World War Two, we had Mussolini, and of course, there was the mafia from years before. And then, you know, we were uneducated immigrants for the most part, especially from the south, because that’s just how things were. We didn’t have a good reputation. So everything was blamed on the Italians. It had to be their fault because the Scandinavians are level headed, they’re logical, and they’re educated. It had to be our fault. So for years Captain Calamai was blamed; the Italian government, which is so incredible to me, did not speak up for him. At first, they signed a document of solidarity toward the captain and the crew, but it was never published. So it was complete silence. And it was complete silence from the Office of Communications and Advertising. They said, do not speak up, Italians will never be believed. So do not speak up, be silent. So we stayed silent, and it was not good for us. We didn’t stick up for ourselves, our government didn’t stick up for ourselves, for us. And so, it was very bad. And then
The other thing that was really bad for sealing this reputation, that it was our fault, was that the author and New York Times journalist Alvin Moscow, was asked by, I believe the Swedish American line or the government, to go with his wife to Sweden and write a book on what had happened. Now, how he would know what had happened is a good question. But it was clear that the technical details, scientific details were missing, because there was nothing to prove otherwise. So he put together what had been published, what had been said, what the Swedish government probably told him to say, I don’t know, it’s hard to say, but it was definitely not in the Italians favour. So that sealed the opinion of what had happened. It was the first book out and the next two, were, they’re all well written, don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising how they wrote. But what they wrote about the Italian side, again they blamed us and it was never like, a very blatant blame. It was, you know, it was in the details, the devil was in the details. So I found out about this, even though I had been part of the people, the public that was blaming the Italians in part for the accident, because we didn’t know any better. I found out through a captain that I met Captain Robert Meurn, of the US Merchant Marine Academy in New York, and he told me, what had happened, he explained to me that he had been part of establishing, inventing, creating a computer simulator at the US Merchant Marine Academy. It’s called the CAORF by acronym, because it was computer simulation that showed exactly what must have happened, they could put in variable scenes of what had happened, and various scenarios, and come to some conclusion when they compared it to human testimony. And that was the first time, that was in the 70s, that something could establish the science behind the explanation in real terms of what had happened.
Yes, I mean briefly, you got two passenger liners steaming very quickly through dense fog and one turns right and one turns left. They both knew they were there on the radar, but they hadn’t quite clogged they were both large passenger liners. I think that’s fair isn’t it?
It was. Yes, it’s basically what you said. I’m not so sure the third officer on the Stockholm who was alone in the Times Square of the Atlantic. It’s called a very foggy and a very busy area. I don’t know if he knew there was another ship for quite a while until we got very close. And he had a very antiquated, I have to tell you, Sam you didn’t ask me where the captain was In the Times Square of the Atlantic. Most people don’t think about it, they think OK, well, there’s an officer on board. But a captain should be on on deck during these times and not assign a 24 old or 26 year old inexperienced third officer who was manning the ship, basically, by himself. He had a helmsman that was very young, round 21 or 22. that was yawing the ship and for every degree of yaw it creates a 50% error in the radar reading. And then we have the crow’s nest gentleman, a young man 19 years old, 3 decks up. So the third officer, you know from your statement, did he know he was answering the phone across the deck, he was taking readings. He was monitoring this antiquated radar that you had to put in a light to see the range rings. There were two range rings, a 15 and a five mile range. And he testified in court he had changed it to the 15. But he obviously didn’t remember or we don’t know. He put the Andrea Doria when he finally saw a beep that he reported was coming from the port side, his left side, that he could see the red light. And that was when the Andrea Doria was four miles away. And so he said he saw a red light the port light; that’s impossible because of the fog conditions and the Andrea Doria was being concealed by the fog, and you could only see two miles maximum. So he did realise however backing up just a little bit that the currents were dragging the ship too far north. And I must put in the statement right now, which I probably should have said right from the beginning, but maybe bringing it up to this point is important.
Captain Nordensen had ordered Carstens- Johansen, the third officer, to travel in a west bound lane while they were travelling east. So basically, Sam, they were in, not exactly our lane, but in our territory. So we didn’t expect anybody on our starboard side. They didn’t expect that we were there on the starboard side. So this third officer made a terrible mistake in judging that we were approaching on his port side. Now, that’s impossible, because of the computer simulation showing the whole scenario and the fact that we were travelling in our own lane. Now we were only a mile apart, but Captain Calamai said OK. I don’t have time for miles to make a starboard turn and get on the other side of them. So we’ll just stay here, this is the safe distance. Well, he realised that the other ship was coming right at us and so he ordered a hard to port. He was blamed for decades for that because you’re always supposed to turn if you think there’s going to be an accident, you’re supposed to turn to starboard. He would have needed at least 11 more seconds to do that. So Murphy’s Law played into it, the inexperienced third officer manning a ship and 500 passengers in the foggy Times Square of the Atlantic and they claimed there was no fog. The Nantucket Lightship reported fog; they did not have their fog horn on, they did not even sound their horn when they were making an extreme second right turn. The first one was to correct from the currents that had brought them too far North. The second one was when he saw our lights. And he testified in court they were crossing from the port side, they crossed in front of us. No, we were never on the left. We were on the right. It was the misreading of the radar, which has been called a radar assisted collision, which was complicated by the helmsman yawing the ship, and who knows where we were at the point that the third officer finally saw us coming. We were very close. But you know what, Sam, I don’t blame it on him. I blame it on the captain. He should have been there instead of being in his cabin, and ordering the young man to travel in the wrong lane. Now that law has been changed, obviously, you are assigned if you’re a sea captain, you have a lane that you must stay in there. Back then there wasn’t. So as I said, Murphy’s Law, it’s hard to believe even when I reread my book, that this third officer either panicked or from habit of turning right, he turned right into us, rammed us at full speed in a huge ocean. At the same time, we’ve managed to be in the same spot at the same time to create this almost impossible collision.
The metaphor for history itself I think, that where inconceivable tiny moments can lead to something which theoretically should not have happened.
Piarette, thank you so much for sharing this story with us, and you’ve been very helpful and put me in touch with some other fantastic contributors. So there’ll be parts two, three and four of this podcast that all of our listeners can get stuck into. So Pierette for now thank you very much indeed.
Thank you so much, Sam. It’s been a pleasure, thank you for doing this.
Thank you all so much for listening. Now, don’t let this be the last thing that you do to interact with the Mariners Mirror podcast, please go back to our brilliant back catalogue and check out a huge range of maritime history. Yes, we have our mini series of maritime disasters, but also there is so much more, not least our mini series on great naval battles on maritime myths and legends and so on. Do please come and check that out. Please also, don’t just listen to the podcast but check out our YouTube page where we have tons of fabulous material to enjoy, including the use of artificial intelligence to bring ships figureheads alive, the animation of battle plans, the use of 3d modelling to show you around magnificent ships of the past; you will not believe your eyes, I promise. Please also know that the podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. So do please check out everything that both excellent institutions are doing. For the Lloyd’s Register foundations archive, you can find that at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk and there’s this article for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk where you can join up and become part of a Society that has been helping to preserve maritime history for well over a century. Nothing could be finer.
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