Sinking of the Andrea Doria:
How One Couple Survived Night of Terror
David L. Hollyer, Independent News Alliance
Los Angeles Times-November 26th 1981
WASHINGTON-Early on a misty July morning, 25 years ago, my wife Louise and I, barefoot
and clad only in wet and oil-covered night clothes, leaned shivering at the rail of the
Swedish liner Stockholm with several hundred other passengers, watching in
horrified fascination the final death struggle of the Italian luxury liner Andrea
Doria. It was heartbreaking for those of us who were so recently passengers on that
floating palace to watch it sink a short distance away in the Atlantic Ocean.
These were the final moments of a tragedy that had begun the previous night, when the
New York bound Andrea Doria and the Europe-bound Stockholm collided in a
dense fog about 45 miles off Nantucket Island. My wife and I were "extras" in a
cast of thousands who took part in one of the greatest sea dramas of modem times. As we
watched the final plunge of the stricken liner, the events of the preceding days ran
through our minds.
Up until 11:10 p.m. the night before, it had been a perfect trip - every bit as
memorable as we hoped our first transatlantic crossing would be. Returning home after five
years in Europe, we had boarded the Italian Liner in Genoa on July 17, stopping at Cannes,
Naples and Gibraltar, then sailing past the Azores and across the Atlantic. This was the
101st transatlantic crossing for the Andrea Doria and her captain, Piero
Calamai. A sleek 697 feet long, it had been called the prettiest ship in the world. Its
interior was lavishly decorated by Italian artists, and it offered every amusement
available on a ship to its 1,134 first, cabin and tourist class passengers, who were
catered to by a crew of 572.
As my wife observed, "What more could anyone ask of a ship?" "That she
be safe," I answered. 'Well, the Andrea Doria was that, too. It was equipped
with the most modern safety devices available. Watertight doors could lock the ship into
11 separate watertight compartments below A Deck, which gave it the reputation of being
unsinkable. To further assure passengers, the boat deck housed 16 lifeboats capable of
carrying 2,000 persons.
We started the previous day, Wednesday, with a rather late breakfast because the
traditional captain's ball had kept us up late the night before. There was packing to be
done, and there were custom declarations to be filled out and good-byes to be said to
shipboard acquaintances. We were scheduled to dock in New York at 9 a.m. Thursday, July
As the day wore on and we approached the coast of the United States, we began to
encounter light fog. By early evening the fog was so dense that it was difficult to make
out the ships funnel from more than 50 yards away. By 9 p.m. we were packed and our
baggage had now joined a mountain of luggage on the promenade deck. There is something sad
and nostalgic about the final night aboard a ship, and our mood was not lightened by the
doleful sound of the foghorn and the clammy mist as we took a final turn around the deck.
We paused for a brief nightcap at the bar before returning to our cabin to turn in about
Later reconstruction of events showed that at about that time, the Andrea Doria
passed about a mile from the Nantucket lightship, an area so congested with
marine traffic that it was known as the Times Square of the Atlantic. New York City was
still about 200 miles away; the ship was rigged for running in fog. Its speed had been
only slightly reduced, but its watertight doors were closed and its foghorn was sounding.
At 10:45 p.m., while we were down in our Cabin 374 on A Deck, preparing for bed an officer
on the Andrea Doria bridge spotted a ship on the radar screen; it was
about 17 miles away and moving toward us almost in our path (about four degrees on the
starboard bow he thought). At 11 p.m., the two ships were seven miles apart, traveling at
a combined speed of 40 knots and closing two miles every three minutes.
At 11:10 p.m., the sharp icebreaker bow of the Stockholm sliced into the
exposed starboard side of the Andrea Doria. It cut a V-shaped gash about 50 feet
wide a the top and 30 feet deep, demolishing about 49 cabins on the upper, foyer, A, B,
and C, decks and killing instantly many of the occupants who were sleeping there or
preparing for bed. Below the waterline, the sea burst in and flooded the damaged
watertight compartments. The ship tilted acutely to the right immediately. The Andrea
Doria, designed to stay afloat with a maximum list of 15 degrees, listed 20 degrees
At the instant of impact, I was in my pajamas in the upper berth in our cabin-class
stateroom, waiting for Louise to turn out the light and retire. We were rocked by a
violent lurch accompanied by a horrendous scraping, noise. The lights blinked briefly.
Within seconds our cabin had tipped steeply. Instantly I recalled my experience as a GI
the ocean in a troop transport and sleeping far below deck. The watchword then had been:
If anything happens, get topside fast and have your life preserver with you! I wondered
briefly whether we had hit a floating mine or had an explosion below never even considered
I scrambled out of my tilting bunk and cried, "Let's get up on deck fast."
Louise was only in a nightgown and snatched my suit from a hook on the wall. We grabbed
our lifejackets and tugged at the door, which had been racked out of line. It finally
burst open on a scene of utter confusion in the corridor: screaming, the smell of oil,
fumes of some sort. We knew instinctively that to survive we must get up above quickly.
The thought of trying to find our way up if the lights failed again drove us on. Confused
and dazed passengers, some in nightclothes, others who had been heading to their cabins
after a last night of celebrating, struggled in the passageways.
The staircase, which ran across the ship wasn't easy to ascend. Well waxed for the
morning disembarkation and now tipped toward us at a crazy angle, it would have been
impossible to climb without handrails. Glass from smashed doors covered the stairs, and
somehow they were oily. We struggled up toward the cabin-class ballroom on the promenade,
our assigned muster station. We were among the first from below to reach the ballroom, but
there were many people who had been there partying, and some of them clung to pillars
dazed. A befuddled woman in an evening gown who still couldn't grasp what was happening
giggled at my wife in her dishabille and sneered, "How disgusting." Louise
suddenly aware of scanty attire, ducked behind a column and struggled into my suit,
rolling up the pants legs and the jacket sleeves and strapping her lifejacket over it.
Sliding on our backsides on the sharply slanting floor, we made our way outside to the
starboard rail. We could tell something had smashed the side of the ship but didn't know
what. We crawled on our hands and knees up the steeply slanting, highly polished ballroom
floor across broken glass, debris from the bar and scattered instruments from the
bandstand and finally reached the high (port) side of the promenade deck. We climbed
outside to join a crowd of confused and frightened passengers.
With the ship's engines stilled an eerie silence prevailed in the fog. Because it was
so difficult to stand or move about, we sat on the deck with our backs against a bulkhead
and waited and waited, and waited. For something: news, information, announcements, or
instructions. Finally the ship's public address system crackled to life. Miraculously it
was still functioning. We all stilled to listen, but the message in Italian merely said.
"Will the engine room crew report to pump stations." Nothing more. No
instructions. No news.
Every once in a while I worked my way to the rail and noticed that the orange part of
the hull normally below the waterline was rising farther out of the sea. "This thing
is tipping more and more," I told my wife. Time passed slowly as we chatted with our
neighbors. One passenger observed. "Our folks at home probably all know exactly what
has happened to us. They'll have heard it on the radio by now." He was right. Our
group was joined shortly by a passenger with a portable radio. A New York station's
newscast told us "a collision between the Stockholm and Andrea Doria
45 miles at sea has torn a tremendous hole in the starboard side of the Andrea Doria
hull. Several ships in the vicinity are rushing toward the stricken liner. And then a
professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was on the air: "Due to its unique
construction and its many watertight bulkheads, the Andrea Doria is considered
unsinkable." We cheered in relief at this encouraging news. It occurred to us then
that we might have to leave the ship. Still we felt no sense of real danger. The Andrea
Doria couldn't sink; if an evacuation was ordered it would just be a precaution.
Actually, unknown to us, the first SOS messages sent simultaneously from the Andrea
Doria and the Stockholm had been picked up by Coast Guard monitoring station
on Long Island, putting into action probably the most and dramatic and effective
sea-rescue operation of our time. The United Fruit Co. cargo ship Cape Ann also
had picked up the damaged ships' messages and relayed them to other ships, and soon the Cape
Ann, the Navy transport Pvt. William H. Thomas and the Tidewater tanker Robert
E. Hopkins were all hurrying to our rescue but among them they only had six
When notified of this, the Italian captain radioed back: "Danger immediate. Need
boats to evacuate 1,000 persons and 500 crew. We need boats." The venerable French
liner Ile de France had just left New York with a load of passengers and was
heading for France. She was 44 miles away from the scene of the accident when the captain
received news of the distress message. The decision of the Ile de France captain,
Baron Raoul de Beaudan, to turn his ship back and come to our rescue with his many
lifeboats was what saved this accident from becoming even greater disaster.
The Andrea Doria's list was rapidly increasing, and although help was on the
way, the danger was immediate. One hour and five minutes after it was struck, the Andrea
Doria appealed to the Stockholm urgently: "You are one mile from us.
Please, if possible come immediately to pick up our passengers." Captain Harry Gunner
Nordenson of the Stockholm radioed the Andrea Doria: "Here badly
damaged. The whole bow crushed. No. 1 hold filled with water. Have to stay in our present
position. If you can lower your boats, we can pick you up." A minute later, at 12:21
am. the Andrea Doria replied: "You have to row to us." And the Stockholm
radioed back: "Lower your lifeboats. We can pick you up." Thirteen minutes went
by, and then Calamai sent another desperate appeal: "We are bending (listing) too
much. Impossible to put boats over side. Please send Lifeboats immediately."
Fortunately by then Nordenson had established that his ship would not sink, and he
prepared to launch seven lifeboats.
At about this same time, at our location on the high side of promenade deck, we heard
noises overhead and looked up to see a group of Italian Line deckhands trying to release a
lifeboat. The ship was listing so badly however, that the davits from which the lifeboats
were suspended were angled upwards. The boats, could not possibly slide off the davits as
designed and be lowered to the promenade deck for passengers. "That wipes out eight
of our lifeboats," my wife said.
At long last, after about three hours of waiting, a passenger called to us from the
stem of the ship: "Lifeboats are arriving, don't you want to get off? Follow
me!" We had been completely unaware of any ship arrival because the heavy fog had
muffled any noise and it was impossible to see the starboard side from our location.
Members of our group got to their feet and struggled up the deck to reach the rail.
Grasping it tightly, and helping each other, we slowly made our way along the side of ship
and finally emerged from behind the bulkhead. Moving tortuously, we continued around the
stern of the ship and negotiated the steeply tipped deck to the lower side. To let go of
the handrail for even an instant would have meant serious injury in a fall down the
acutely slanting deck now crowded with wreckage of maritime gear broken loose. Several
elderly passengers, fearful they would lose their grip on the rail and tumble down the
deck, froze and had to be helped on.
As we moved out into the clear we were greeted by a picture I will never forget. We
were part of a tableau that, even then, seemed staged and unreal. Through the mist across
a gently rolling stretch of water was a great ocean liner, its every cabin alight and
looking for all the world like an island city rising out of the fog. Atop the floating
city, a sign in electric bulbs spelled out Ile de France in 10-foot-high letters.
Playing down upon the intervening space between the two vessels, powerful searchlights
illuminated the scene. French Line lifeboats rose with the crests of waves and disappeared
in the troughs as they ferried passengers away from our sinking boat. Small boats from the
Cape Ann, the Thomas and other ships approached points along the
Andrea Doria's decks, which were, sinking toward the waves.
Glancing back over our shoulders at our steeply slanted deck, we could look into the
empty swimming pool and the black void of the ship's funnel. We realized then that the
ship was doomed. Our long, snake-like line inched forward to a spot where a section of
deck rail had been removed and a rope ladder hung over the water. Finally my wife and I
reached the front of the line. Our group had been amazingly calm, but at this point a man
far down the line behind us was overcome with panic. He ran past us, knocking me down,
leaped overboard and swam to the boat that had been pulling away with its load of
Soon another lifeboat from the Stockholm stood off from us, and it was our
turn to leave. I raised my hand to signal it to come closer, but the young Swedish sailor
in charge cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted: "You'll have to come to us. Your
ship is going to turn over!" That got us moving we scrambled down the ladder and
dropped into the oily water, It was surprisingly warm and calm, and our buoyant life
jackets kept us afloat. I suppose that our swim to the lifeboat was probably only about
100 yards or so, but with the passage of time that distance tends to lengthen so that it
may eventually become a mile.
Getting into the lifeboat was a struggle. Louise could not reach the loops of a rope
strung from the gunwale about three feet above the water. Weighted down as she was by my
suit and her lifejacket and slick with oil, she was difficult to lift from the water.
Finally, with a prodigious effort, the two Swedish sailors manning the boat reached over
the rail as far as they could and grasping Louise's wrists, pulled and dragged her along
the side of the boat and over the top until she landed in a heap in the bilge in the
bottom. One of the sailors looked down on her there and must have felt he had to do
something. He knelt beside her and said, "Madam, would you like an orange?" And
that is what he handed her, an orange! We had no motor in the lifeboat, no lights and no
water but we had oranges.
As each passenger climbed aboard the lifeboat he turned to helping the sailors get the
next survivors out of the water. An Italian couple who jumped into the sea with two babies
lifted them up to us. After we took on about 85 passengers the lifeboat pulled away, and
we headed for the most frightening moments my wife and I faced. The lifeboat was propelled
by hand levers, which were pushed and pulled by the occupants. We moved slowly through the
pre-dawn mist toward a bulky silhouette in the distance which we learned was the
liner Stockholm about two miles away. Suddenly a ship loomed out of the fog and
bore down upon us. Its floodlights were aimed straight down, looking for survivors in the
water, rather than ahead of the ship and without running lights we were almost invisible.
The ship bore down on us, and there seemed to be no escape. In desperation one of the
Swedish sailors ignited a small box of matches and flung them high into the air. The
helmsman saw us and swung hard to starboard and the merchant ship slid by us with only a
foot or two to spare, its deep wake almost swamping our tiny cockleshell. A sailor on the
dock above us yelled out in passing: "Can we help you?" We shouted back almost
in unison: "Yes keep away from us!" What a tragic and ironic turn of fate this
would have been for all of us to have escaped death on one vessel only to be scuttled by a
It was a long hour's row, but I was glad for exercise because I was shivering in my
oily, water-soaked pajamas. We pulled up at the Stockholm about 4:30 am. When we
saw, for the first time, the badly damaged bow, we had momentary second thoughts about
going aboard, but friendly sailors pulled us in and plied us with hot coffee and gave us
blankets. It was daybreak by then and we found our way to the rail, where we stood
mesmerized by the sight of the foundering Andrea Doria.
Shortly after 10 o'clock she gave up the struggle, turning over and sliding prow-first
into her watery grave in a froth of foam and bubbles. It was difficult for those who had
passed so many pleasant hours on this great vessel to realize that it was gone forever-and
with it all our clothes, possessions and valuable. When the wake had subsided over the
sunken vessel and the only remains were the debris floating above it, we turned
reluctantly to the problem of the living. The passengers on the Stockholm were
wonderful, sharing their clothing and their stateroom baths with us. We were given food
and blankets and we slept that night on the deck with our life jackets tied to our wrists.
Flanked by two Coast Guard cutters, the crippled ship traveled slowly back to New York.
The Ile de France, the Cape Ann, the Pvt. William H. Thomas,
the destroyer escort Allen and the tanker Hopkins arrived first in New
York bearing 117 survivors. (Two of them died later as a result of injuries.)
We were the last group of rescued to land in New York 545 of us-almost two days after
the collision. Of course, we received a hero's welcome from family, friends and the
press-not because we had done Anything but just because we had survived.