All of the Andrea Doria's outboard lights were switched on and the whistle was set to continuously sound a double blast indicating the ship was out of control. The lifeboat crews began swarming over the port lifeboats. There were eight lifeboats hung in a row at the level of the Lido deck with one below the bridge, they almost stretched out the full length of the superstructure. The boat crews with the officers working along side them ripped the tarpaulin covers from the lifeboats, hammered away the chucks that secured the keels, and released the winch brakes. The davits were supposed to slide down to launching position over the side of the ship and the boats were supposed to fall of their own weight. But as much as Captain Calamai feared, this did not happen.
The men and officers pushed, shoved and heaved against the inert metal lifeboats but neither they nor the davits moved. Since the Andrea Doria was designed not to list more than 15 degrees, the davits were designed as launchable up to 15 degrees. But now the ship listed some 22 degrees and the davit arms holding the lifeboats were facing skyward instead of towards the sea. To free the boats they had to be pushed uphill and that was impossible. As the men continued to struggle against the mechanics of launching the boats, Captain Calamai watched from the wing of the bridge. After a few minutes the order was given to launch the starboard lifeboats. Captain Calamai and Captain Magagnini both feared the likelihood of imminent capsizing. They both realized that with eight portside lifeboats useless, the remaining eight boats on the starboard side could accommodate at absolute full capacity 1,004 persons. There were 1,706 passengers and crew aboard.
More than half of the crew of the Andrea Doria, or about 300 men, swarmed over the starboard side of the ship in the furious effort to launch the eight lifeboats on the lower side. This was done in remarkable privacy for a crowded ship. Few passengers actually witnessed the lowering of the lifeboats. Passengers had sought the high and seemingly safer side of the canted ship, and those who did wander to the lower side were directed by crewman to go to the high side. Of the eight lifeboats, the first two were jammed in davits near the hole in the side of the ship, and the davits could not be lowered away from the ship. When the remaining six boats were lowered one by one from their davits, they swung in the night air far from the side of the listing ship. It was impossible to secure them to the side of the ship at the Promenade Deck to take aboard passengers. The pre-arranged plan to abandon ship by having the passengers step off the Promenade Deck into a lifeboat would not work. The boat crews swarmed into the lifeboats as they were lowered into the sea without passengers. Jacob's ladders, shackled to the deck at each lifeboat position and stored folded inside each boat, unrolled automatically down the side of the ship as the starboard boats were lowered to the sea. The passengers would have to climb down into the lifeboats.
Captain Calamai turned his attention to saving the passengers. Second Officer Badano was sent to the loudspeaker system and with the captain standing beside him, dictating, Badano announced: "Si pregano, i signori passenggeri di portasi ai propri posti di reunione". He repeated it in Italian and then made the same announcement twice in English: "If you please, passengers are requested to go to their muster stations." After making the announcement the young officer asked the captain, "Shall I ring the alarm?" "No, no, we have only half the lifeboats, " said the captain.
The sounding of six or seven staccato blasts followed by one long blast on the ship's sirens or bells or both were required by law as an abandon-ship alarm. All passengers were instructed how to respond to the alarm during the abandon-ship drill which had been held the day after the Andrea Doria left Naples. Captain Calamai had been around ships and the sea long enough to know that drills during a pleasure voyage were no measure of what passengers or crew would do in response to a real alarm on a listing ship that might sink. The captain feared panic if the ship's alarm sirens were set off. He feared a stampeding of the starboard lifeboats if it were learned that there were not enough lifeboats available for everyone on the ship.
He then told Badano to go into the chartroom and plot the ship's present position for a distress message. He wanted to send an S.O.S. for help in getting the passengers off the ship. With extreme care the ship's position was calculated by taking loran signal readings and laying positions on the navigational charts. Extreme accuracy was needed to insure they were rescued before the ship sank. Captain Calamai added a few words to the paper with the ships position to complete the distress message. The message was given to Radio Operator Carlo Bussi. The transmitter was warmed up and tuned to 500 kilocycles. Bussi tapped out three dots three dashes three dots, known the world over. Next he sent the ship's call sign, ICEH, and then he flicked the switch of the automatic radio alarm. The automatic device emitted over the airwaves twelve long dashes, each exactly four seconds long, designed to trigger automatic alarms set on all ships which did not maintain a round-the-clock watch for distress messages on 500 kcs. When the automatic alarm signal was completed, the radio operator of the Andrea Doria tapped out the message that was to set in motion the greatest sea rescue operation in peacetime history:
SOS DE ICEH
SOS HERE AT 0320 GMT
LAT. 40.30 N 69.53 W
NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE
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