On the night of 25 July 1956 the passenger liner Andrea Doria would collide with the Swedish passenger liner Stockholmoff Nantucket resulting in 51 deaths. It also resulted in one of the largest maritime rescues in modern history.
The Andrea Doria was considered one of the most beautiful of her day, She was not a large ship at 697 feet nor the fastest of the time. With three outdoor swimming pools, paintings and murals that got her dubbed a “floating art gallery,” many passengers loved traveling aboard her. The Andrea Doria had radar and with 11 watertight compartments was considered safe. Its captain, Piero Calamai, was highly regarded mariner and veteran of two world wars. The Doria was returning from Europe having departed Italy on 17 July, was after making some stops, on its way to New York. It would be its 101sttransatlantic crossing.
Aboard the ship were 1,134 passengers that were a varied lot of business travelers, those vacationing, and Italian immigrants. A crew of 572 was aboard making it a total of 1, 706 people aboard the Andrea Doria. The ship’s crew was used to the transatlantic voyages and thought nothing would be any different this time. The sea lanes off the Northeast coast of the United States are heavily trafficked, so most crews are good about watching for other vessels, Radar made that much easier for ships as they would detect another ship even if there was heavy fog. The Swedish passenger liner Stockholm, returning to its home port of Gothenburg, had departed earlier that day from New York. Both ships were coming in opposite directions off Nantucket.
There was heavy fog, but Captain Calamai did not reduce speed that much so as to stay on schedule. The Stockholm was actually steaming north of the recommended eastbound route hoping to cut down its journey time home. Neither ship was following established rules as they approached each other at around 22:30 (10:30 p.m.). Around 22:45 (10:45 p.m.) the Andrea Doria picked up a blip on its radar that was the Stockholm. Third Officer Johan-Ernst Carstens-Johannsen was the watch officer on the Stockholm and picked up the Doria on its own radar as well. Carstens plotted a course that would have the Stockholm pass the Doria port-to-port. Captain Calamai on the Doria decided on a starboard-to-starboard maneuver. However, one of them misread the radar and steered his ship toward the other.
At 23:10 (11:15 p.m.) Captain Calamai spotted the Stockholm’s lights through the fog. A bridge officer shouted the ship was coming at them. Calamai ordered a hard left turn to outrun the Stockholm. Carstens once he saw the Doria attempted to reverse propellers and slow down but it was too late. The Stockholm crashed into the starboard side of the Doria like a battering ram penetrating 30 feet in the hull snapping bulkheads. When it broke loose, it left a large gaping hole in the Andrea Doria. Passengers on the Doria felt a huge jolt followed by the sound of clanging metal. An orchestra in one of the lounges were thrown from the stage by the force of the crash.
Five perished on the Stockholm and forty-six on the Andrea Doria. One Italian immigrant with her children were killed. One man saw the exterior wall of his room was sheared off and his wife, in the bed next to him, gone. One famous story concerns Linda Morgan. The crash killed her stepfather and stepsister, but Morgan’s bed had been lifted and thrown into the Stockholm. Her only injury was a broken arm.
The Stockholm was damaged but not in danger of sinking. The Andrea Doria was another matter. The Doria suffered critical and was listing 20 degrees starboard allowing seawater to spill through the watertight compartments. There was nothing that could be done so Captain Calamai had to abandon ship. However the list was so bad that the eight portside lifeboats could not be launched. The one starboard side craft remaining could only carry 1,000 people. Radio calls went out at once asking for help from any nearby ships.
“Need lifeboats-as many as possible–can’t use our lifeboats.”
The Stockholm took on passengers but others in the area soon answered the call. A small freighter Cape Ann arrived at 00:30 (12:30 a.m.) Two U.S. Navy ships arrived as well. Finally, the Ile de France, a massive ocean liner, arrived beside the Doria. With its floodlights it lit up the darkness and began making rescues with its lifeboats. Aboard the Doria, it was quite dangerous. Some passengers were trapped in their cabins and many had to brave smoke-filled hallways and knee-deep water to get to the main deck. The list though had turned the main deck into a steep and slippery slope. Many had to slide down on the starboard side to get to the lifeboats. The rescue was a massive undertaking and took several hours until by 05:30 (5:30 a.m.)
753 were aboard the Ile de France and everyone else scattered on the four other ships and Stockhold. Captain Calamai was the last to leave and seemed initially to want to go down with his ship. The last lifeboat with crew on it, refused to leave him behind. The rescue fleet then made its way to New York. The Andrea Doria capsized, flooded, and sank at 10:09 (10:09 a.m.). Investigations began right away with both ship owners accusing the other of being responsible. Depositions and court testimony had begun but a court trial was averted with an out of court settlement. Both shipowners contributed to a settlement fund for the victims and absorbed costs of their own damages. The Stockholmwas repaired and put back into service, The owners of the Italian line had to absorb the $30 million loss of the Andrea Doria.
A U.S. Congressional hearing later heard testimony from a variety of experts, witnesses, and survivors. It provided some determination though to this day arguments as to who was responsible and other factors in the sinking remain debated. Everyone agrees that heavy fog played a critical factor in what happened. Other factors that played a role are cited as follows:
- The failure of the Andrea Doria’s officers to follow proper radar procedures or accurately plot using the chartroom equipment to correctly determine its position and that of the other ship. This would have led them to determine the Stockholm’s correct speed and course.
- The Andrea Doria was traveling too fast in heavy fog. This was a common practice but violated navigation rules which required speed reduction in these circumstances. In these instance, speed would have been reduced substantially or to completely stop in heavy fog.
- The ballast of the Andrea Doria was not properly maintained. The fuel tanks were half empty and had no seawater pumped in to make up for the spent fuel. This resulted in a greater list and also violated the Italian line’s directives on this issue. Also the greater list rendered the lifeboats on the port side inoperable.
- A missing watertight door may have contributed to its sinking as well by letting in more water.
- The navigation officer on the Stockholm misread the radar thinking he was 15 miles away but instead 5 miles. He also failed to get guidance from a senior officer as required by liner rules. Also this was his first time working the watch alone on a passenger liner.
Captain Piero Calamai would retire and never command a ship at sea again. He used to love the sea but after the sinking hated it. He was vilified for his role in the tragedy. He died in 1972 but sadly never learned that his role in the disaster had undergone a major retrofit. Based on the reconstruction of events by retired US Naval engineer John C. Carrothers, it was determined that the Stockholm’s Third Officer was responsible. A letter to this effect had been sent to him by Carrothers but he died and was never read by him.
In the aftermath of the collision, several rule changes were made so such a tragedy could not occur again. Since radar played a prominent role, shipping lines had to improve training so operators of this equipment could accurately determine the correct distance a ship or other object was on the screen. Rather than rely exclusively on radar equipment, radio contact between approaching ships were required. And new guidance was given to avoid a head-on situation, to turn starboard (right). The sinking of the Andrea Doria was the worst maritime disaster in territorial waters since the Eastland sank in the Chicago River in 1915.
Today the wreck lies in 160 feet of water putting it out of the reach of recreational divers. Many professionals have dived down and come back with pictures of the wreck. Even then, diving to this wreck requires both skill and precision since it requires a mixture of gasses and staged decompression. While initial dives early after its demise showed it in mostly good condition, in recent years the decay has become pronounced and in poor condition. Also due to the difficulties of diving to and from the wreck, 22 divers have died between 1956-2017.