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Excerpt: Collision Course, by Alvin Moscow

After a disastrous collision with MS Stockholm, the passengers aboard SS Andrea Doria scrambled to survive.





Collision Course

By Alvin Moscow

The 697-foot ship quavered from stem to stern from the shock of the collision. Liquor bottles trembled on their shelves and toppled to the floor in the bars and lounges of the Promenade Deck. Three simultaneous dances going on at the time came to a crashing halt. Couples fell upon one another in a tangled mass on the dance floors. In the First-Class Belvedere Room, the ship’s most luxurious night club, musicians playing the popular “Arrivederci, Roma,” for the umteenth time, toppled from their podium with their instruments. The bartender vaulted over the bar and sped from the room. The white-haired headwaiter rushed about wiping up spilled drinks and reassuring the bewildered passengers that everything was all right. Most of the passengers, after the first moment of stunned surprise, seemed intent upon reassuring one another that nothing could be seriously wrong. Morris Novik, founder and president of the Italian-language radio station WOV in New York, was stopped short by the collision, one hand in the air (holding a drink), as he was making a fine point to his table companions on his favorite subject: politics.

“It’s really nothing,” he said. “Let’s sit tight until we find out what’s wrong.”

Most people in the room did sit tight. Some rushed to the draped windows but saw nothing in the night fog outside. The mothers in the room who had children sleeping below acted like mothers.

Actress Ruth Roman, for one, kicked off her high heels, forgot her dancing partner and rushed from the room. She made straight for her double cabin 82-84 where she found her three-year-old son still sleeping. “Wake up, Dickie,” she said softly, shaking him by the shoulder. “We’re going on a picnic.” She gathered lifejackets and blankets from the cabin and with a firm grasp on her sleepy son’s left hand set off for the “picnic.”

In the Belvedere Lounge, speculation started moments after the collision. “We’ve hit an iceberg,” exclaimed one woman loudly. “It’s an explosion in the ship’s machinery,” one man stated firmly. Others suggested the ship had hit an unexploded mine … or a submerged wreck … or a small fishing boat … or a large freighter. There was plenty of speculation and very little fright. The first-class passengers in the lounge expected an announcement would soon be forthcoming and while some headed for their cabins, many waited for some word, some instructions.

There was less calm in the Cabin-Class Ballroom where the band had also been playing the popular “Arrivederci, Roma” to a capacity audience. The musicians in the crowded ballroom tried gallantly to pick up the interrupted strains of the song, but after a few bars, the lights flickered off and that put an end to the music. Chairs and tables were uprooted and sent flying across the room along with waiters, dancers, observers, drinks, glassware. In the few seconds before the lights flashed on again, everything seemed topsy-turvy. Chaos ensued as chairs and tables slid across the floor and people scrambled about trying to flee. At the same time, other passengers were fighting their way into the ballroom which was the emergency muster station for cabin-class passengers.

In the Tourist-Class Lounge one deck down, where an amateur band of crewmen were providing music for what gratuities they could collect, the situation was the same: confusion, shock, bewilderment and much noise. Yet, for Dr. Franco Fusco, a young Genoese physician traveling on a Fulbright Scholarship to Ohio State University, everything seemed to stop, like a moment in eternity. Then above the din he heard a “squawking voice” from the loudspeaker. The young doctor listened, but the Italian words were indistinguishable.

As might be expected following an explosion or fire in any darkened movie house, sheer panic tore across the Tourist-Class Dining Room, one deck farther down where passengers were engrossed in the antics of Jane Russell and Jeff Chandler in a movie called Foxfire. One passenger though had been momentarily distracted before the collision. Miss Theresa LaFlamme, a thirty-year-old registered nurse returning from a three-month vacation in Europe, was surprised to see her cigarette lighter sliding across the table in front of her. Inside the ship in the dark room, she could not sense the ship was on a hard left turn, and the crash of the collision took her unawares. She was hurled to the floor, as tables toppled over and screams pierced the black room until the lights went on. Then she saw the bedlam of people struggling to get off the floor and falling again, of screams and cries, and she told herself, “There must be no panic.” She tried to calm a screaming woman near her, but the woman ran off, and she tried to help another woman and then another. Almost everyone seemed to be running, and those who weren’t scurrying off were on their knees praying or weeping, or doing both.

One of the first to escape from the scramble in the movie-dining room was Jack Grubenman, who happened to be near an exit. Heading for a lifejacket in his cabin one deck below, he dashed down a nearby stairway to A-Deck and then fell to his knees as the suffocating fumes of smoke and dust in the corridor caught him full in the face. The descent down the stairway had been simple, but it took him almost an hour, or so it seemed, to push his way from the stern of the ship to his cabin midships on the starboard side. The corridor was jammed with people in nightclothes pushing toward the stairways, and each door along the corridor became a roadblock. To get through the door, Grubenman had to plunge in against the throngs moving in the opposite direction. Cabin 290, which he shared with three other men, was empty. Jack hastily grabbed three lifejackets, thinking of his brother Don and sister-in-law Violet whose next-door cabin had been empty when he passed it. But when he reached the main corridor carrying three bright orange kapok jackets, two huge Italian passengers spied him and “without a word pounced upon him. He managed to hold on to one of the lifejackets which he hastily wrapped and tied about himself.

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  • SS Andrea Doria lies on her side the morning after she collided with MS Stockholm.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

He need not have fought for a jacket for his sister-in-law, Mrs. Violet Grubenman, who had tied a lifejacket securely over her nightgown before rushing from Cabin 288. Jolted in her bed by the crashing which seemed to be directly outside her cabin, she guessed immediately what had happened. She and several friends had discussed that afternoon, when the fog set in, what each would do in the event of a collision. But her plans of that afternoon did not quite work out. The corridor was a nightmare of smoke and panic. People were running in both directions. There was wailing and screaming. Mrs. Grubenman headed for a nearby stairway but before she reached it, lost her footing on the tilted deck, crashed into a wall and fell to the floor. People ran over her and past her. “Get going,” shouted one man, who stopped short at her prostrated body. But when she turned up her bleeding face to look at him, he reached down to help her to her feet.

Her husband, Don, at the Tourist-Class Bar, looked out of the window in time to see the white superstructure of the Stockholm slip by beneath a shower of sparks. Then he took off at a run for the cabin where he had left his wife. Down one deck he went, but there in the stern of Foyer Deck he became enmeshed with passengers fleeing from the movie theater and was carried back in the wave of hysteria to the Tourist-Class Lounge a deck above, which became an impromptu muster station for some 200 passengers.

What panic there was on the Andrea Doria immediately after the collision, even in the darkened movie theater, soon abated into general confusion. From the sundry lounges, bars, card rooms and reading rooms as well as the ballrooms on the upper decks of the ship, passengers headed for their individual destinations. Panic, terror, fright or calmness are all subjective and relative concepts, it must be admitted, and what one person saw as panic another judged as remarkable calm under the circumstances. But if one could measure terror with a geiger counter, the clicking would have become sharper and faster the farther down one went on the eight decks accommodating passengers on the Andrea Doria.

Actress Betsy Drake, wife of Cary Grant, occupying one of the twenty-nine airy first-class single cabins on the Boat Deck, needed only to put on the clothes she had just taken off and walk down a short corridor to be on an open deck in sight of the lifeboats on the high side of the ship. Only later did she discover the boats to be useless. Two decks down, in a small portside cabin aft, Mrs. Angela Grillo of Brooklyn fought desperately for twenty minutes with her luggage, which had slid against the door of her cabin, before she could escape with her three-year-old “son Anthony. Two more decks down, Mrs. Fanny Wells, of Birmingham, who shared an A-Deck cabin with her three young children, was hysterically desperate. Although her cabin door was open she couldn’t leave, for her youngest child, three-and-a-half-year-old Rosemary, was trapped by an arm caught between her bunk and bulkhead.

Farther aft on A-Deck a bewildered young American tourist, who thought the ship had been blown up, leaped from her bed nude and dashed from her cabin. Amid screams and confusion, she was caught up in the press of human traffic in the corridor before she noticed the stares of others. She had to fight her way back to her cabin for her pajamas neatly folded beneath her pillow.

A twenty-six-year-old American secretary returning from an overseas job, who also slept au naturel, awakened alone in her cabin, trapped beneath a fallen upper bunk. She struggled futilely in the dark, crying and screaming all the while, until her door was thrown open by a husky, tall steward who lifted her from the wreckage of her bed and carried her to the corridor. As he started down the passageway and she realized she was safe but naked, she pleaded that he release her.

“Put me down!” she screamed, but he ran on. She beat her fists upon his chest until he, apparently unaware in his shocked state that it was a woman and not baggage in his arms, dropped her, and she retreated to her cabin for appropriate clothing.

There were some who fled from their cabins without clothes and left the ship in that condition, but they were the exceptions. Most decided to take the time to dress or throw a bathrobe over nightclothes. Many left the ship with suitcases. Ellis D. Hill, an Aramco official returning from Saudi Arabia, toted bottles and sterilized water for his two-month-old twins.

And there were others who dressed “sensibly” for the emergency at hand. Mrs. Josephine Fornaro, returning to Roxbury, Massachusetts, from her first visit to Italy in forty-six years, donned a dress, stockings, shoes, two sweaters, a jacket and a hat. The only thing this seventy-two-year-old lady could not find was her lifejacket. But she was calm and unworried as she left her cabin on the port side of the Boat Deck. It was only later when she saw people from the lower decks coming up to the Boat Deck in their nightclothes and covered with oil, that she began to have her doubts. “I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

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  • MS Stockholm incurred severe damage to her prow (far right).

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A-Deck was the waistline of the Andrea Doria, marked on the outside of her black hull by a thin belt of white. As C-Deck was at the normal water line of the ship, A-Deck was at the emergency line. It was known in marine engineering as the ship’s bulkhead deck, serving as a steel cover over the transverse bulkheads which divided the ship into watertight compartments. Ideally, if the deck were an unbroken cover, no water flooding one compartment could overflow into another. But then how could anyone pass through the cover to the decks below? Some compromise in this ideal must be made. Warships, designed to withstand as much punishment as possible, have as few and as small stairway openings in the bulkhead deck as practicable. But passenger liners are built to accommodate passengers. The Andrea Doria, designed for luxury and beauty, had seventeen stairways running through A-Deck, and these necessary accommodations for passengers on the long ship now served as openings for the sea, flowing in at the level of A-Deck, to pour down to the decks below.

Passengers on B- and C-Decks who did not escape in the first five or ten minutes following the collision found themselves struggling against a stream of oil-blackened water flowing down the slippery, slanting stairways. It was a terrifying thing. People learned quickly that it was easier to crawl than to walk, better to help your neighbor than to try to push ahead, wiser to recite the Rosary as one progressed step by step from a purgatory than to cry out in helpless anguish.

The weak, the elderly and children were helped in the flight from the lower decks toward safety by crewmen and other passengers. People were not only going up the stairs; many were struggling and tumbling down. Parents carried their little ones on their shoulders and on their backs. Belief that the boilers had exploded spread rapidly through the tourist-class spaces on B-and C-Decks as the black oily water spread. Worst of all was the compartment in which the Stockholm had struck. There smoke and paint dust were thick and the decks awash with water. Crewmen quickly closed the door hiding the wrecked starboard side of C-Deck from the passengers on the port side.

People poured into the corridor in their night clothes and gasped for breath in the smoke and dust. “Abandon ship,” cried two cabin stewards who remained at their posts. Mrs. Liliana Dooner, an attractive twenty-four-year-old Italian woman en route to rejoin her New Jersey husband, whom she had married when he was stationed with the navy in Naples, hoisted her two-year-old daughter Marie to her shoulders and headed for the stairway.

Paul Sergio, a fifty-six-year-old cobbler on the Notre Dame campus in Indiana, and his wife, Margaret, tried to force their way to the starboard side of the compartment. They had fled their cabin in nightclothes, leaving behind their life jackets, all their belongings, and a letter Mrs. Sergio had written to their parents in Italy telling of their pleasant and safe trip. A cabin steward, working desperately in the port corridor, untangled legs and arms of those struggling on the sloping deck in the scramble toward a center stairway. Another steward blocked the Sergios’ attempt to enter the starboard corridor. “The ship is sinking,” he shouted at them above the uproar. “You must go up, up, up,” he insisted, pointing to the stairway.

“As others rushed by him, Sergio tried to explain. On the starboard side, in Cabin 656, were his brother’s wife and her four children whom he was taking to America. For twenty-seven years he had worked and prospered as a shoemaker in South Bend. Two years before, he had sent for his brother Ross, a carpenter, who had come with his seventeen-year-old son Anthony. Now he and his wife had gone to the old country to visit their relatives and bring his brother’s family back to America. There was his brother’s wife, Maria; Giuseppe, thirteen years old; Anna Maria, ten; Domenica, seven; and little Rocco, four.

But the steward insisted there was no one left behind the door to the starboard side. “Everyone has gone up and you must go up too. The ship is sinking and everyone must abandon the ship.”

Paul and Margaret Sergio, with no alternative, began the long climb to safety. Their search, if it had been possible, undoubtedly would have been in vain, for Cabin 656 was in the direct line of the collision. Maria Sergio and her four children had perished. Their C-Deck cabin had sunk beneath the waves instantly. Three cabins away, Michael and Maria Russo and their two daughters, also seeking a new life in America, died.

It was a long climb topside for Paul and Margaret Sergio and the hundreds of tourist passengers like them on B- and C-Decks. Everyone feared the listing ship was sinking, yet the climb toward safety had to be taken slowly, a single step at a time. Amid the cries, shouting and wailing, each step required concentration lest one slip and be trampled in the crowd. On most of the stairways as men, women and children climbed up, water mixed with “oil flowed down. The sea entering the gaping hole in the side of the Andrea Doria flowed down A-Deck the length of the ship and as the ship rolled, the sea found its way down the successive stairways to B-Deck and C-Deck and the engine rooms below. Adding to the turmoil there were those who were fighting the crowds, pushing their way down the stairways to their cabins below in search of loved ones, material valuables or lifejackets. In all, there probably were more than 1,000 people on the move throughout the ship during the first few minutes following the collision. The longest journey from C-Deck up five decks to the Promenade Deck required some ninety minutes of hard labor for men and women, young and old alike. It seemed like an eternity of limbo between life and death.

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