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50 years later, sunken ship still claiming lives

At least 14 people have died while exploring the wreck of the ill-fated Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., 50 years ago during a voyage from Italy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a foggy July night in 1956, the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria was speeding toward New York on the last leg of a trans-Atlantic crossing when it collided with a passenger ship and sank, killing 51 people.

Half a century later, the Andrea Doria is still taking a toll as it rests on its side about 200 feet down in frigid waters north of Nantucket, Mass.

At least 14 people have died while exploring the wreck. The latest fatality came July 8, when researcher David Bright suffered decompression sickness after making his 120th trip to the Andrea Doria ahead of an anniversary dive there.

“It’s called the Mount Everest of diving. It’s such a dangerous depth, but it attracts a lot of interest,” said Capt. Robert Meurn, professor emeritus at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island and, like his friend Bright, an expert on maritime history and the Andrea Doria in particular.

In 1956, Meurn was a 19-year-old cadet aboard a training ship and heard the distress calls from the collision the night of July 25. Now retired in Harbor Beach, Mich., he will return to the academy at Kings Point on Sunday for an anniversary dinner, to be attended by survivors and guests, including Bright’s wife and children.

A cry for help
It was at the U.S. Coast Guard station across Long Island that first word of the disaster was received in a crackling radio message at 11:22 p.m.:

“We have collided with another ship. Please. Ship in collision.”

The message was from the sleek, white Stockholm, a Swedish passenger ship that had left New York a few hours earlier. In the swirling fog, the Stockholm’s bow, reinforced for northern icefields, had ripped into the starboard side of the 29,000-ton Andrea Doria, the erstwhile flagship of the Italian Line.

The 3-year-old Andrea Doria then radioed its own SOS, a last cry from a vessel already doomed. Water gushing into the gaping hole drowned many victims and tilted the 700-foot liner so sharply that her portside lifeboats could not be lowered.

Fortunately, at least 15 ships were close enough to respond. In all, about 1,660 people on the Andrea Doria were saved. On the Andrea Doria, 46 people died. Five were lost on the Stockholm.

Famous survivors
The luckiest, and later the most famous, survivor was 14-year-old Linda Morgan, the daughter of radio commentator Edward P. Morgan. She was vaulted from her cabin on the Andrea Doria to the Stockholm’s deck, where crew members found her, shaken but unhurt. Her stepfather and half-sister died.

Other survivors included film star Ruth Roman and songwriter Mike Stoller, who on landing in New York was told by his partner, Jerry Lieber, that their song “Hound Dog” had just been recorded by “some white kid named Elvis Presley.” Stoller, who had been away four months, asked, “Elvis who?”

The cause of the collision “has been called a mystery but it really isn’t — it was human error,” Meurn said by telephone from his home.

Each ship blamed the other, but the case was settled out of court, leaving the issue of responsibility unresolved.

Meurn, among others, contends that the Stockholm’s third officer, Ernst Carstens-Johannsen, had misread the ships’ relative positions on radar. By the time the error was realized, it was too late for the Stockholm to change course.

The Stockholm suddenly looming out of the fog spurred the Doria’s captain, Piero Calamai, to order “hard a-port!” — a sharp left turn — but also too late to avoid the collision. The fact that Calamai did not immediately sound an abandon ship alarm became one of several controversies after the sinking.

In any case, notes a recent book, “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” by survivor Pierette Dominica Simpson, Calamai achieved his aim as most of the liner’s 1,706 passengers survived — far more than on the Titanic in 1912 and the Lusitania in 1915, the other two major Atlantic ship disasters of the 20th century.

The collision led to changes that make a similar event today unlikely — the defining of shipping lanes, improved radar and bridge-to-bridge VHF communication between ships. Andrea Doria and Stockholm could communicate only through their radio rooms.

While improvements in technology have made the once-unreachable Doria popular with divers, Simpson — only 9 at the time of the wreck — quotes Bright as calling it “a very hazardous adventure ... one of the most difficult dives in the world.”