This week in history: The SS Andrea Doria sinks off Nantucket

Sixty years ago, on July 25, 1956, SS Andrea Doria, an ocean liner for the Italian Line (Società di navigazione Italia), approaching the coast of Nantucket, Mass., bound for New York City, collided with the eastbound MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line in one of history’s most infamous maritime disasters. While 1660 passengers and crew were rescued and survived, 46 people died with the ship.

Named after a 16th-century Genoese admiral, and home ported in Genoa, the ship had a capacity of 1241 passengers and 563 crew. For a country attempting to rebuild its economy and reputation after World War II, Andrea Doria was an icon of Italian national pride. Of all Italy’s ships at the time, Andrea Doria was the largest, fastest, and supposedly safest. The ship undertook its maiden voyage on January 14, 1953.

Struck in the side, the top-heavy Andrea Doria immediately started to list severely to starboard, which left half of its lifeboats unusable. The consequent shortage of lifeboats could have resulted in significant loss of life, but other efficient aspects of the ship’s technical design allowed it to stay afloat for over 11 hours after the ramming. The mostly good behavior of the crew, modern although imperfect communications, and the rapid response of other ships averted a disaster such as that of the Titanic in 1912.

Andrea Doria was not the largest vessel nor the fastest of its day: Those distinctions went to the RMS Queen Elizabeth and the SS United States, respectively. Instead, the Italian architect Giulio Minoletti designed Andrea Doria for luxury. Many consider the ship one of the most beautiful ocean liners ever built, next to Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and the French Line’s Normandie.

Andrea Doria was the first ship to feature three outdoor swimming pools, one for each class. When fully booked, it could accommodate 218 passengers in first, 320 in cabin, and 703 in tourist class. Following the rule aboard Trans-Atlantic passenger liners, each class was strictly segregated to specific parts of the ship. Each class had its own separate dining room, lounges, and social halls, designated areas of open deck space and enclosed promenades, as well as their own swimming pools.

The ship was deemed among the safest ships ever built, equipped with a double hull, and divided into 11 watertight compartments. Any two of these could be filled with water without endangering the ship’s safety. Andrea Doria also carried enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers and crew. However, the ship had serious flaws: Confirming predictions derived from model testing during the design phase, the ship developed a huge list when hit by any significant force. This was especially apparent during its maiden voyage, when Andrea Doria listed 28° after being hit by a large wave off Nantucket. The ship’s tendency to list was accentuated when the fuel tanks were nearly empty, usually at the end of a voyage. The design parameters allowed the lowering of the lifeboats at a maximum 15° list. Beyond this, up to half of the lifeboats could not be deployed. There were also reports of machinery problems during sea trials.

Despite the dangerous listing during her 1953 maiden voyage, Andrea Doria arrived in New York almost exactly on time and received a welcoming delegation which included New York Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri. Afterwards, Andrea Doria became one of Italy’s most popular and successful ocean liners, and generally filled to capacity. By mid-1956, she was making her 100th crossing of the Atlantic.

On July 17, 1956, Andrea Doria set sail from Genoa on her 51st westbound crossing. Before entering the open Atlantic, she made stops at Cannes, Naples and Gibraltar to pick up more passengers. On Wednesday, July 25, just before noon, MS Stockholm departed New York Harbor on her 103rd eastbound crossing across the Atlantic to her home port of Gothenburg, Sweden. Roughly half the size of the Andrea Doria, the Stockholm was the smallest passenger liner on the North Atlantic run during the 1950s. On that voyage, she left New York almost booked to capacity with 534 passengers and a crew of 208.

As the two ships approached each other through the fog, at a combined speed of 40 knots (74 km/h), each was aware of the presence of another ship, but was guided only by radar; they apparently misinterpreted each other’s course.

In the critical minutes before the collision, Andrea Doria gradually steered to port, attempting a starboard-to-starboard passing, while Stockholm turned about 20° to its starboard, an action intended to widen the passing distance of a port-to-port passing. In fact, they steered toward each other – narrowing, rather than widening, the passing distance. By the time the crews realized that they were on a collision course, they could not avoid it. At 11:10 pm, the two ships collided, Stockholm striking the side of Andrea Doria at almost a 90° angle, Stockholm‘s sharply raked ice-breaking prow piercing Andrea Doria‘s starboard side about one-third of her length from the bow.

The Swedish ship penetrated the Andrea Doria‘s hull to a depth of nearly 40 feet. Below the waterline, five fuel tanks on Andrea Doria’s starboard side were torn open, and they filled with thousands of tons of seawater. Meanwhile, air was trapped in the five empty tanks on the port side, causing them to float more readily.

The combination of the flooded tanks on one side and the empty tanks on the other left the Andrea Doria with a list which within a few minutes of the collision exceeded 20°. The severe list would gradually pull the tops of the bulkheads along the starboard side below the level of the water, allowing seawater to flow down corridors and stairwells. In addition, the generator room flooded rapidly, contributing to a loss of electricity to the stricken liner.


Initial radio distress calls were sent out by each ship, and in that manner, they learned each other’s identities. Soon afterward, messages were received by numerous radio and Coast Guard stations along the New England coast, and the world soon became aware that two large ocean liners had collided. Aboard the Stockholm, roughly 30 feet of her bow had been crushed and torn away, but the ship was soon determined to be stable and in no danger of sinking.

The area of Andrea Doria‘s hull where Stockholm‘s bow penetrated encompassed five passenger decks. On the decks below, titled A, B and C Decks, the loss of life was greater, as it was the location of several sections of tourist-class cabins. On C Deck, the worst loss of life occurred. A total of 26 people were killed in the collision section there, mostly Italian immigrant families. Five of the Stockholm‘s crew perished in the collision.

The distress messages relayed to other ships by radio made it clear that additional lifeboats were urgently needed. The first ships to respond were the freighter Cape Ann of the United Fruit Company, which was returning to the U.S. after a trip to Germany; the U.S. Navy transport Pvt. William H. Thomas; the U.S. Navy destroyer escort Edward H. Allen; and the French Line’s luxury liner Ile de France, which managed to rescue the bulk of the remaining passengers by shuttling its 10 lifeboats back and forth to Andrea Doria, and receiving loads from other ships’ lifeboats already at the scene. Some passengers on Ile de France gave up their cabins to the wet and tired survivors. Many other acts of kindness were reported as well. The badly damaged Stockholm took on a total of 545 survivors. In all, 1663 passengers and crew had been rescued from the Andrea Doria.

On board the Andrea Doria, the launching of the eight usable lifeboats on the starboard side was yet another calamity of the night, as many of them left the Doria only partially loaded with about 200 panicked crewmen and few passengers.

Once the evacuation was complete, Captain Calamai of Andrea Doria considered the possibility of towing his ship to shallow water. However, the liner continued to roll to its side. The sinking began at 9:45 am. By 10:00 Andrea Doria was on its side at a right angle to the sea. The ship fully disappeared into the Atlantic at 10:09, 11 hours after the collision. An aerial photography of the ocean liner capsizing and sinking won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for Harry A. Trask of the Boston Traveler newspaper.

In the wake of disaster

Several months of hearings were held in New York City in the aftermath of the collision, with prominent maritime attorneys representing both the ships’ owners, other lawyers representing victims and their families. Further testimony was scheduled, but an out-of-court settlement was reached, and the hearings ended abruptly.

Both shipping lines contributed to a settlement fund for the victims. A U.S. Congressional hearing determined that the lack of ballasting specified by the builders made the Andrea Doria unseaworthy. Its fuel tanks were half empty and not pumped with seawater ballast to stabilize the ship – that filling and emptying meant additional expense – thus contributing to the pronounced list following the collision, the inability of the crew to pump water into the port fuel tanks to right the ship, and the inability to use the port lifeboats for the evacuation.

Fault was found with the Swedish ship’s use of radar, the failure on both parts to slow down in heavy fog, and failure to follow proper “rules of the road” requiring a ship to turn right in case of a possible head-on collision. As Stockholm turned right, Andrea Doria turned left, closing the circle instead of opening it.

Both lines had an incentive to limit the public discussion of Andrea Doria ‘s structural and stability problems. Andrea Doria‘s designers and engineers had been scheduled to testify, but the hearings were cut off by the settlement agreement.

Unanswered questions about the tragedy, and questions of cause and blame, have haunted survivors and investigators for 60 years. Because of the halt in the fact-finding process, no resolution was ever formally accomplished.

In the wake of the collision, several rule changes were instituted. Shipping lines were required to improve training on the use of radar equipment. Also, approaching ships were required to make radio contact with one another. Both ships saw each other on their radar systems and attempted to turn. Unfortunately, one of the radar systems was poorly designed, resulting in the collision. Marine craft today are required to turn to starboard (right) in a head-on, crossing, or passing situation.

Artifact recovery on Andrea Doria has resulted in additional loss of life. Sixteen scuba divers have lost their lives diving the wreck, and conditions around the site at 40°29.408′N 69°51.046′W are treacherous. The wreck is slowly collapsing and disintegrating.

Adapted from Wikipedia.

Photo: The SS Andrea Doria at home in port.  |  Wikimedia (CC)


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

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