Actress survived sea disaster

Way Back When

Collision: Ruth Roman and her young son were aboard the Andrea Doria when it was rammed by another ship in heavy fog, but she lived to tell the tale.

September 25, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Ruth Roman, the former sultry star of stage, screen and television who died this month at her California home, found herself caught up in a real-life drama when the grand ocean liner the Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm off Nantucket, Mass., on July 25, 1956.

Roman was returning to New York from Italy aboard the Andrea Doria with her 3 1/2-year-old son, Dickie Hall, and a nurse-companion, Grace Els.

While her young son slept in cabin 82 on the Andrea Doria's upper deck with Els, Roman, dressed in an evening gown, had gone to the ship's Belvedere Lounge for a drink and to mingle with other passengers.

It was their last night out and an early morning arrival in New York guaranteed that the evening would not be a late one.

As the Andrea Doria -- with 1,706 passengers and crew -- steamed through a heavy fog, its foghorn mournfully emitting a six-second blast every 1 minute and 40 seconds, its captain, Piero Calamai, was advised of the presence of an outbound vessel, the Stockholm.

Calamai was sure that the vessel would safely pass when all of the sudden, a little after 11 o'clock, it aimed directly for the Andrea Doria.

The liner, in an attempt to avoid the onrushing ship, exposed her starboard side to the Stockholm.

In a blinding crash of wrenching steel and sparks, the Stockholm's hull plunged like a knife 30 feet inside of the Andrea Doria and then pulled away, exposing the wounded liner to the sea, smashing her own hull in the process.

As cries from the injured echoed throughout the stricken ship, Roman kicked off her high heels and raced towards her cabin. Reaching cabin 82, Els calmly asked, "What happened?

"I don't know. We hit something. Quick! We must get Dickie upstairs," said Roman.

Her son, sleepy, resisted attempts to arouse him.

"We're going on a picnic," she said.

Carrying lifejackets and blankets, the trio made their way to the sloping starboard boat deck and waited at their life boat station.

"Ruth Roman waited her turn in the slow-moving line at the starboard rail, illuminated by spotlights from the Ile de France. The irony of the night was apparent," wrote William Hoffer in "Saved."

"On the screen, the beautiful actress had portrayed terror many times. But this was no movie; it was for real. She clutched her son, Dickie, tightly and repeated her earlier promise to take him on a picnic," he wrote.

A young Italian naval cadet had volunteered to take Dickie down to the lifeboat.

The actress was separated from her son when the lifeboat suddenly pulled away, leaving her halfway down a rope ladder on the tilted side of the sinking liner.

As he looked up at his mother, he waved and called out, "Picnic," as the lifeboat made for the nearby Stockholm.

Placed in another lifeboat, it wasn't until Roman arrived in New York aboard the Ile de France that she learned the fate of her son.

The wounded Stockholm slowly steamed into New York Harbor and docked at Pier 97 at the foot of West 57th Street.

"Movie actress Ruth Roman broke into tears at the sight of her 3 1/2-year-old-boy held aloft on the upper deck of the Stockholm," reported the Evening Sun.

"His face broke into a wide grin as he spotted his mother on the pier," the report said. "Everything's all right now. It's all right," she sobbed.

Roman and her son were among the hundreds of survivors, saved in what has been called the greatest sea rescue operation in peacetime history. Remarkably, just 51 people lost their lives in the disaster.

Four months later, Roman was aboard the Beranger, a Norwegian freighter, with her fiance, Bud Moss.

The couple had planned to be married at sea, but the ship's captain informed them that company regulations required a minister to perform the rites.

The couple later married but were divorced in 1960.

Roman appeared in more than 30 films during her career and in numerous television shows throughout the 1960s and '70s. She was 75 when she died Sept. 9 in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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