50 years after disaster, ship remains a survivor

WAY BACK WHEN

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August 19, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

A large envelope of newspaper clippings arrived this week from Baltimore friends vacationing on Nantucket who are aware of my interest in shipwrecks.

Inside were special sections, both excellent, produced by the island's two weekly newspapers, The Inquirer and Mirror and The Nantucket Independent. The sections recall the loss of the Andrea Doria, which sank 50 years ago when it collided with the Swedish liner Stockholm about 50 miles southeast of the island.

Late on the evening of July 24, 1956, first-class passengers aboard the Italian Line's 697-foot-long Andrea Doria, were sipping nightcaps and slowly dancing to another rendition of "Arriverderci, Roma" by the ship's orchestra before they retired for the evening. The ship was scheduled to dock the next morning in New York.

Far below the rarified air of first-class, the Doria's powerful turbines were busy generating the power that propelled the 29,100-gross-ton ship, pride of Italy's postwar merchant marine. It was traveling at 21.8 knots through a thick fog and into one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Suddenly, passengers saw something that seemed unbelievable. The giant bow of the Stockholm loomed out of the foggy night and into the Doria. When the interloper hit, it made a groaning and squealing sound, ripping steel that was illuminated by an orange-yellow shower of sparks.

It was 11:10 p.m.

The collision occurred about 20 miles west of the Nantucket lightship. The Stockholm, with a hull reinforced for icebreaking, had struck a mortal wound, slicing a 30-feet deep gash into the Doria and piercing seven of its 11 decks.

Maritime experts estimate that the vessels collided at a combined speed of 40 knots. The Doria immediately assumed an 18-degree list from which it would never recover.

"With the force of a battering ram of more than one million tons, the Stockholm plunged into the speeding Italian ship, crumpling her like a thin sheet of tin, until her energy was spent," wrote Alvin Moscow in Collision Course. "With the Stockholm pinioned in her, the Andrea Doria, twice her size, pivoted sharply under the impact, dragging the Stockholm along as the giant propellers of the Italian Liner churned the black sea violently white."

Piero Calami, the Andrea Doria's master, immediately ordered an SOS to be sent - "NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE" - which activated one of the greatest sea rescues of modern time.

The French liner Ile de France raced through the dark Atlantic night as other ships - including the Stockholm - gathered to pick up the liner's passengers and crew.

Miraculously, they saved 1,660 souls - including six from Maryland. A total of 51 people perished.

The Italian liner slowly rolled over and sank from sight at 10:09 a.m., almost 12 hours after the fatal collision.

Boston Herald photographer Harry Trask won a Pulitzer Prize for shots he took flying over the damaged vessel.

Before leaving the scene, the Stockholm blew her mournful whistle in salute and slowly turned for New York. Photos of the ship limping into New York harbor with its crushed bow was front-page news all over the world.

Within three months, the vessel was outfitted with a new $1 million bow at Bethlehem Steel's Shipbuilding Division's New York yard, and it resumed sailing.

The two steamship companies sued each other. The case was resolved in an out-of-court, unpublished settlement and the Stockholm faded from the headlines.

But it was to make a reappearance.

Early on an April morning in 1997, a phone rang on The Sun's city desk. It was answered by Peter Hermann, then the paper's police reporter, and now an assistant city editor.

Hermann stood up and shouted, "Hey, anyone know anything about a ship named the Stockholm? The caller says she's over at Pier 5 at the Dundalk Marine Terminal."

The report sounded almost impossible to me and my colleague, Ernest F. Imhoff, because the Stockholm had been built in 1948, and we thought that it had gone to the breaker's yard years ago. However, we told Hermann we'd check it out.

Later that afternoon, we drove over to Dundalk, and there it was, renamed the Italia Prima.

The ship was in the final leg of an around-the-world cruise and had called at Dundalk to allow 251 passengers time to explore Baltimore and Washington.

The ship's riveted white-painted hull, highlighted by an ocean blue stripe, was the only thing left from the original Stockholm.

It now sported a raked funnel, new decks and a new wheelhouse. The interior had been replaced in 1994.

Its post-Stockholm life began in 1960, when the Swedish-American Line sold it to an East German firm that operated it as the Volkerfreundschaft, transporting workers to Romanian ports on the Black Sea.

In 1985, the vessel became theVolker after being sold to a Panamanian steamship company. Later that year, it was towed to Oslo, Norway, where it was given a new name, the Fridtjof Nansen, and was anchored as a barracks ship.

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