The Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria wasn’t supposed to sink. After all, her designers had learned the lessons from the Titanic disaster.
But on a calm summer day in peacetime, she sank 60 nautical miles southeast of the Nantucket coast in the most shocking maritime disaster since the great ship went down 44 years earlier.
The Andrea Doria had radar, the latest technology. So did the ship that hit her.
The Andrea Doria also had a double hull with 11 watertight compartments and enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew.
So what happened to cause the destruction of the fabulous vessel and the deaths of 46 people?
A year of nasty litigation after the accident produced no good answers about how it happened. And the publicity about the tragedy hastened the end of an era of oceangoing travel across the Atlantic.
The transatlantic ocean liner still enjoyed its heyday when the Andrea Doria set sail from Genoa on July 17, 1956, bound for New York. She was one of the most beautiful ocean liners to sail the sea.
Some of Italy’s renowned artists designed her as a floating palace, with elegant staterooms, stunning lounges, outdoor swimming pools, an air-conditioned 50-car garage and a chapel for daily Mass. Silver and gold graced the dining room table, where passengers enjoyed fabulous meals.
The glamorous ship attracted such celebrities as actress Ruth Roman, Betsy Drake (Cary Grant’s wife), Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth and songwriter Mike Stoller, who wrote Hound Dog. Linda Morgan, 14, the daughter of ABC broadcaster Edward P. Morgan, was also aboard. So was Chad Gifford, 13, who later became president and CEO of BankBoston.
On July 25, the final night of her voyage, passengers were enjoying a last dance or saying farewell to each other over drinks. Some had retired to their staterooms. Then at 11:10 p.m. they felt a frightening crunch and heard terrified shouts.
Shrouded in heavy fog, the liner Stockholm, bound from New York to Sweden, had smashed 30 feet into the starboard side of the Andrea Doria. Most of the 51 passenger casualties happened at the point of impact. Five sailors were killed on the Stockholm, and dozens perished in cabins directly in the line of the collision. One man watched his dead or dying wife dragged away by the Stockholm’s bow as it separated from the Doria.
Capt. Piero Calamai issued an SOS from the Doria, as did the Stockholm’s captain Harry Gunnar Nordenson.
Help on the Way
The Andrea Doria immediately began to list heavily to starboard, which made half the lifeboats useless. The seawater breached some of the watertight compartments, flooding the generator room and cutting out the electricity.
Calamai realized the Doria was doomed. Thirty minutes after the collision, he ordered all to abandon ship.
The first lifeboats left only partially filled, mostly with panicked Doria crewmen. Stockholm crewmen were so angered when the boats arrived they almost turned them back. Other crew stayed with the ship and vowed to go down with it if their captain did.
Many lifeboats could not be lowered from the severely listing ship, so they had to be dropped into the water empty. Passengers climbed down Jacob’s Ladders to reach them, a tricky maneuver in the dark and confusion.
Calamai’s distress call was radioed to other ships. A freighter, several naval vessels and the luxury liner Ile De France reached the Doria. The Stockholm, not in any danger of sinking, helped with the rescue.
Passengers on the lower decks struggled through dark passageways filling with seawater and oil. None of the frightened passenger knew help was on the way.
At about 2 a.m., the fog lifted just as the Ile De France arrived. The luxury liner’s captain ordered all the external lights turned on. The sight of the Ile De France, lit up like a Christmas tree, brought immense relief to the frightened Doria passengers.
Ruth Roman had been dancing in the ballroom when the Stockholm struck. She kicked off her shoes and ran to find her 3-year-old boy and his nanny. Somehow a crewman took the child from the nanny’s arms. In the confusion, Roman lost her son. She sat sobbing in the lifeboat, not knowing he’d been taken to safety aboard the Stockholm. Mother and son had a happy reunion when they landed in New York.
One man jumped from the Doria into the ocean to rescue a woman who had fallen into the water while trying to board a lifeboat. They later married.
Linda Morgan was in her cabin with her family at the point of collision. Her half-sister was instantly killed, her mother seriously injured. Linda was thrown from her bed onto the deck of the Stockholm. She was believed to have died along with her sister.
All night long, lifeboats from the rescue ships shuttled Doria passengers to safety as the stricken vessel slowly turned on its side before sinking.
In New York City, Edward P. Morgan reported the collision on his daily ABC radio broadcast. He didn’t tell his listeners his daughter had been a passenger on the Doria and he believed her dead.
Linda was discovered the next day with a broken arm. She was dubbed the ‘Miracle Girl.’ Morgan made an emotional broadcast describing the difference between reporting the news about strangers and reporting the news about loved ones.
The rescue operation then continued through the night, saving 1,660 passengers and crew. It’s considered the greatest peacetime rescue operation in maritime history.
At 10:09 a.m., almost exactly 11 hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria sank into the Atlantic.
Capt. Calamai, distraught, wanted to go down with the ship. The remaining crewmen, though, said they wouldn’t leave without him. To save them, he agreed to abandon ship. He then returned to his village in Italy a sad and broken man, and never went back to sea.
Litigation Over the Andrea Doria
The pre-trial hearing over liability for the collision happened in New York before U.S. District Judge Lawrence Walsh, later the Iran-Contra independent counsel. The contentious hearing lasted a year and raised public doubts about the safety of ocean liners.
The two companies decided to settle their dispute before trial. But they let the hostilities go on too long. The tragedy damaged the entire passenger shipping industry, even as people turned to long-distance air travel.
Evidence suggests that both crews misread their radars, and the ship captains misread each other’s intentions. When Nordensen realized they were on a collision course, he tried to maneuver past the Doria port side to port side. Calamai then thought Nordensen wanted to pass starboard to starboard, and mistakenly turned the Doria into the path of danger.
The wreck now lies in cold, dark water amid swirling currents too deep for recreational divers. But more experienced technical divers view it as the Mount Everest of diving. Since 2005, eight divers died trying to reach the Andrea Doria.
The Stockholm subsequently got a new bow and still works as a cruise ship–sailing the Mediterranean under its new name, the Athena.
If you enjoyed this story about the sinking of the Andrea Doria, you might like to read about the 1961 tragedy of Texas Tower No. 4 here.
Photo of the Andrea Doria on the day after the collision: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1376587. Photo of the Stockholm: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18295551. Andrea Doria via Flickr CC by 2.0.
This story was updated in 2023.