Surviving the Andrea Doria: The Gifford Family Story

A segment of The Gifford’s story:

Bud and Wink Gifford and their four children:

Dun (17), Jock (15), Chad (13) and Bambi (9)      

On June 20 we set off on the Queen Mary for an adventure traveling on a months journey to London, Paris, Brussels, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Venice, Rome and finally Naples. We boarded the Andrea Doria on July 19th in Naples. My Mother who studied art in Florence, was overwhelmed by the beauty of the ship. The entire voyage was a special time on a very special ship; except of course the last night.

I remember the last night as they make it so festive in so many ways. I was wearing my “best party dress” as we went into dinner. We were always awed at having shrimp cocktail in those cute stemmed glasses. I think we had roast beef, but not sure about that. What I do remember is the grapefruit ice cream (though it was probably sorbet- and probably more to clear our palate). I know we all were excited about the choice of dessert: Baked Alaska or Crepe Suzette. Hard choice!

After dinner we went to the Belvedere Lounge to play the Horse Racing. I loved that room and loved to do the horse racing. My brothers were angry with me as I was the only one who won. I won 9 dollars and put it in my new Italian leather pocket book. (My winnings and the new pocket book are still on the Andrea Doria.) We were able to stay up late as it was the last night and there was a celebration everywhere. Dun, my oldest brother went up to the dance where he was joined by two girls he had met from Cedarhurst Long Island. My other brothers Jock and Chad and I went to collect swizzle sticks, which we were slightly obsessed with. My parents took a stroll around the deck.

Around 10:45 we meet my parents and headed down to our cabins. I was with Mom and Dad in #96, and my three brothers were in #98.We were preparing for bed when the ships collided. Dad and Dun (who was still upstairs with his lady friends) remember it as a “terrible grinding of metal.” Then there was “a screetching of metal and then a final bump”. The noise scared me, but I remember a slow motion glass of milk going from one side of the cabin to the other. It was a ribbon of white, similar to what you’d see in a cartoon. My Dad suffered from ulcers so he had a glass of milk every night. Of all the visual occurrences that I have witnessed in my life that is one of the ones that is still vivid.

I was taking off my dress and my mother yanked it back down. Dad grabbed our passports and we all took a life jacket. When we opened the door everyone was coming out of their rooms with the same puzzled expressions that we had on our faces. Jock and Chad joined Mom, Dad and I to get upstairs to our Life Boat Station. Dad was a bit mad that Dun was not back in his room. Luckily we ran into Dun as we were going up the stairs. However he didn’t have his life jacket so he went back to his cabin. When he went down he noticed the weird angle that the clothes in the closet were hanging at, and since he was a sailor he knew that the boat was in trouble. He grabbed two jackets, thinking that one of the girls might not have one. When he rejoined us he saw that both girls had life jackets. He walked around until he found someone who did not have one. It turned out to be crew member.

It was chaotic scene. There were not many announcements to tell us what was going on, and when they did make an announcement it was in Italian. My mother was a very calm person, who like any mother wanted to reassure and calm her children. She had us talk about our favorite country, our favorite hotel, our favorite meal, or our favorite city. It worked for a while as we tried to state why we liked what we liked best. I of course picked Venice, as it is so magical. Then I started to cry a little. Mom, who thought I was scared, asked what was wrong. Because of all the scary talk and the terrible list, I knew we were sinking. However I thought we would be saved. All the victims in the fairy tales get saved, so why shouldn’t we? I cried because everyday of the voyage I would go up the top deck and visit the poodles in the cage up there. I patted them, talked to them and thought about our dogs at home in Nantucket. I wanted Mom to tell me that they would be rescued. She said yes, of course the owners would rescue them. When I got older and read more about that night, I now know that she was trying to quell my fears.

Finally we all went up to get into lifeboats. The slide across the deck was very frightening for me. Going down the rope ladder was not, as I was a wiry 9 year old, who thought of it as an adventure.

We got into a very crowded lifeboat with Dad waving to us, as he stayed on the ship. Mother, I know was distraught, but very stoic. I sat in Jock’s lap. We sat next to a woman named Ruth Roman who was crying and carrying on. I know now that she was a famous actress, but didn’t then. She told us that she had no idea where her 3 year old son was, but hoped his “ nurse” was with him on another life boat. I was so scared for her, and wondered why she wasn’t with him.  (I learned much later that she did reunite with him). The site of the Ile de France’s glowing letters is another sight I will never forget. It was almost looked like an amusement park sign. Remember I was only nine at the time; everything looks different to a child.

We were really warmly greeted and donations of clothes were everywhere. Mom even found out who donated ours so she could thank them.

Two hours after we arrived on the Ile de France, my father appeared. There is some argument among my brothers about who saw him first, but it was my Mom who was the most relieved and the happiest.

 We have always been a close family. Going through an experience like this tends to bind you in ways that are hard to express. We would always get together on the anniversary of the sinking. I always wondered why as it almost seems macabre. But Mom once said that we were so lucky, and we should celebrate our luck, our love and our closeness.

Now the six of us are only three. My Dad died in 2004, my mother died in 2005, and my oldest brother Dun died this past May. It seems fitting that his memorial service here on Nantucket is this Saturday, July 24th, the day before the anniversary of the collision.

Told by  Bambi Gifford Mleczko

Nantucket , MA


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