As if the film director suddenly switches the scene and characters, the plot of the Greek Sea Diamond catastrophe unfolds similarly to that of the Italian Andrea Doria 50 years ago. To this survivor of the latter event, the déjà vu experience of watching another seafaring vessel being claimed by the sea that gave it life, is fearsome.
While reading every news article and watching every clip of the latest Greek tragedy, I recall my skirmish with death on the open seas five decades ago. I was a nine-year-old Italian girl immigrating to America with my grandparents, when we played a role in one of the most dramatic sea rescues in history. On July 25, 1956, the setting and characters were notably different: the Andrea Doria lay mortally wounded on the Atlantic, 185 miles from New York after having been rammed by the Swedish liner, Stockholm. And, unlike being flooded by the glimmering sun that flooded the beaches of Santorini, the Italian crown sea jewel was glutted by impenetrable fog. On board, were not tourists evading realities of daily life, but rather immigrants on a serious mission to confront a new lifestyle.
Yet, the Greek tragedy of April— 2007, evokes memories of similar circumstances. The Sea Diamond’s starboard flank was also ripped open like the Doria’s, causing the vessel to tilt on its right side, while gulping in tons of water per minute. Similarly, panic, hearing the dreadful abruptly seized the reveling passengers “put on your life jackets immediately and leave your cabins.” Panic ensued in this scene of chaotic frenzy. No one wanted to play the role of survivor, but the script permitted no choice.
This Greek sequel of the Italian catastrophe not only reminds me of the circumstances, but also induces deep visceral effects: imagining the panic of passengers fleeing the narrow corridors, brings about a feeling of claustrophobia; watching their descent on ropes flung over the hull, increases my heart beats; and the climb into the rescue vessel weakens my arms, like the little ones that gripped tightly onto a steep rope over the Atlantic.
Thank God that the passengers of the Sea Diamond had more favorable circumstances than those of the Andrea Doria. They must have felt a sense of security being only a quarter mile from the shoreline of the sea resort, instead of being 45 miles from the Shoals of Nantucket. Hence, the swift arrival of the Coast Guard providing inflatable lifeboats, made the rescue quicker and less hazardous. Thankfully, their vessel was not tilting 30 some degrees and hovering over manually operated lifeboats. And the jagged volcanic reef did not tear open dozens of cabins and robbing 43 victims of life.
I don’t mean to underestimate the Sea Diamond passengers’ misfortune. My empathy for their struggle brings to mind a lot of questions: How did the father and daughter from France use their last moments before disappearing? What precious possessions did passengers leave behind? What dreams were dashed for any future cruises? Will the accident be deemed human error or failure of technology? Will the captain and crew receive a fair trial or will they be castigated for their actions?
Ironically, I had recently contemplated the possibility of joining other passionate cruise travelers on their thrill seeking adventures; after all, the last cruise liner accident happened seven years ago, with no loss of life. Specifically, the Alaskan cruise that was proposed to me sounded rather appealing since there would be a view of the coastline at most times. But then I realize that the shores of Santorini probably offered small comfort to passengers on the submerging Sea Diamond.
Before even thinking of booking any cruises, I will study the Greek tragedy with scrutiny. Besides, I am stunned that maritime technology did not prevent the accident. I will ceaselessly question the safety of cruise liners: how seaworthy are they and what technology and manpower are required on board?
With sober clarity, this shipwreck survivor is not drawn to cruising shorelines or sailing the open seas quite yet. Obviously, there has not been enough catharsis within the Andrea Doria drama to entice me. Whether to relax or to seek adventure, I’ll settle for my proven luck on roads, rails, and skies.
Pierette Domenica Simpson is the author of Alive on the Andrea Doria! The Greatest Sea Rescue in History*, Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmann, New York, 2006. Simpson Simpson has appeared on national and international media and is a frequent guest speaker to groups in the U.S. and abroad. She continues to be the gatekeeper of living shipwreck survivor stories. To share a personal shipwreck story, contact the author at: www.pierettesimpson.com or www.andreadoriabook.com
* On July 25, 1956, the catastrophic ramming of the Stockholm into Italy’s crown jewel, the luxury liner Andrea Doria, sent shock waves around the world. In the new book, ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA, Simpson becomes the first Andrea Doria survivor to publish a first-hand account of a calamity that could have been another Titanic.
In addition to vivid survivors recollections, the author brilliantly presents an irrefutable legal defense on behalf of the Italian crew, thereby solving the Andrea Doria mystery. ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA discloses never-before-published, scientific data compiled in both Italy and the U.S.