Upon Surviving a Catasrophe at sea

Surviving the Andrea Doria—Stockholm collision on the Atlantic Ocean on July 25, 1956, has not crippled me with thalassophobia, or fear of the sea. In fact, I respect its supremacy and I am humbled by its vastness. Perhaps it was my young age that protected me from wallowing in fear during the collision and rescue of the Italian luxury liner. As a nine-year-old, who had been sheltered from life’s perils while living in a small farming village at the foot of the Italian Alps, dying on a sinking liner was an unknown concept. Nevertheless, when the Swedish liner, Stockholm, rammed into our hull at full speed, each and every passenger was stricken with paralyzing fear.

What’s that noise? I don’t like it. I think I’m going to cry.

And cry I did, along with all the astonished passengers who instantly froze into singing and dancing statues of fright. We swayed rigidly from an abrupt jolt accompanied by a thunderous noise. Those who were on the outer deck witnessed startling fireworks created by grinding steel—sparked by an unidentified vessel slamming into our hull at full speed. They watched in horror as the perpetrator tried to withdraw from the hole it had created, slicing through thick walls of steel that had once protected passengers from the dangers of the ocean. In the Social Hall, these gruesome theatrics were magnified by the crashing of hundreds of bottles that landed on the bar floor, as if thrown there by the devil’s rage. Every fiber in our spines reacted to the scraping, screeching, and crunching noises from an indefinable source.

The musicians are running away. My friends are crying, too. Everybody’s scared of something. I’m scared . . . can’t even stand up anymore. The entire floating city began to lean dramatically toward the starboard side, sending all the beautiful furnishings across the floor to crash into the windows. Where’s the light? All the screaming in the dark is scaring me. I want my Nonno . . . hope he can find us. When the lights finally flickered and stayed on, they revealed a chaotic and frightening scene. Passengers lay on the floor screaming from shock or injury. Shouts of vulgarity and frantic prayers all became part of the pandemonium. The names of loved ones echoed piercingly: “Giovanna!” “Roberto!” “Adelina!” “Antonio!” “Mamma!” “Pappà!” Without real purpose, the confused crowd began making a quick dash for the exits. Glad I’m with Nonna . . . she’s brave, not screaming at all. Hold my hand really tight, Nonna.

It seemed as if time had stopped—as had our fluid ocean liner—as the first few minutes stretched across the waves to eternity. But when the initial shock finally subsided, what followed made eternity seem brief. What are we going to do? Nowhere to go. . . . What’s the Titanic I keep hearing about? Where’s Nonno? “Nonno!”

To my great relief, my Nonno came through the Social Hall door. I had never seen him this scared. His blue eyes were glossed over in panic, his pants were rolled up to the knees, exposing bare feet, and his hands clasped his briefcase against his chest. The three of us ran toward one another, desperately seeking strength and comfort. “Pedrin, what’s happening?” Nonna asked.

“I don’t know, but I heard a loud crashing sound. It woke me up from my sleep. There’s water in the corridors . . . and the smell of smoke. It was hard to find the stairwell . . . the stairs, Christo, there was an awful-smelling oil on them. I kept slipping with everyone pushing and trying to get past me to reach the deck.” My grandfather tried to catch his breath while he told us about the panic in the corridors of Tourist Class. I don’t understand. Why run? . . . Where do we go?

…Nonna and I gripped each other even harder with each episode of loud creaking noises, followed by a sudden plunging of the floor bent on descending to some lower depth. A cacophony of mysterious sounds echoed all around us—brief ones, like thuds, bursts, and slams, and longer ones that seemed to resound for several minutes, blasts, bangs, crashes, and other dreadful noises. To make things even worse, the air reeked of hideous fumes, as if concocted by sorcerers of the deep.

“We’re going under! We’re sinking! We’re drowning!” What is sinking? . . . Drowning?. . . Nonna’s not screaming. Nonno will make the ship better. We’ll be safe, but I feel like crying. Nonna was crying and praying, but, amazingly, she did not participate in the madness that surrounded us. Undoubtedly, my grandmother bravely hid her fear—especially her fear of water—so it wouldn’t upset me.

…..”Guardate la! La nave di salvataggio! Sopravivvremo! Look over there! The rescue ship! We will survive!” Like in the fairy tale where the victim is rescued just in time from everlasting sleep, our rescue ship warmed our souls and awakened us from a ghoulish nightmare. Survival was a possibility! But how would we reach the oasis island a mile away—the one that could have been a mirage except that the lights spelled out clearly “ILE DE FRANCE.”

A long line of folks with hopeful hearts took small steps along the outer railing, praying that they would not lose their footholds and go careening across the slippery deck—and into the jaws of famished sea creatures lurking not far below. The tense silence was often interrupted by sounds of anguish from someone who had lost his or her balance and was sent slamming into the sides of the pool or into the outer walls of the deck. Their blood-splattered bodies and their wails of fright and pain sent shivers down our spines. We also witnessed impatient people jumping overboard, not wanting to wait in a long line behind those who stood frozen with fear as their turn came to descend the ropes and nets. Only when an elderly gentleman launched his suitcase overboard, hoping it would land in a lifeboat, did we experience a moment of lightheartedness. “The suitcase sank!” someone blurted out, trying to make light of a nonsensical situation.

My grandparents and I finally reached the makeshift debarkation point. It was the lowest part of the severe list, nearing forty degrees. The starboard-side lifeboats had already been launched and were transporting passengers to the rescue ships surrounding us.

Our guardian-angel escort approached me with a very thick rope and began looping it around my waist. I let out a frightful scream at the prospect of being dangled over the black ocean all alone. I’m not doing this. If I scream, they’ll find another way. I want my Nonno and Nonna! But it was too late. I was twirling through the air, crying, as I looked down to see where I was going. I heard Nonna yelling, “Be brave, Cici. We’re coming down, too!” A man grabbed me tight and pulled me toward the lifeboat instead of letting me sway over the water, where I was headed. What is this boat? These people are scared, too . . .

Fortunately, Nonna was lowered next, but she had a harder time of it because she lowered herself, scraping her hands on the rope and swinging heavily in the process. No! Don’t go into the water, Nonna! She struggled to hang on and headed right for the ocean, plunking her legs into the cool water she had always feared. She began kicking the water and shrieking for help. “Aiuto! Aiutami!” Before she was immersed completely, two crewmen grabbed her and pulled her into the lifeboat. Nonna and I cried together. Nonno was next, which was fortunate, as women and children had been lowered without male family members and were yelling for them to come down. Because my grandfather was older, he received special consideration. We watched him dangle his way down, clutching his briefcase with one arm.

All of us in the small vessel, bobbing in the shadow of a dreadfully inclined liner, were trembling and crying—wondering if we were really safe as the swell of heavy waves banged us into the hull of Doria. We rowed away slowly but surely, our stomachs retching to the movement of each wave. I hate to throw up . . . it smells awful in here. Yuck, vomit! I can’t stop throwing up.

…Trying to cross a mile of debris in order to reach the Ile de France felt more desolate than the ride of the Ancient Mariner. Leaving the sinking ship should have made us euphoric, but the stupor and shock made people lament ridiculous things: “I’m arriving to safety half naked.” “I’m lost without my glasses.” “I left my watch on the dresser.” “I left my teeth in the bathroom.” I admit that I wondered about my First Communion dress and hoped it would be recovered somehow. Moreover, during this ride from hell, we were privy to a sight worse than anything a horror film could conjure: the Stockholm, the Swedish ship that had rammed us, stood crippled in the distance, with its bow crumpled like discarded tin foil in a waste basket. On the Doria, the area of impact was an enormous black hole, inviting in torrents of water like a river in a raging storm. And its huge funnel was so inclined over the water that it reflected a red-hot glow on the calm sea.

Our pitifully packedlifeboat began circling the Ile de France. I can’t stand this anymore. I didn’t think this trip would be so hard. I wish I were home, in Pranzalito. We finally stopped on the starboard side of the Ile. I was very anxious to go on board. Oh, no, another ladder . . . it’s too high . . . I can’t! With one careful step at a time, I climbed the steep rope ladder that led to the very top of the rescue ship. Fortunately, a man was behind me the entire time and tried to keep me from looking down. It was a surreal experience, feeling as if I were suspended a mile above the ocean, where I could see all the rescue ships. The glaring spotlights from these vessels created an eerie scene, but we were fortunate that the sea was calm and visibility was clear. When I reached the top of the rope, French crewmen pulled me in through a window and stayed with me until my grandparents also made their death-defying climb.

Finally, a sense of euphoria did take over our very beings. Although we were exhausted and traumatized, there was indeed something to rejoice in: safety! We had survived the almost unsurvivable; and now I wanted to sleep.*

The catastrophic event left my grandmother crippled by any thoughts, sounds or sights of water. Even walking along Lake St. Clair, Michigan was enough to precipitate a fear and flee instinct. For her return visits to Italy, she insisted on air travel. My grandfather simply avoided all exposure and discussion of water.

But since the sea did not claim me, neither physically nor emotionally, on that dreadful night 50 years ago, my future holds fantasies of swimming the primitive beaches of Sardinia, witnessing Darwin’s theory of evolution on the Galapagos Island, ferrying along the chilly fjords of Scandinavia, swinging in a hammock next to a Tahitian hut, and listening to glorious music in the opera house of Sidney, Australia.

I only have one stipulation: that the shorelines remain within eye’s reach.

*Excerpt from ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA! THE GREATEST SEA RESCUE IN HISTORY, by Pierette Domenica Simpson. New York: Purple Mountain Press, 2006. www.catskill.net/purple.
In Italian: L’ULTIMA NOTTE SULL’ANDREA DORIA, by Pierette Domenica Simpson. Milano: Sperling & Kupfer, 2006.

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