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The Life and Death of the Andrea Doria

Graphic: Anatomy of a Dive (105K)
Graphic: Diving to the Doria (86K)


Photo by Bradley Sheard/"Lost Voyages: Two Centuries of Shipwrecks in Approaches to New York"
A diver drifts beside the Andrea Doria's enormous propeller, now rusted and covered with barnacles, which serves as a landmark for explores of the sunken wreck.
Deadly
Lure Of
Diving Deep

By Joe Haberstroh
Staff Writer

ON THE LAST dive of Craig Sicola's last day, life pulsed all around him. At his feet, bright ranks of orange and white sea anemones rippled down a wide and rusty slope, fading into the blue-green void.

 

His swim fins planted on the summit of the lifeless hulk of the Andrea Doria, Craig dipped his head and began to swim. A blue shark loitered nearby. Sponges crowded the edges of windowless portholes. A barnacle-encrusted lifeboat hoist loomed like a claw. The current stirred particles of silt and flecks of microscopic animals as if they were spinning motes of dust.

The undersea quiet was broken only by a hiss as Craig inhaled and a rush of bubbles as he exhaled. He shouldered 200 pounds of equipment, including five different scuba tanks, but 180 feet below the ocean it weighed next to nothing.

Courtesy John Moyer Collection
Well-to-do passengers socialize in this image from an Andrea Doria promotional brochure.

Craig loved the water. He lived on Long Beach Island two blocks from his favorite surfing beach on the Jersey Shore. He built rich people's vacation homes for a living. And he was good enough at it to subsidize his expensive passion for exploring the Northeast's deepest shipwrecks.

He had spent $800 for a trip to the Doria last June aboard the top dive boat out of Montauk, the 65-foot Seeker.

He kicked toward Gimbel's Hole, an 8-by-20-foot opening in the Doria's hull as dark and promising as a mine shaft. It led to the wreck's interior, a muck-coated maze of razor-sharp edges, dangling electrical cables and the worm-ravaged ruins of the ship's teak decks.

About 220 feet deep, in the remains of a kitchen, a collection of china had nestled in chocolate-colored silt. Here, a white bowl winked like a star in the artificial night.

A maroon-and-gold braid circled the bowl's rim. On the inside, a Genoese ceramicist had stamped a single word in blue: "Italia."

Hovering above that, the distinct image of a crown.

Capt. Piero Calamai ordered a hard left turn to avoid catastrophe, and the westbound Andrea Doria responded slowly to his command as it knifed out of the fog and into the warm moonlit night.

It was too late. The bow of a smaller eastbound liner, the Stockholm, plunged 30 feet into the starboard hull of the Doria, crashing through cabins and ripping apart double-bottomed tanks of fuel and oil.

AP Photos
Because the Doria foundered only 20 miles from its destination, photographers arrived within hours to document the ships sinking. It's hulled ripped apart by the collision which the Stockholm, the massive liner immediately rolled to one side, above. Hours later, below, it takes its death plunge beneath the waves.

In seconds, the speeding Doria disgorged the smaller ship, but the Stockholm's smashed bow screeched along the Doria's hull all the way to the stern, igniting a long fuse of showering sparks.

The gash exposed seven of the Doria's 10 decks to the Atlantic. The hole was V-shaped, with the top spreading 40 feet wide, and the ocean waters rushed in. Within minutes, the ship had rolled more than a quarter of the way toward sinking. Shipboard lights flickered, then died. Pajama-clad passengers fought their way through darkened hallways filling up with seawater and oil.

In the crushed suites and cabins, moments of horror flashed as quickly as a camera's shutter: One man aboard the 697-foot Doria watched the retreating bow of the Stockholm snatch a crumpled steel bunk from his Upper Deck cabin and drag his wife forever into the blackness.

It was 11:10 p.m., July 25, 1956.

Just minutes earlier, 45 miles south of Nantucket and 90 miles east of Montauk, the Andrea Doria, the lavishly appointed pride of the Italian Line, had been steaming west at top speed on the final night of its transatlantic journey from Genoa to New York. Its white superstructure glided through the night like a cloud.

It carried 1,706 passengers and crew. Those aboard included a mix of emigrating Italians, well-off New Yorkers, a couple of movie actors, the mayor of Philadelphia and his wife.

At the same time, the Stockholm, a 525-foot-long passenger ship, swept east from New York toward Europe.

Thick fog shrouded the 29,100-ton Doria, but the ship's crew pushed the liner through the dark waves at 25 mph. Seventeen miles to the west, the 12,165-ton Stockholm traveled at 20 mph in better weather, with a few brushstrokes of fog painting the starry sky.

Books have been written, and a U.S. government inquiry conducted, about the inexplicable seamanship that led the two mammoth vessels to collide.

Both bridge crews certainly misread their radar sets. And Calamai's unorthodox, last-minute turn exposed the broad mass of his ship to the Stockholm's sharply angled bow, which shipbuilders had reinforced for breaking ice.

Fifty-one people died in the spectacular accident -- 46 of them aboard the Andrea Doria.

In maritime annals, however, the collision became best known for triggering the biggest civilian sea rescue of all time. The Doria took 11 hours to sink. So the Stockholm, damaged but still seaworthy, joined in the rescue with several other ships that heard the Doria's mayday.

Other than Elvis, the Suez crisis and the Hungarian freedom fighters, there was no bigger story in 1956. Fledgling television news programs based in New York had ample time to dispatch crews by airplane to film the drama at sea. The story even had what the clamoring newspapers of the era dubbed a "miracle girl:" 14-year-old Linda Morgan. She was asleep on the Doria when the impact catapulted her from her bed onto the Stockholm.

While the Andrea Doria sank under bizarre circumstances, its demise is not what enthralls today's top-rank scuba divers, who make pilgrimages each summer for the eight weeks when offshore weather allows them to descend to the wreck.

It's not the deepest wreck for scuba divers, nor even the largest. But it ranks high in every category they take into account when rating the world's scuba destinations. So it has become known as the sport's premier challenge, its Mount Everest.

The Doria's offshore location is remote yet reachable by an 11-hour trip from Montauk. It's deep, well beyond the suggested recreational diving limit of 130 feet. It's big, longer than two football fields. It still looks like a ship, not a pile of indistinct debris.

Unpredictable ocean currents roar around the wreckage, kicking up blinding silt and often slowing divers to a crawl. And at 180 feet down, the summertime water temperature at the Doria remains in the mid-40s.

"The Doria's got the sharks. It's got the depth. It's got the current. It's got the mystique," said Bill Campbell, a veteran diver from Rhode Island. "It's got the whole ball of wax."

The Doria has exerted its magnetic power on scuba divers from the moment it hammered itself into the sea bottom. Adventurer Peter Gimbel descended on the wreck 28 hours after the ship went down. It was as if a stylish thoroughbred had won the Triple Crown, then had to be destroyed.

Sixteen days later, a full-scale Life magazine expedition arrived. Four of the divers were recruited from the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory in San Diego. It was the era of the test pilot, and these young men packed "aqualungs," the experimental forerunner to today's scuba rigs. Unnerved by the sound of oil tanks bursting under the sea's pressure, diver Robert F. Dill found the ship largely unblemished. The Doria's damaged right side was face-down in the sand. Packed baggage littered the Promenade Deck, and curtains rolled in the watery breeze.

"You had the terrible feeling that, by Jiminy, it seemed so fresh, and so pure at that time, how could this possibly be down here?" said Dill, now 72. "It was unreal."

Like those who would follow in the next 40 years, the divers then were determined to bring back mementoes from the Doria. In San Diego today, Dill's home contains a coffee table fashioned from the solid-mahogany riser on which the Doria's helmsman stood when the Stockholm struck.

When the Andrea Doria began transatlantic service in 1953, it symbolized Italy's recovery from World War II. Jets were yet to dominate international travel, and ocean liners still flourished.

It was, in the words of one contemporary travel magazine, a "glamour liner."

The Andrea Doria -- christened in the name of a powerful 16th-Century Genoese admiral -- was a marketable signature of Italian style. Because the ship plied the Atlantic's southern route, the Doria's managers extolled topside life. Passengers blasted skeet off the stern and tossed rope rings known as quoits at wooden pins. The Doria was also the first passenger liner to offer swimming pools for first, cabin and tourist classes.

Much of the Andrea Doria's renown sprung from its interior design. In promotional materials, the Italian Line called its Doria "a ship built around a painting."

Artisans wove original silk tapestries to "induce pleasant meditation," painter Romano Rui splashed colorful enamel designs on copper panels and artists hand-painted vases for each stateroom and cabin.

Craftsmen carved mosaics, wainscots and bars out of cherry, maple, rosewood, lemon wood and French hickory.

The ship's interior drew upon the best of modern Italy, that sensuous style exemplified by the streamlined Ferraris then appearing in popular Italian films, while also honoring the nation's storied artistic tradition. The result was not subtle. Visually, it was operatic.

The Doria was also stocked with china, a different service for each class of passengers. The ship did not carry an unusual amount for a liner of its size, but it needed enough to set more than 400 tables scattered in air-conditioned bars and dining rooms throughout the ship.

The first-class passengers' china was white and bore a maroon-and-gold braid around the edges. In the first-class lounge, white-coated stewards served coffee, tea and appetizers from china adorned with what was called an "Oriental pattern." Some of the hand-painted designs showed a topknotted man walking under a red bridge, or gesturing to a woman, robed in lavender and seated on a bench slatted with bamboo.

In cabin class, china was white with two narrow stripes, one gold, one blue. Tourist-class diners used plates and cups ringed by a simple blue line. The officers' china featured a single red band.

Some of the dishes were elegant, some plain, but today all are coveted. Like a bull's ears to the matador, every piece of porcelain emblazoned with the Italia crown is the ultimate proof of a diver's mettle.

"A piece of china from the Andrea Doria is like having a bar of gold to one of these divers," said Lee Somers, a deep-scuba pioneer. "They will place themselves at great risk in order to acquire that."

Just as climbers perish upon the slopes of Everest, divers die at the Andrea Doria. For the first 25 years when few people explored the wreck, no one died there, but since 1981, 10 divers have lost their lives. Some got lost inside and ran out of air. Some got entangled in the darkness, in rotting coils of electrical cables, and ran out of air.

Others tried to breathe shallowly to make their tanks last longer, blacked out because they were not expelling enough carbon dioxide, and kept on breathing until they ran out of air.

But the summer of '98 was by far the wreck's deadliest season. In just 42 days, three elite divers died. First, Craig Sicola on June 24. Next, Richard Roost Jr. on July 8. Then, on Aug. 4, Vincent Napoliello.

In Livingston, N.J., Louis Sicola still knows few details of the death of his 32-year-old son. He wears Craig's wristwatch every day. Occasionally, in the morning, he pulls on one of his son's work shirts. He knows intimately the grief that the dead men's relatives feel.

"They die a little," said Louis Sicola. "Sometimes, they die a lot."

Perhaps most troubling to the tight circle of top-rank scuba divers, Sicola, Roost and Napoliello had made the long trip through the night to the sunken wreck of the Andrea Doria aboard the same proud boat. The Seeker.

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