A Child’s View

October 19, 2017 Updated: October 19, 2017

This Italian ocean liner was named after an admiral from Genoa. In 1953, it was hailed as the largest, fastest, and safest at the time. It had a gross tonnage of 29,100 and could hold 1,200 passengers and crew members.

In 1956, my family and I were on the ship to see my grandfather off. My eight-year-old eyes had never seen anything like it before. I gazed out at a huge dining room with a deep red patterned carpet and hundreds of gilded ornate chairs and tables set for meals. So much gold on the ceiling! I was impressed as I scanned back and forth to take in the sight. When the refreshments were over, he was out on the deck and we were waving our smiling good-byes from the pier.

On July 25, 1956, while the ship was on a return voyage to New York City, nearing the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, it was hit by the MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line. The Andrea D’oria began to list severely to the starboard side. Thus, many lifeboats were unusable, but because of its design, the ship stayed afloat for eleven hours. The lifesaving efforts of the crew, improvements in communication and the quick response of other ships in the area saved 1,660 passengers and crew, while 46 died as a direct result of the collision. This maritime disaster remains the worst in the United States since 1915. No official blame was formally determined because an out-of-court settlement was reached. Recent discoveries have placed wrongdoing on errors made by the crew of both ships.

Half asleep, I heard the dreaded news on the radio; the Andrea D’Oria was hit. News people were working to piece together what had happened. Another ship, the Stockholm, collided with it during the night. Where was my grandpa? Was he unharmed?

All the adults did not say very much. Their ashen faces told the whole story. They didn’t know the details of what had happened and they were going to the pier to find out. I asked only once, “Is grandpa ok?” The silence said it all.

My mother, her sister, and her brother accompanied my grandmother to the city, leaving us in the care of my Dad and aunt. We played on the swings and listened to the radio every time we came into the house. The news droned on with very little added, nothing new of grandpa. In the 1950’s, people tended to shield their children from grim news. We children kept listening to the radio but the adults were cautious with their words about the situation. As the oldest grandchild, I did not want to cry in front of my siblings and cousin even though I wanted to. I tried to keep the others busy by playing games in the yard. We played tag, and then sat back on the swings.

The next day brought some information. Our loved one was rescued and remained on the Isle de France. A day after there was a newspaper photo of my grandpa’s tearful reunion with his family. We couldn’t wait to see him again.

When he walked in the door, everyone was silent. I had never seen any man cry before. Everyone was in tears, happy ones but tears nevertheless. Each one of us, including the children, hugged him individually and told him how happy we were to have him back. We gathered around him in his kitchen and only after the tears subsided did my grandfather proceed to tell his story. Some of it was in Italian and other parts were in English, so I didn’t hear the whole story.

It wasn’t until I read the local newspaper account, about a week later, of my grandpa’s story that I understood the full extent of the event. Our loved one had the distinction of being fully dressed in a suit and fedora when he was rescued. Included in several accounts it was mentioned that he was the only one in a hat! Being an early riser, he was dressed and up on the top deck early that fateful day.

More importantly, while he was waiting for a lifeboat, he helped a group of nuns as they were waiting to leave the ship. They were having difficulty holding onto the ropes because the ship was listing more and more. Always in good physical shape even in his sixties, he rolled down the deck, and slowly pulled lounge chairs to them so they had something to hold onto as they grabbed the ropes for safety. He was rescued later. It sounded so civilized in the story but it did not match the terror on his face when he related the story that afternoon, even if it was in Italian to shield us children from what happened. In that same article, the reporter asked him if he thought he was a hero for helping the nuns. He said, “I was only doing what anyone would do.”

I wonder.

After that day, he seldom recounted the story, and when he did, silent tears rolled down one side of his face. My ears perk up whenever I hear the story of the Andrea D’Oria mentioned and I smile a proud smile.