Deb Hoffmann – Eyewitness to the Sinking of the Andrea Doria

 HOW A CLOSE FRIENDSHIP WITH A BOSTON GLOBE EDITOR

            GOT ME ON THE FRONT PAGE OVER 60 YEARS AGO

While I was a Boston College student, my creative writing and journalism teacher was Bill Meek of the Boston Globe.  He teased me about marrying a Swiss next summer and wondered whose life would be more fun, mine, or the recently married Grace Kelly of Monaco.             

On July 26, 1956, my parents and I boarded the SS Île de France for a lively departure for my 11th of August wedding. After the lifeboat drill, I was much too excited to go to my cabin before the Captains welcome cocktail and dinner.  Later I joined a group of young people and we talked about safety on the high seas.  The fog horns began to blow so they left but I decided to examine my ship.  Suddenly I felt vibrations and a slowing and turning of the ship.  This was most unusual, so I went below and saw the glassed-in deck was being curtained off and officers standing by.  I told my parents that something was going on and to get their cameras out and open their porthole.  I returned to the uppermost deck and found a deckchair with a blanket.

When I awoke, we were approaching the scene of a disaster with a large ocean liner listed way over and many small boats lighting it.  Soon the Île was lowering all lifeboats and going to the rescue. I found the radio room and asked what had happened, they told me that the MS Stockholm had come out of a fog bank to find itself on a collision course with the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria. Our ship had heard the MAYDAY call when I felt it turn back.

Every effort to avoid the crash was made we learned later, but it was too late.  The Stockholm’s ice breaker prow crashed 30 ft into Andrea Doria’s 90 ft hull opening the watertight bulkheads and cutting off the electrical supply to them. Thus, the unsinkable Andrea Doria began to list immediately, and one could only imagine the fear of those aboard. Suitcases sliding around for the next mornings arrival in New York, some had been watching a movie and tried to find their cabins.  The Stockholm had backed away, closed its bulkheads and also sent lifeboats. Smaller boats picked up any who had been thrown overboard on impact. The sailors on the lifeboats held blankets to soften the fall of those jumping and for the children.  Many families were separated, and this was terrifying as well. There were a number of Italian immigrants who feared they had lost all of their possessions.

When the Île de France had done all it could, it turned and headed back to New York in the grey dawn.  We went below and looked in our suitcases for shoes or clothes we could replace and brought them to the deck where survivors were lying on deckchairs and left them. I also got out my typewriter and wrote about witnessing the disaster. When the pilot boat arrived to take us into the harbor, it was full of newspaper people.  I found the Globe reporter and passed my letter to him.

In New York we watched the survivors leave the ship, some on stretchers and all in various stages of dress. Hollywood actress Ruth Roman was desperately searching for her 3-year-old son and was overjoyed to see him walking down our gangplank hand in hand with a sailor.  A miracle child had been found on the prow of the Stockholm, the daughter of newscaster Edward P. Morgan, who had been told she was missing. The impact ejected her from her bed aboard the Andrea Doria onto the Stockholm and she only had a broken arm! In fact, only 35 people died that day, a miracle in itself.

The next day telegrams arrived from family and friends and classmates to say they had seen the disaster on TV, and that my report was headlined on the front page of The Boston Globe under the byline:    Deborah Potter Hoffmann.

PS:  My husband-to-be was in Basel having a haircut when the barber asked if he had seen the news that the Île de France had sunk in the early morning hours!  A newspaper was quickly brought to sighs of relief!

All text copyright of Deborah Potter Hoffmann, used with permission by Writing Women of Zurich.

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