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We Interrupt this Summer Day...

The Andrea Doria

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 25, 2001.

It was on this day in 1956 that the Swedish ocean liner Stockholm rammed the Italian liner Andrea Doria. The Doria sank about a day later. About fifty people were killed. I recall it well because I had just recovered from emergency surgery that Spring on my eighth birthday, and in those days it took a long time to heal and I was still basking in the attention granted such a medical experience at the beach at Nonquitt when we heard the news early that morning. I think it was a Saturday. Suddenly, nobody was terribly interested in reviewing my huge, ugly scar from the surgery, nor the extremely interesting scars the metal clamps used then instead of stitches gave me, nor a repeat of my precise feelings about the experience, which often included a detailed recounting of my dream under General Anesthesia. Ah hem.

Since you ask, it involved Grumpy from Snow White, my dog Mark, wolves, and snow. Thank you. Had to get it off my chest.

Nonquitt is only a few miles from the Elizabeth Islands, and the tragedy was going down, literally, just south of Nantucket, the furthest of the six islands. Not that far away. Fifteen years ago, a television sitcom, Wings, was set there. Two years ago, John Kennedy crashed his plane in the same neighborhood. But this, in the mid 1950's, was breaking news, with only a few hours separating incident from reportage. If I recall correctly, when the liner sank, a newsreel was rushed to television and we saw it that very same day. It was pretty exciting. Still is, in fact. They show it during these documentary shows about the wreck, which is now a diver's paradise and a subject for extensive salvage. There are people who serve dinner on the lovely dinnerware raised from the wreck, which is only in about two hundred feet of water.

The Stockholm had rammed the Doria about a third of the way back on the starboard side. It left part of its own bow in the Italian ship, and a huge, wedge shaped cut. Early reports indicated that people trapped in their cabins were being rescued as the ship sank. Then those reports sort of faded away, and when we gathered around the black and white television the next day to watch the ship capsize and its bow rest on the sea floor as the rest of it settled in. We all had the horrible sensation - and then realization - that we were actually watching people die a terrifying death, and among the oohs and aahs were gasps and the sounds of hands slapping across their mouths. People cried, and not just because at least one family had friends aboard and, of course, did not know their fate. It is, I think, the last time I recall that shared emotion to a televised tragedy. Certainly, as we are inundated with horrors on the tube every day, you do not get the compassionate response of the elder years. Even the children were subdued. It was a grim moment.

It turns out that the Doria had made a mistake in the fog and thrown itself in front of the Stockholm. Before the officers on either ship could do anything about it in the tight waters of Nantucket Sound, near the light ship that bespeaks the entranceway to New York harbor, what must have been a god awful collision at high speed in the middle of the night threw people from both ships onto the other and squashed others into gruel. One man on the Doria had to leave his wife wedged in the cabin, still alive, because they had young children ashore, and there was no way and no one to get her out after hours of trying. Her ghastly death is one we must have witnessed when the ship sank.

I recall that, and try to picture it my mind, the sequence of emotions in the man, and if he could live with them, and what the children in later life might have blurted out to him in momentary anger. I also wonder if the story is true, or if other stories about that day forty five years ago are true. Are officers empowered to shoot those who request it under those circumstances, or to lend weapons for that end? In the very sheltered 1950's, with men just returned from two hideous wars trying to protect their families from anything approaching the horrors they had seen, the unnecessary display of the tragedy engendered wide argument in later days on the beach of Nonquitt. What does the public have a right to know, and shouldn't death be private, for God's sake? What's the matter with people... "Of course, children, anybody who died, died in their sleep very quickly and painlessly and they're in heaven and while we miss them, we shouldn't worry about them or...".....well, you know the drill.

It didn't wash then any better than now, but because it was the first major tragedy on television with local import, it had an effect. Children started re-enacting the event with toy boats in the shallows of Nonquitt. Games involving simulated death were reduced. It was the first time I had to admit, against every instinct, that there were more important, and possibly even more interesting events in the world than my not-so-recent surgery. But, you live with such tragedy when you're young. It was summer.

Still have the scar, though.........would it were still the deepest, or ugliest.