Passenger Ship Disasters - Part 2
This series of articles provides a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. The articles also provide commentary on the most significant incidents.
For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -
- Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
- Part 2. Fire
- Part 3. Collision,
- Part 4. Other Navigational Error
- Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
- Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
- Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
- Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
- Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
- Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
- Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in USA, Canada & Australasia
- Part 12. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in South East Asia & Africa
This article covers all passenger vessels above 10,000 GRT that have been lost, or have become a constructive total loss as a result of fire.
In the past an outbreak of fire in a vessel often had grave consequences, because of the difficulty in fighting the blaze within the confines of the ship. The volume of water used in an attempt to extinguish a fire frequently sank the ship before accomplishing the task. As a result SOLAS regulators have introduced progressively tougher construction requirements for passenger ships, by demanding the use of non-flammable or fire resistant materials, the creation of independent fire zones, better fire detection systems, automatic sprinklers and other quick response systems.
Thankfully two thirds of ship fires have occurred in port, greatly minimising the loss of life. Even when the fire was successfully extinguished, the damage was often so extensive that repair costs would have been prohibitively expensive and the vessel became a constructive total loss.
Large Passenger Ships lost because of fire
|Lost||Name when Lost||Name when Built||Owner when Lost||Built||GRT||Casualties|
|1922||City of Honolulu||Friedrich der Grosse||Los Angeles SS Co||1896||10,696||0|
|1929||Paul Lecat||Paul Lecat||Messageries Maritimes||1911||12,189||0|
|1930||Kiautschou||City of Honolulu||Los Angeles SS Co||1900||10,860||0|
|1932||Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft||Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft||Nederland||1926||14,729||0|
|1932||Georges Philippar||Georges Philippar||Messageries Maritimes||1932||17,539||54|
|1934||Morro Castle||Morro Castle||Ward||1930||11,520||135|
|1938||Reliance||Johann Heinrich Burchard||HAPAG||1915||19,618||0|
|1939||Cabo San Antonio||Cabo San Antonio||Ybarra||1930||12,275||5|
|1941||Bremen||Bremen||North German Lloyd||1929||51,656||0|
|1942||Lafayette||Normandie||US Maritime Commission||1935||82,799||1|
|1945||Empress of Russia||Empress of Russia||Canadian Pacific||1913||16,810||0|
|1946||Sierra Cordoba||Sierra Cordoba||North German Lloyd||1924||11,492||3|
|1951||George Washington||George Washington||US Maritime Commission||1909||23,788||0|
|1953||Empress of Canada||Duchess of Richmond||Canadian Pacific||1929||20,325||0|
|1954||Empire Windrush||Monte Rosa||NZSN||1931||14,651||4|
|1961||Bianca C||La Marseillaise||Costa||1949||18,427||3|
|1963||Lakonia||Johan van Oldenbarnevelt||Greek Line||1930||20,314||128|
|1964||Rio de la Plata||Rio de la Plata||Estado||1950||11,317||0|
|1965||Seven Seas||USS Long Island||Europa-Canada||1941||12,572||0|
|1966||Viking Princess||Lavoisier||Berge Sigval Bergesen||1950||12,812||2|
|1966||Hanseatic||Empress of Japan||Hamburg Atlantic||1929||30,030||0|
|1968||Elisabethville||Elisabethville||Cie Maritime Belge||1949||10,901||0|
|1968||Rio Jachal||Rio Jachal||Estado||1950||11,342||0|
|1968||Knossos||La Bourdonnais||C S Efthymiadis||1953||10,886||0|
|1971||Heleanna||Munkedal||C S Efthymiadis||1954||11,674||26|
|1972||Seawise University||Queen Elizabeth||C Y Tung||1940||82,998||0|
|1974||Malaysia Kita||Viet-Nam||Malaysia Fir||1952||11,762||0|
|1974||Cunard Ambassador||Cunard Ambassador||Cunard||1972||14,160||0|
|1976||Belle Abeto||Laennec||Cia de Nav Abeto||1952||12,177||0|
|1976||Blue Sea||Europa||Ahmed Mohammed Baaboud||1952||11,440||0|
|1976||Malaysia Raya||Laos||Malaysia Fir||1954||11,792||0|
|1977||Climax Opal||Monte Ulia||Climax Shipping||1952||10,123||0|
|1977||Cabo San Roque||Cabo San Roque||Ybarra||1957||14,182||0|
|1979||Angelina Lauro||Oranje||Achille Lauro||1939||24,377||0|
|1980||Rasa Sayang||Bergensfjord||Aphrodite Maritime||1956||18,595||0|
|1980||Leonardo da Vinci||Leonardo da Vinci||Italia||1960||33,340||0|
|1981||Reina del Mar||Ocean Monarch||Dolphin (Hellas) Shipping||1951||13,581||0|
|1985||Chidambaram||Pasteur||Shipping Corp of India||1966||17,226||40|
|1989||Lavia||Bloemfontein Castle||Lavia Shipping||1950||18,400||0|
|1990||Sally Albatross||Viking Saga||Rederi A/B Sally||1980||14,330||0|
|1994||Achille Lauro||Willem Ruys||Achille Lauro||1947||23,629||4|
|1999||Sun Vista||Galileo Galilei||Sun Cruises||1963||30,440||0|
|2002||al-Salam Petraca 90||Petraca||El Salam Maritime Transport||1971||11,799||1|
|2003||Sancak I||Saga||Grup Denizcilik||1966||12,374||0|
|2004||SuperFerry 14||White Sanpo 2||WG&A SuperFerry||1981||10,182||116|
|2005||Princess of the World||Marimo||Sulpico||1971||10,709||0|
|2006||al-Salam Boccaccio 98||Boccaccio||El Salam Maritime Transport||1970||11,799||1,020|
|2010||Lisco Gloria||Golfo dei Coralli||DFDS Lisco||2001||20,140||0|
|2011||Pella||Bizan Maru||Arab Bridge||1983||10,675||1|
|2012||Costa Allegra||Annie Johnson||Costa Crociere||1969||28,430||0|
|2013||Ocean Countess||Cunard Countess||Majestic International||1976||17,856||0|
Notable losses as a result of fire
A fire in a ship is always a traumatic event for those involved, but some of the ship losses listed above have been of major historic significance, or have had a considerable influence on passenger ship design and safety and have been commented on below.
Georges Philippar was built by Ateliers & Chantiers de la Loire, Saint-Nazaire for the Messageries Maritimes Far East service. She was 17,539 GRT; 567 feet long (OA), 68 feet 4 inches beam; twin screw, two Sulzer 10 cylinder, two stroke, single-acting, diesel engines, 11,600 bhp, 15 knots service speed. Accommodation was provided for 196 first, 110 second, 89 third and 650 steerage class passengers plus a crew of 260.
Photo 1: The Messageries Maritimes liner Georges Philippar, with her eccentric funnels called “nautonaphates”. These were unique to Messageries Maritimes. The forward funnel was a dummy.
In the early hours of 16 May 1932, when Georges Philippar was in the Gulf of Aden on the homeward leg of her maiden voyage to the Far East, the bridge fire alarm went off twice, but no cause could be found on either occasion. At 02:00, half an hour after the second alarm, the occupant of a first class cabin immediately below the bridge reported smoke issuing from electrical wiring. Almost immediately afterwards fire broke out in that cabin and in two other nearby spaces. The fire could not be contained and it spread rapidly through the cable ducts, with the bridge soon being consumed by the flames. As a result all internal communication was lost and it was some time before the vessel could be brought to a halt and an S.O.S transmitted. As the helm had been abandoned, the ship turned into the wind, which fanned the flames through the superstructure, forcing the survivors to retreat towards the stern.
Many passengers, who were trapped in their cabins, were rescued through portholes using ropes lowered from the deck. The order to abandon ship was given at 05:45, by which time the ship had developed a 15 degree list, but by great skill on the part of the crew all the lifeboats were successfully launched.
The Soviet oil tanker Sovetskaia Neft arrived on the scene and took on board 420 survivors. She was joined by Thos & Jas Harrison’s Contractor, which saw the smoke and flames from 35 miles away, on arrival she took on board 129 people and Brocklebank’s Mahsud rescued 149. In all 54 lives were lost, the majority having jumped overboard to escape the fire before the ship came to a halt and who were left behind. Georges Philippar finally sank on 19 May, 160 miles from where the fire began.
Photo 2: The listing, abandoned Georges Philippar. The quantity of water that entered open portholes was a major reason for her eventually sinking.
The Sud-Atlantique flagship L’Atlantique was one of only three traditional liners over 40,000 GRT that were built for a service other than the North Atlantic route. (The others were Oriana and Canberra) She had the misfortune to be built during a period when French designers seemed to delight in disregarding conventional aesthetic opinion. Despite her lavish internal decor, L’Atlantique had an awkward, clumsy, external appearance that resembled a child’s bath toy. Less than a year after entering service, her funnels were heightened in an attempt to soften the image.
Photo 3: L’Atlantique, was delivered to Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique by Penhoët, St Nazaire on 7 September 1931. 42,512 GRT; 744 feet long, 92 feet 2 inches beam; quadruple screw, Parsons geared turbines, 50,000 SHP giving a service speed of 21 knots. Accommodation was provided for 414 first class, 158 second class and 584 third class passengers, with a crew of 663.
At 03:30 on 4 January 1933, while L’Atlantique was 22 miles off Guernsey, on a voyage from her home port of Bordeaux to Le Havre for dry-docking, without passengers and only a reduced crew on board, a fire broke out in a cabin where mattresses were being stored. Although the Captain was initially confident that the fire could be easily extinguished, it in fact spread rapidly through cable ducts and soon engulfed the entire accommodation. At 08:00 the order was given to abandon ship.
Unfortunately when a lifeboat was being lowered, one of the falls parted and the men in that boat were thrown into the sea and drowned. Other crew members were trapped in the engine and boiler rooms. In total 19 men lost their lives.
Photo 4: The blazing and abandoned L’Atlantique. The lifeboat whose falls parted when being lowered, can be seen hanging down the side of the ship.
L’Atlantique remained afloat and after two days the fire had burned itself out, enabling tugs to tow the ship into Cherbourg. A lengthy legal battle ensued before it was decided that L’Atlantique was a constructive total loss. The ship was then towed to Port Glasgow to be scrapped.
In 1928 the US Congress approved a Merchant Marine Act, to create a $250 million fund to finance the construction of new US owned ships, in US shipyards. The New York & Cuba Mail Steam Ship Company – generally known as the Ward Line – took advantage of this scheme to build two passenger liners at Newport News. The Morro Castle and Oriente were completed in 1930 and (thanks to Prohibition) very successfully entered service on a route between New York and Havana.
Photo 5: Morro Castle was built by Newport News SB & DD Co and delivered to Ward Line on 15 August 1930. 11,520 GRT, she was 531 feet long, with a beam of 70 feet 3 inches. Twin screw, with turbo-electric propulsion by General Electric; 18,100 SHP giving a service speed of 20 knots. Accommodation was provided for 430 first and 100 tourist class passengers, with 220 crew.
Morro Castle departed Havana for New York on 5 September 1934. During the next day the weather progressively deteriorated, with rising wind and sea, so that many passengers retired early to their cabins on the evening of the 7 September. On the same evening the Captain began to feel unwell, took to his cabin and not long afterwards died of an apparent heart attack, leaving the First Officer to command the vessel.
At 03:00, while the ship was steaming off the New Jersey coast, a fire was detected in the First Class Writing Room, in a locker used to store deck-chair blankets. The blankets were dry-cleaned using 1930’s technology highly flammable fluids and were stowed against a main electrical supply cable that ran through the locker. It is believed that the cable overheated and ignited the blankets, although some people think the fire was deliberately started by the ship’s Radio Operator. The task of dealing with the blaze proved to be well beyond the competence of the crew and within 30 minutes the fire was irretrievably out of control. Despite the perilous situation the first SOS was not broadcast until 03:23 and the engines were not stopped until 03:29. The fire tended to drive the passengers towards the stern and the crew towards the bows of the ship. Only a very few brave crew members made any effort to assist the passengers. Six of the ship’s twelve lifeboats were launched. Although these had a combined capacity of 408 persons, they only carried 85 people – mainly crew members. The lifeboats made no attempt to approach the bulk of the passengers in the stern of the ship.
In the difficult economic climate of the Great Depression, crew members were not granted leave, but had to sign off and replacements were recruited from the large pool of unemployed seafarers in New York. The ship frequently sailed from New York with up to 50% of the crew who were new to the ship. Complete crew and passenger fire drills were never carried out after a passenger was injured in a drill and sued the owners. Although the incompetence of the ship’s crew undoubtedly contributed to the number of casualties, the loss of the ship was primarily caused by design, construction and ship maintenance errors: -
- The ship was lavishly furnished, with tapestries, drapes, veneered or French-polished wooden surfaces and glued ply panelling, all of which were highly flammable.
- Although the ship was fitted with fire doors, the deck-head was wood covered and there was a wood-lined six inch gap between the doors and the deck-head providing the fire with a flammable pathway that bypassed the fire doors.
- There was an electronic fire detection system fitted throughout the ship, but it excluded the public rooms where the fire started.
- The fire doors had an automatic heat actuated release system, but this had been disconnected. The crew did not think to close the doors, although had they done so this would have been of little benefit because of the six inch gap mentioned above.
- The fire hose stations on the upper deck had been de-activated after a passenger had slipped on a wet patch caused by a leaking hose.
- The fire-main had 42 hydrants, but only 6 could be used at any one time. The crew were unaware of this requirement and opened most of the usable hose points, reducing the water pressure to such an extent that the hoses were largely ineffectual.
- The ship carried a Lyle gun, to fire a line for a breeches buoy. This was stowed in a locker in the First Class Writing Room where the fire started. This equipment exploded very shortly after the fire was discovered, blowing out the windows in the room, which allowed the gale force winds to fan the flames.
- Although the ship was only four years old, the Captain obsessively kept the crew occupied adding further coats of paint in the interests of maintaining a smart appearance. In the heat of the flames long, thick strips of burning paint peeled off and were spread by the gale blowing through broken windows and open doors.
- The fire alarm was so discreet that many passengers did not hear it.
- The passengers had not been given any instructions on the correct way to wear the rigid life preservers and in many cases passengers had to jump into the sea on their own initiative without assistance from crew members. The life preservers knocked many persons unconscious as they hit the water, leading to subsequent death by drowning, or in some cases the impact broke victims' necks, killing them instantly.
As news of the disaster spread along the New Jersey coast by telephone and radio broadcasts, local citizens assembled on the coastline to retrieve the dead, nurse the injured, and to try to re-unite families that had been scattered between different rescue boats that landed on the beaches.
Photo 6: Morro Castle engulfed by fire
By mid-morning, the ship was totally abandoned and it drifted ashore, grounding in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey where its fires continue to smoulder for the next two days. In total 135 passengers and crew (out of 549) were lost in the disaster. The ship was declared a constructive total loss, and its charred hulk was finally towed away from the Asbury Park shoreline on 14 March 1935 to be sold for scrap.
Photo 7: Orazio was completed by Cant ed Officine Meridionali, Baia and delivered to Navigazione Generale Italiana in 1927. She was 11,669 GRT, 506 feet long, 61 feet 9 inches beam. Twin screw, powered by two Burmeister & Wain diesel engines producing 6,600 BHP, giving a 14 knot service speed. Accommodation was provided for 110 first, 190 second and 340 third class passengers, with a crew of 200.
After the 1932 merger of leading Italian shipping companies to form Italia, the 1927 built Orazio was employed on their Genoa to the West Coast of South America service. On 21 January 1940 Italy was still a neutral country, but while Orazio was on a voyage from Genoa to Barcelona she was stopped off Toulon and searched by the French Navy. Orazio had 645 people on board, many of the passengers being Jewish refugees. The French authorities removed some German citizens and after a four hour delay she resumed her voyage, in rough seas in a growing Mistral. At 05:12 she suffered a crankcase explosion in her port B&W propulsion diesel engine, which ignited diesel fuel from the fractured fuel lines. The resultant fire spread rapidly throughout the ship. Although ships were quickly on the scene, rescue efforts were severely hampered by the bad weather and 106 people died in the blaze. The ship sank during the night of 21/22 January 1940.
Photo 8: The doomed Orazio.
Although the popular press frequently blamed passenger ship fires on sabotage, technical and especially electrical problems were the usual causes. A notable exception however was the loss of the German Blue Riband holder Bremen.
Photo 9: Bremen was built by AG Weser, Bremen for North German Lloyd and completed in 1929. She measured 51,731 GRT, 938 feet long, with a 102 feet beam. Quadruple screw, geared turbine machinery developed 135,000 SHP giving the ship a service speed of 27 knots. She had accommodation for 600 first, 500 second, 300 tourist and 600 third class passengers, with a crew 990.
As the outbreak of war loomed, Bremen arrived in New York on 28 August 1939. North German Lloyd decided to immediately refuel and return the ship to Germany, without passengers. This intention was thwarted by the US authorities deliberately delaying formalities, so that she only left on 30 August and after the outbreak of war, in mid-Atlantic diverted to Murmansk, where she remained until 10 December 1939. Three days after she sailed, she arrived in Bremerhaven and was laid up as an accommodation ship.
Apart from a brief visit to Hamburg in 1940, the ship remained in Bremerhaven. On 16 March 1941 a cabin boy was boxed on the ears by a Petty Officer. To avenge his humiliation he started a fire in one of Bremen’s storerooms. The fire quickly became uncontrollable and the ship rolled over, onto the jetty. She was scrapped where she lay. There is no record of the fate of the cabin boy.
Photo 10: The burnt out Bremen, lying against a quay in Bremerhaven
A significant number of the losses listed in the above table were caused by fires that occurred in port. The fires often broke out when ship maintenance, repair or modification work was in progress. In these circumstances the full range of fire-fighting equipment and services may not be functioning and a fully trained crew may not be present. The loss of the transatlantic liner Normandie when it caught fire in New York as the US transport Lafayette is a classic example of such an event.
All the grand, post World War 1 transatlantic liners were financed by their respective governments. The French carried this policy to the extreme by becoming the controlling shareholder in Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT). In 1931 the French Government authorised the commencement of construction of the superliner that was eventually delivered (two years late) in 1935 as Normandie.
Photo 11: Normandie was delivered to Compagnie Générale Transatlatique by Penhoët, St Nazaire on 25 May 1935. 79,280 GRT; 1,030 feet LOA, 981 feet 5 inches BP, 117 feet 10 inches beam; quadruple screw, turbo-electric machinery, 165,000 SHP giving a service speed of 29 knots. Accommodation was provided for 848 first class and 454 tourist third class passengers, with a crew of 1,345. Her tonnage was re-measured at 83,423 in 1936, so as to be larger than Cunard’s Queen Mary.
The general design of the ship was under the direction of the émigré Russian naval architect Vladimir Yourkevitch and contained many new ideas. One of the ships innovative features was her divided boiler uptakes, which were moved from the traditional centre-line location to a position nearer each side of the ship, before finally sloping inboard to meet at the base of the funnels. This provided clear space through the centre of the ship for main public rooms of unusual size. The largest of these spaces was the first class dining room. This room could seat 700 diners at a time with 157 tables serving some of the best meals in the world. A drawback was that due to the design of the ship, no natural lighting could enter the room. The designers illuminated the room with twelve tall pillars of cast iron and Lalique glass and 38 illuminated columns along the walls. In addition, two chandeliers hung at each end of the room.
Passengers entered the dining room through 20-foot tall doors adorned with bronze medallions. CGT marketed the room as being longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It was 305 feet long, 46 feet wide and 28 feet high, which made it by far the largest room afloat. It also meant that the dining room was bigger than the largest space permitted by the SOLAS regulations. The designers ignored this technicality. For CGT spectacle was more important than safety, but the fire that destroyed Normandie started in this room.
Photo 12: The grand first class dining room in Normandie. There was some criticism that the room was too grand and that many passengers felt intimidated by their surroundings and the expectation that they should wear ball gowns, or white tie and tails, with decorations, to dinner.
CGT already had direct experience of the consequences of ship fires. In 1938 their intermediate liner Lafayette caught fire while being overhauled in Le Havre and was burnt out. At 22.00 on 18 April 1939 a fire broke out in the bakery of their mail liner Paris, while she was loading cargo in Le Havre. The fire quickly spread throughout the ship, defying the efforts of the fire fighters and by 08:00 on 19 April she began to heel over because of the weight of water in the superstructure. At 09:15 Paris fell onto her side and in the process her keel slid against the quay, making it impossible to subsequently right the ship. As soon as the fire was finally extinguished work was started to cut off the ship’s masts and funnels to release Normandie, which was trapped in a dry dock immediately astern of Paris.
Normandie arrived in New York on 31 August 1939. Germany invaded Poland the following day and it was decided that Normandie should be laid-up in New York. She was joined by Ile de France on 3 September 1939. With the subsequent fall of France, Normandie was taken into custody by the US Coastguard in June 1940 and after Pearl Harbour, was taken over by the US Maritime Commission on 16 December 1941 and renamed Lafayette. It was decided to convert her into a troopship and a contract was placed with Robbins Dry Dock & Repair Inc with a scheduled completion of 1 February 1942.
Conflicting instructions were then issued. The US Navy ordered that Lafayette be fitted with a comprehensive defensive armament and that many of her metric systems be replaced with imperial standard connectors. This extra work extended completion, with loading scheduled to start on 28 February. On 7 February however the US Bureau of Ships asked that she sail to Boston on 14 February for dry-docking (New York did not have a big enough dock). This conflict led to the fatal decision to begin loading stores and victual ship, before the conversion work was completed. A considerable volume of ship’s outfit and supplies had already arrived in New York, including 1,100 paper-wrapped bales of flammable kapok lifejackets. These were loaded into the ship, despite their final storage areas being incomplete. The only single space that could take this bulk was the first class dining room. Unfortunately this was still being stripped.
None of the wood panelling had been removed and a team of workmen had yet to finish the task of removing the room’s lighting pillars, using oxy-acetylene burning equipment. Contrary to the instructions issued to perform this task, the only fire fighting equipment to hand was two buckets of water. The final lighting pillar was surrounded by bales of lifejackets. On 9 February the workers moved only the minimum needed to gain access. The final cut of the burning torch caught one of the bales and it burst into flames. In the ensuing panic a worker rushing forward with the water buckets, tripped and fell. There was a fire extinguisher nearby, but it was French and the workers could not understand its operation. The fire main serving the dining room had been drained to fit US fire hose connectors. The workers tried in vain to beat out the flames with their jackets and threw some of the bales clear without realising that they had already started to burn. In moments the fire was spreading dramatically and starting to consume the panelling.
As part of the conversion the ship’s fire and damage control room had been moved, but its telephone connection had not been installed. The ship to shore telephone line had also been disconnected. The New York Fire Department was eventually alerted by one of its own fire floats, which spotted smoke billowing from the ship.
Lafayette’s forced air ventilation system was working, which caused havoc by filling the engine room with smoke necessitating its evacuation. This resulted in a rapid loss of steam (to operate the fire main) and electricity throughout the ship. The order was given over loudspeakers for all 3,000 workers to leave the ship. One man was killed and about 250 were injured; mainly through smoke inhalation. Of course the men streaming off the ship delayed the firemen trying to board her.
A strong wind fanned the flames forward and soon the ship was firmly on fire. With the fire main out of action the only practical way to fight the fire was from the dockside and the 12 fire-fighting tugs and fire-floats that had rushed to the scene. Unfortunately the automatic fire doors had closed (except where they were obstructed by conversion equipment) and tons of water began to accumulate on the upper decks making Lafayette increasingly unstable. Filling the ballast tanks would have helped, but the engine room and lower decks were inaccessible. Sinking the ship was proposed, but that could only have been done by divers placing limpet mines. This was vetoed as Lafayette had been fully bunkered and the escaping fuel oil could have destroyed a large part of the port if it ignited. Lafayette would have been a useful asset, but the New York harbour was vital to the war effort.
Photo 13: Lafayette beginning to list to port as the New York Fire Department tackles the blaze
Lafayette began to progressively list to port. Shortly after midnight machinery began to break loose from its foundations and crash across the ship and at 02:45 on 10 February 1942 she gently rolled onto her side and sank. The ship’s tophamper was removed and she was raised in September, before being towed to Brooklyn Navy Yard in October 1942, where the hulk remained until it was scrapped in 1946.
The Greek Line’s cruise ship Lakonia started life in 1930 as the Stoomv Mij Nederland liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, for employment on their Amsterdam to the Dutch East Indies service. After serving as a troopship during World War 2 she briefly resumed her original service before moving into the Australian emigrant trade in 1950. She was refitted in 1959 for a new Amsterdam – Sydney – New York – Amsterdam service. This was not a success and she was sold to Greek Line for delivery in 1963. After further refurbishment and modernisation of the passenger accommodation in Genoa the ship was renamed Lakonia and in April 1963 began a new career undertaking cruises from Southampton to the Canary Islands.
Photo 14: The 1930 built Dutch liner in her final form as the Greek Line 1963 cruise ship Lakonia
Lakonia sailed from Southampton on 19 December 1963 for an 11-day "Christmas Cruise" to the Canary Islands via Madeira. There were 646 passengers and 376 crewmen on board: a total of 1,022 people. All but 21 of the passengers were British citizens, and the crew members were mostly Greek and German. The captain of Lakonia was 53-year-old Mathios Zarbis.
The crew had conducted a boat drill a week before, and the ship passed a safety inspection by the British Ministry of Transport 24 hours prior to sailing. The ship carried a Greek certificate of seaworthiness. Passengers participated in a boat drill on 20 December.
At around 23:00 p.m. on 22 December, a steward noticed thick smoke seeping under the door of the ship's hairdressing salon. Upon opening the door, he found the room completely ablaze, and the fire burst into the hallway toward the staterooms. He and another steward attempted to fight the flames with fire extinguishers, but the fire was spreading too fast to be contained. One of the men ran to notify the ship's purser.
Fire alarms sounded, but were too soft to be heard by most passengers. An alarm went off on the bridge, pinpointing the fire’s location. The ship was about 180 miles north of Madeira. At the time the blaze was discovered, most of the passengers were in the ship's ballroom, dancing at the "Tropical Tramps' Ball". Passengers began to notice the smell of smoke, but most dismissed it as strong cigar smoke. Captain Zarbis, who had been notified of the fire, attempted to make an announcement on the ship's intercom system, but it had been disabled by the blaze. As smoke began to fill the ballroom at about 23:30, the band stopped playing and the cruise director ushered the passengers to the boat deck. The upper deck was ablaze within 10 minutes.
Many of the passengers who were already asleep in their cabins were unable to escape the fire. Some passengers were told to go to the main dining room to await instructions, but this lay directly in the path of the fire.
At 23:30, the ship sent out the first distress call; a second distress call was sent out at midnight and the last call at 00:22; just before the wireless room caught fire. After this brave action the wireless operator left the ship in a launch with a nurse and two musicians. He later testified that they left to rescue people from the water. They claimed that they were unable to return to the ship because the current pushed the launch away.
A six-man fire crew attempted to fight the blaze, but the fire spread too quickly to be contained. Thick, black smoke began to fill the rooms and hallways and suffocating passengers were forced on deck. The ship's purser gave the order to abandon ship shortly before 01:00. Dazed passengers made their way to the lifeboats, some in their pyjamas and others still wearing their jewellery and eveningwear. A few crew members went below decks to try to save passengers from their burning cabins. The ship's swimming pool attendant and a steward lowered themselves over the side of the ship by rope to pull trapped people from portholes.
Evacuation of the ship was extremely chaotic. Lifeboat davits were rusted and many lockers containing lifesaving equipment could not be opened. Chains had rusted in many of the davits, making boats difficult or impossible to move. Some lifeboats burned before they could be lowered. The falls at one end of a loaded lifeboat seized, spilling its occupants into the sea. One rusty set of davits broke away completely from the hull, dropping a loaded lifeboat into the sea before the shattered remains of the davits crashed down onto it. Eventually, just over half of the ship’s lifeboats made it safely away from Lakonia, some of them less than half full. The occupants of many of the lifeboats found that the drain holes were without stoppers, so that passengers had to constantly bail water.
When all of the boats were away, there were still over 100 people left on board Lakonia, which continued to burn fiercely and was rocked by violent explosions. They began to congregate in the stern of the ship, but after several hours, the flames closed in on them, and they were forced to descend ropes and rope ladders into the ocean. The port and starboard gangways were lowered as well, and people walked down the gangways single file into the sea. Several people dived overboard but were killed by striking the side of the ship or when they hit the water.
The first rescue ship arrived at 03:30, four hours after the first distress call. Throughout the early hours of the morning more ships and aircraft joined the rescue effort. They were hindered by the fact that Lakonia drifted for several miles during the evacuation. People in the water were dispersed over a 2 to 3 mile area. Shortly after daybreak Captain Zarbis was collected from the ship by a lifeboat from one of the rescuing ships. He was the last person to leave Lakonia alive.
Photo 15: A helicopter from the British aircraft carrier HMS Centaur dropping crewmen to pick up bodies from the smouldering Lakonia.
A total of 128 people died in the disaster, of which 95 were passengers and 33 were crew members. Only 53 people were killed in the actual fire. The rest died from exposure, drowning and injuries sustained diving overboard. An attempt was made to tow the ship to Gibraltar, but she sank on 29 December.
The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry launched a two-year investigation into the Lakonia disaster. The board of inquiry concluded that Lakonia should never have passed safety inspections before sailing. While a lifeboat drill had been conducted by the crew a week before the fateful voyage, only five of the boats had been lowered in the drill instead of all of the boats being tested. The order to abandon ship was given too late. Operations on deck were not supervised by responsible officers. The crew, despite a few cases of self-sacrifice, failed to rescue sleeping passengers from their cabins below decks.
Eight of Lakonia's officers were charged with negligence. The cause of the fire was ultimately determined to be a short circuit in faulty electrical wiring.
al-Salam Boccacciao 98
By the end of the 1960s the growing demand for car ferry transportation led to the introduction of an increasing number of ferries that exceeded 10,000 tons. Initially many of these larger ferries were conversions from other types of vessels, or were “Jumboised” enlargements of smaller ferries.
The al-Salam Boccaccio 98 was built as Boccaccio in 1970 for the Tirrenia, Italian domestic service by the Monfalcone shipyard of Italcantieri. The vessel and her five sister ships were originally 6,450 tons with a capacity of about 200 cars and 1000 passengers.
Photo 16: The Italian ferry Boccaccio, showing her handsome appearance when she began life.
The vessel was rebuilt in 1991 by INMA, La Spezia, maintaining the same length but with a much higher superstructure. To maintain acceptable stability hull sponsons were added, increasing her beam from 20 m to 23.6 m while the draught increased from 5.57 to 5.90 m. These changes increased her tonnage to 11,799, car capacity to 320 and passenger capacity to 1,310.
The IMO was becoming increasingly concerned about the stability danger of the free-surface effect of water on the large unrestricted area of the car decks of ferries. New, more stringent damage stability rules were introduced, which were phased in over an 11 year period from 1994. In 1999 Boccaccio and three of her sisters were sold to the major Egyptian shipping company El Salem Maritime Transport. They were given the prefix “al Salam” and a number added to the end of the ship’s name.
Photo 17: Boccaccio was greatly enlarged in Italy in 1991, then sold to Egyptian owners in 1999 and became al-Salam Boccaccio 98
The al-Salam Boccaccio 98 was employed on a service across the Red Sea between Duba in Saudi Arabia and Safaga in Southern Egypt. The service catered mainly for Egyptians working in Saudi, plus pilgrims during the Hajj. On 2 February 2006 the ship departed Duba for Safaga. It is thought the ship was carrying about 1,312 passengers, 96 crew, plus 220 cars and 5 trucks. There is considerable confusion about many of the events that happened on this last voyage of al-Salam Boccaccio 98.
Not long after the commencement of the crossing a fire broke out, but the ship continued on course, travelling ever further from an immediate source of help. Most reports agree that a vehicle caught fire, although some state that the fire began as an electrical fault in a store room. It appears that water hoses were the only operational fire fighting equipment available to the crew. These were unable to contain the fire and the volume of water on the car deck soon exceeded the drainage capacity of the scuppers. It is not clear whether this was because of inadequate provision in the design; because the drains were obstructed; or because of pump failure. The ship developed an ever increasing list. The Captain appears to have thought that high winds were contributing to this problem and he decided to turn the ship in an effort to use the wind to balance the vessel. Passengers were also asked to move to the higher side of the ship. The final act of folly was his decision to flood ballast tanks to counteract the list and in so doing he destroyed the ship’s remaining buoyancy margin.
It appears that no SOS was issued; no organised attempt was made to issue lifejackets and only a few lifeboats were launched, but the Captain was in the first. The ship finally sank rapidly and in doing so automatic distress equipment transmitted a signal that was picked up, via satellite, by the air-sea rescue control room at RAF Kinloss in Scotland at 23:58 UTC on 2 February 2006. The local Red Sea rescue effort services were alerted, but their rescue attempts continued the previous chaotic and disorganised efforts of the ship’s staff. Eventually 380 people were rescued, many spending almost 24 hours in the sea, even though the ship went down only 70 miles from the Egyptian coast. In total about 1,028 people lost their lives in the disaster.
Photo 18: Container ship Annie Johnson
Annie Johnson was one of the first generation container ships built for the Johnson Line of Sweden in 1969. Johnson Line was founded in 1904 as a subsidiary of Rederi AB Nordstjernan. It became a member of the Finnish-Swedish Silja Line consortium and ceased existing as an independent company in 1990. Annie Johnson was sold in 1986, with two of her sisters to the Greek shipowner Antonis Lelakis, who had plans to convert them into cruise ships. These plans fell through, but one of the trio, Axel Johnson, was bought by a subsidiary of Costa Crociere and converted into the cruise ship Costa Marina.
The conversion was successful and in 1990 Costa bought Annie Johnson, which in the meantime had returned to container ship operation with Mediterranean Shipping Co and been renamed Alexandra. She arrived in Genoa and was sent to Mariotti for a more extensive conversion than her sister, before emerging in 1992 as Costa Allegra.
Photo 19: Costa Allegra: 28,430 tons; Length 187.69 M, Beam 25.75 M, Draft 8.2 M; Four Wartsila 6R46 diesel engines, 19,213 kW combined power, Service Speed 19 knots; 810 Passengers (Lower berth), 1,066 (max)
In 2006 the ship was relocated for cruising out of China. At the same time her interiors were refurbished to better suit the emerging Asian cruise market. This proved to be a successful initiative and in 2010 she was replaced by two larger vessels and returned to the European/ Middle Eastern markets.
During the morning of 27 February 2012 she was in the Indian Ocean when a fire broke out in the generator room. The fire was extinguished by the automatic fire-suppression system and there were no injuries, but the ship was left without power and adrift about 200 miles southwest of the Seychelles She was taken in tow by the French tuna-fishing vessel Trevignon to Mahé in the Seychelles for repair and evacuation of the 636 passengers and 413 crew members on board.
On 9 March 2012, it was announced that because of the age of the ship and the extent of the damage suffered to the machinery spaces, the Costa Allegra had been declared a Constructive Total Loss and would not return to service. She was scrapped at Aliaga, Turkey.
A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 12.
Many of the photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. Many others are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 2 have been provided as follows: -
Frontispiece: Ships Nostalgia - Petroc
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia – treeve
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Wikimedia Commons
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia – Stan Mayes
- Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikimedia Commons
- Ships Nostalgia – Hawkey01
- Wikimedia Commons
- Ships Nostalgia – davideto
- Ships Nostalgia – yvon
- Ships Nostalgia – BOBBY
- Wikimedia Commons
Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson
|Passenger Ship Disasters|
|Part 1||Part 2||Part 3||Part 4||Part 5||Part 6||Part 7||Part 8||Part 9||Part 10||Part 11||Part 12|