Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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SCUBA Tours of the Andrea Doria

{The Andrea Doria Wreacked}
The Andrea Doria Wreck

Robert J. Burns, who runs clinical trials of medical instruments at Boston Scientific, on July 25,2008 told the Right Angle Club about what he does on weekends. It seems to amount to coming within an inch of getting killed, scuba diving. His favorite place to visit is the sunken wreck of the Andrea Doria, lying on its side in 250 feet of water, forty-five miles from Block Island in international waters. Built in 1951 in grand style, the Andrea Doria was the pride of the Italian ocean fleet, with 190 First Class passengers, 267 Cabin Class, and 677 Tourist Class. There were about 600 crew members aboard. Two of the passengers on July 25, 1956, were Mayor Richardson Dilworth of Philadelphia and his wife, so when it sank, the Andrea Doria dominated the news. After it was all unscrambled later, it seems the radar of the liner Stockholm had incorrect markings and misled the helmsman into thinking distances were five times greater than they actually were. On a day of dense fog, the Stockholm knew the Andrea Doria was near, but greatly underestimated how near. When the Stockholm suddenly found the Andrea Doria looming up, the helm was sharply turned in both ships, causing the prow of the Stockholm to gouge out most of the side of the Doria, which soon sank. That would ultimately mean the Stockholm was mainly at fault, but the Italian liner's image was as damaged as its hull by having the crew commandeer the lifeboats for themselves and essentially abandon the passengers. The rescuing ship was the Ile de France, who told the newspapers that at first, they thought they were rescuing an all-male ship. It's not completely certain how many people were killed in the collision; between 47 and 52 individuals were missing. A matter of great interest to the news media was the story of an 11-year old girl on the Andrea Doria, who was scooped out of her cabin by the prow of the Stockholm and eventually located safe and sound in the bow of the Swedish ship.

Because of German submarine activity in World War II, the Atlantic coast is littered with sunken ships from Boston to North Carolina. Most of them attract great schools of fish and scuba divers, but the Andrea Doria is a favorite because of all the souvenirs to be found on it. Three classes of dining rooms provide tons of monogrammed dishes and tableware, greatly in demand for the trophy cabinets of avid scuba enthusiasts. Just about the first salvage hunter was Peter Gimbel of the department store family, who cut a hole in the first class area and liberated the safe which might be presumed to be full of jewels. As it turned out, it only held some well-soaked Italian currency.

Scuba diving at a depth of 250 feet requires a certificate, and $7000 worth of training for five years is required just to be eligible to risk your life. Even so, plenty of people have lost their lives playing this game, whose central thrill seems to be that you have to get dozens of maneuvers right, every single time, or you've had it. The Martini effect is probably a big part of it, too. Every fifty feet of depth gives a degree of narcosis equal to drinking one Martini, so a diver to the Andrea Doria operates as if he had drunk five Martinis. Under those circumstances, judgment gets clouded but every single knob on every single hose has to be adjusted every so many minutes, adding and subtracting oxygen, substituting helium for nitrogen, and modifying the pressure and flow rates. Then, because it's dark down there, you have to remember to turn left after ten feet, then right after twenty feet, and reverse it all when you come back out with your monogrammed dish. Deep sea diving with a hard hat is safer and more comfortable because you are attached to a hose and have a handler upon the surface keeping track of things for you. But hoses would get cut by the jagged edges of the interior of the hulk, and all in all, diving with a hard hat just isn't what real men do. The hard hat may offer some protection against the myriads of sharks to be encountered, but that's only if the shark prefers to attack your head. If you are using a lot of helium in your breathing mixture, you tend to get very cold, and the preferred answer is to wear a suit inflated with Argon. If that gets punctured by sharks or one thing or another, the discomfort can be memorable. It's cold, it's dangerous, it's dark, it's lonesome, but think of all those dishes you can collect. And maybe the five Martinis are part of the attraction, too.

Originally published: Friday, July 25, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The wreck is in central nebraska now. How convenient.
Posted by: Awesome   |   Jul 22, 2010 4:34 PM