NEW YORK (AP) – On a warm, foggy July night in 1956, the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria was speeding toward New York on the last leg of a trans-Atlantic crossing when it collided with a Swedish passenger ship and sank, killing 51 people.

Half a century later, the erstwhile flagship of the Italian Line continues to take a toll. At least 14 people have perished over the years while exploring the wreck. On July 10, noted underwater researcher David Bright, 49, suffered fatal decompression sickness while practicing off Cape Cod for an anniversary dive to the Doria. It would have been his 121st such visit.

As for what motivates people to risk diving on a wreck some 200 feet down, “I have no explanation for it,” said Capt. Robert Meurn, profesor emeritus at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, and like his friend Bright, an expert on maritime history and the Andrea Doria in particular. “It’s called the Mount Everest of diving, it’s such a dangerous depth, but it attracts a lot of interest.”

In 1956, Meurn was a 19-year-old cadet aboard the training ship Empire State and heard the distress calls that night. Now retired in Harbor Beach, Mich., he will return to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point on Sunday for the anniversary dinner, to be attended by survivors and guests, including Bright’s wife and children.

It was at the U.S. Coast Guard station across Long Island, at East Moriches on the south shore, that first word of the disaster was received in a crackling radio message at 11:22 p.m. on July 25:

“We have collided with another ship. Please. Ship in collision.”

The message was from the Stockholm, a sleek white motorship a few hours outbound from New York. In the swirling fog for which the Atlantic is notorious, the Stockholm’s bow, reinforced for northern icefields, had ripped into the starboard side of the 29,000-ton Italian liner.

Amost simultaneously, the Andrea Doria radioed its own SOS, a last cry from a vessel already doomed. Water gushing into the gaping hole drowned many victims and tilted the liner so sharply that her portside lifeboats could not be lowered.

Fortunately, at least 15 ships were close enough to respond.

Forty-three Andrea Doria passengers died from the impact and three during the rescue. In all, some 1,660 people were saved off the stricken liner. The Stockholm, owned by the Swedish-American Line, carried 525 passengers and crew. Five of the latter were lost when the crash destroyed their sleeping quarters in the bow.

The luckiest, and later the most famous, survivor was 14-year-old Linda Morgan, the daughter of noted radio commentator Edward P. Morgan, who was vaulted from her cabin on the Andrea Doria to the Stockholm’s deck, where crew members found her, shaken but unhurt. Her stepfather and half-sister were among the dead.

Other survivors included film star Ruth Roman and songwriter Mike Stoller, who on landing in New York was told by his partner, Jerry Lieber, that their song “Hound Dog” had just been recorded by “some white kid named Elvis Presley.” Stoller, who had been away four months, asked, “Elvis who?”

By dawn, the liner had rolled on its side. It sank at midmorning, about 11 hours after the collision.

The cause “has been called a mystery but it really isn’t – it was human error,” Meurn, who has studied the case for years, said in a telephone interview from his home in Michigan.

In the aftermath, each ship blamed the other for the collision, and officers of both ships testified at a maritime inquiry in New York, but the case was settled out of court, leaving the issue of responsibility unresolved.

The lawyer for the Stockholm owners offered a theory that Meurn says would have required that ship to be moving at an “obviously impossible” 2,500 mph.

Meurn, among others, contends that the Stockholm’s third officer, Ernst Carstens-Johannsen, had misread the ships’ relative positions on radar, estimating the Andrea Doria, closing at 21.8 knots (23 mph), to be 12 miles away when it was actually six. By the time the error was realized, it was too late for the Stockholm to change course.

The white vessel suddenly looming out of the fog spurred the Doria’s captain, Piero Calamai, to order “hard a-port!” – a sharp left turn – but also too late to avoid the collision.

As water poured into the nearly empty fuel tanks on one side, the Italian ship listed to 19 degrees, “an angle beyond what nautical engineers had ever imagined,” says a recent book, “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” by survivor Pierette Dominica Simpson, who was 9 years old and emigrating to America with her grandparents.

Calamai was no stranger to peril at sea; during World War II he had saved his warship after it was torpedoed by running it aground. Now he faced the problem of getting passengers and crew off a ship that was in danger of capsizing, with only half his lifeboats operable.

The fact that Calamai did not immedately sound an abandon ship alarm became one of several controversies after the sinking. Passengers differed, but the book quotes one, Elizabeth Quinn, as saying in a 1956 letter that he had “refrained from broadcasting a warning for fear of panic. perhaps he was wise … “Abandon ship’ is an awesome and solemn thing to hear.”

In any case, notes author Simpson, Calamai achieved his aim, as 97 percent of the liner’s 1,706 passengers survived – compared to 25 percent for the Titanic in 1912 and 39 percent for the Lusitania in 1915, the other two major Atlantic ship disasters of the 20th century.

As in the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg, the Andrea Doria lost too many watertight compartments to stay afloat, raising questions about the seaworthiness of the 3-year-old ship.

“There are some analogies,” says Meurn, “but the difference is that the Titanic represented the greatest loss of life, while the Andrea Doria was the greatest rescue.”

A more enduring dispute concerned charges that the first lifeboats were filled with Andrea Doria crew members rather than passengers. Meurn, for one, says he doesn’t put much stock in the accusation, because “it came from the Stockholm.”

The collision led to changes that make a similar event today unlikely – the defining of shipping lanes, improved radar and bridge-to-bridge VHF communication between ships. Andrea Doria and Stockholm could communicate only through their radio rooms.

The Swedish vessel was repaired, returned to Atlantic service and in 1960 was sold to East Germany. Acquired by an Italian company, it was rebuilt in Genoa, the Andrea Doria’s former port, as the Prima Italia. Fifty years after the tragedy it is still afloat, almost unrecognizable as MS Athena, a German luxury cruise ship plying the Baltic.

While improvements in technology have made the once-unreachable Doria popular with divers, Simpson quotes Bright as calling it “a very hazardous adventure … one of the most difficult dives in the world.”

Later, he adds: “As part of the 50th anniversary of the collision I will dive on the Andrea Doria probably for the last time.”

AP-ES-07-21-06 1117EDT

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