This photograph shows the abandoned Andrea Doria before its sinking in the Atlantic Ocean.

This photograph shows the abandoned Andrea Doria before its sinking in the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo from the David A. Bright Collection, as contained in “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” by Pierette Domenica Simpson


Shipwreck survivor recounts crash on Andrea Doria anniversary

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published August 2, 2019

 From left, Germaine Strobel, of St. Clair Shores, and Pierette Domenica Simpson, of Novi, pose for a photograph at a book signing for “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” The book inspired Simpson’s docudrama, “Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?”

From left, Germaine Strobel, of St. Clair Shores, and Pierette Domenica Simpson, of Novi, pose for a photograph at a book signing for “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” The book inspired Simpson’s docudrama, “Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?”

Photo provided by Germaine Strobel

 This was Germaine Strobel’s passport photograph from her 1956 voyage on the Andrea Doria.

This was Germaine Strobel’s passport photograph from her 1956 voyage on the Andrea Doria.

Photo provided by Germaine Strobel, as contained in “Alive on the Andrea Doria!” by Pierette Domenica Simpson

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Germaine D’Onofrio was a 19-year-old girl headed home to Detroit after visiting family in Italy when she stepped onto the ocean liner Andrea Doria in Naples.

With three outdoor swimming pools and an array of paintings, tapestries and murals, the 697-foot ship was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cruisers of its time. According to an account by Evan Andrews on History.com, the Andrea Doria also had state-of-the-art safety features that included two radar screens and a hull divided into 11 watertight compartments.

Today known as Germaine Strobel, of St. Clair Shores, she said that she had gone to Italy with her mother and two younger brothers to visit family, but because she had promised to stand up in a friend’s wedding, she was returning home on her own, accompanied by a chaperone friend of her mother’s, while her mother and brothers remained in Italy.

“It was tremendously luxurious and a wonderful, wonderful voyage,” Strobel said of the first week of the trip.

The Andrea Doria was making its 101st sailing across the Atlantic in July 1956. It held 1,134 passengers and 572 crew members, and had entered the sea lanes off the northeast coast of the United States on July 25, the same day that a 524-foot Swedish passenger liner, the Stockholm, had departed from New York headed for Gothenburg, Sweden.

 

The crash
“That night, we were watching a movie after dinner in the dining hall,” Strobel recalled. “We stayed on, and we were sitting there at the table, watching the movie, and all of a sudden there was a loud and crushing sound in the ship.”

She said that she and her chaperone, Celeste Caputo, of Ohio, first thought that perhaps the ship had crashed into a buoy. But almost immediately, the ship began to list.

“Everything was falling all over people. We weren’t able to walk. We left the dining hall and we noticed that people were coming up from the lower decks,” she said.

It was around 11 p.m. when the crash occurred. Strobel said that passengers were coming up in their pajamas and bed clothes. Because of the mass of people trying to escape from the lower decks and the rising smoke, she said they didn’t dare go back to their state room below — but that meant they didn’t have any life jackets, as those were stored under their bunks.

According to the account on History.com, the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria were approaching each other in heavy fog around 10:30 at night on July 25. The captain of the Andrea Doria, Piero Calamai, saw a blip on the radar screen representing the Swedish ship, and the Stockholm, under the watch of its third officer, Johan-Ernst Carstens-Johannsen, spotted the Italian ship a few minutes later.

The Stockholm prepared to pass the Andrea Doria on its left, port to port, while the Andrea Doria put the Stockholm on its right and prepared to pass starboard to starboard. Andrews wrote that one of the men had misread the radar, and now many researchers believe that Carstens-Johannsen had misread his radar and concluded that the Andrea Doria was several miles farther away than it actually was.

Calamai, the captain of the Andrea Doria, first noticed that the ships were on a collision course with one another around 11:10 p.m., when he spotted the lights of the Stockholm emerge from the fog. Although the Stockholm tried to slow down, it was too late and the ship’s icebreaker bow crashed into the Doria’s starboard side, getting 30 feet into its hull.

The collision killed five people on the Stockholm and 46 on the Andrea Doria.

 

To the lifeboats
Strobel said that since she and Caputo were too scared to try and retrieve their life jackets, they went out on the deck and sat on the floor.

“We didn’t know what to do. By that time, the ship had listed so much we couldn’t stand and walk; we had to crawl. The only thing we heard over the loudspeaker was, ‘Please remain calm,’” she recalled.

It was at that point, she said, that her and Caputo’s roles were reversed.

“She was my chaperone, but when the accident happened, our roles reversed and she didn’t want to go down the rope ... down into this tiny lifeboat that was bobbing,” Strobel said. “I told her (to) go down first and she wouldn’t go — she was scared. I said, ‘I’m going to go down and leave you,’ and that persuaded her.”

The Stockholm was in no danger of sinking, but the same could not be said for the Andrea Doria, which was listing so far to its starboard side that eight of its port lifeboats were unable to be launched. The starboard lifeboats were only able to hold about 1,000 people.

Strobel and Caputo were two of those people.

“That was an experience, going down a rope like that,” Strobel said. “I was not very athletic, and I didn’t think I could do it, but somehow we did it.”

The Andrea Doria was tilted so far that Strobel said she was scared the ship would fall on top of them, but the crew members tried to wait as long as they could, to get as many people in the lifeboats as possible. Other nearby ships sent lifeboats and rescued the remaining passengers and crew.

Strobel’s lifeboat was taken to the Stockholm.

“It had taken on a lot of water. I didn’t know if it was going to sink,” she said of the Stockholm. “They were not real happy to see us. It was like (we) disturbed their voyage; we were in the way.

“We had boiled potatoes to eat; that was it. We sat on the deck. We just sat and waited. We were really out of it by that time, just completely stunned.”

It wasn’t until the following morning, Strobel recalled, that the Andrea Doria finally sank. She remembers everyone on board the Stockholm, passengers and crew, all crying as the ship went down. It would take another day and a half for them to reach the port of New York again, traveling at just 10 knots because of the extreme damage to the ship.

The Stockholm was greeted by crowds when it arrived in New York because the sinking of the Andrea Doria had been shown on television nearly nonstop since it occurred, Strobel said.

“Everybody knew. ... In Italy and Sweden and America, everybody knew what had happened in the ocean,” she said. “As we approached the dock, you could hear a pin drop. As soon as the gangplanks were lowered, all the reporters and the photographers came running up. I was interviewed by National Geographic.

“We were giddy; we were so happy to be on land.”

 

A crisis at home
Ultimately, Strobel made it back to Detroit to meet her father and older brother, but the night after she returned, her father had a massive heart attack brought on by the stress of not knowing if she had survived.

At St. John Hospital in Detroit, she said, the doctors told Strobel that she should call her mother and tell her to return to the U.S., but it wasn’t that simple.

“She couldn’t come home because the Italian line had lost one of their ships, and they were trying to accommodate everyone in July and August,” Strobel said. “My dad was in the hospital six weeks, (but) my mother couldn’t get home. Six weeks later, my father came home, and my mother could finally get passage, and the family was finally reunited.”

Strobel said it was a terrible time for her.

“I was still raw from my own experience, and here I was having another crisis in my own family,” she said. “It took years for me to even mention it. I couldn’t deal with it.”

 

Another survivor
Strobel’s friend and fellow survivor, Pierette Domenica Simpson, who was 9 years old when she took the Andrea Doria with her grandparents to meet her mother in America, researched and wrote a book, “Alive on the Andrea Doria: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History,” that vindicated the actions of Calamai.

It has been turned into a docudrama, “Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?” that was written and produced by Simpson, and it aired July 25 on Detroit Public Television. Strobel and other survivors are included in the film, which is told in a mix of English and Italian, with English subtitles.

“They all thought it was the Italian line’s fault” at the time of the sinking, Strobel said. “This brought some justice to the situation. This wasn’t that long after the war. The Italians were the enemy. There was that prejudice.”

Simpson, who now lives in Novi but is a former resident of Grosse Pointe Woods, said that she was introduced to a sea captain in the course of her research who had worked with a naval engineer to create a computer simulation of the collision at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.

“The computer simulation was based on their studies of what must have happened that night ... showing how the Stockholm had approached the Andrea Doria,” Simpson said. “The bottom line is, the Stockholm was traveling in our lane. They (the Stockholm) made two fatal turns to crash into us, and we put the blame on the third officer, who was the only one in charge of the bridge that night.

“He was overworked, inexperienced, and he misread his radar.”

That “radar-assisted collision,” as it is called, led to the Italian captain, Calamai, being haunted by the incident for the rest of his life, Simpson said.

“He had always thought about what had happened, and did he do enough, did he save his passengers,” she said. “He never sailed again. He never went back to sea.”

According to Simpson’s research, Calamai’s last words on his deathbed were about the sinking of the Andrea Doria, which inspired the title of her docudrama.

“He checked himself into the hospital with no apparent reason except malaise,” she said. “He went into a semi-comatose state. He uttered the words, ‘Are the passengers saved?’”

When she learned of that, and that Calamai was never given another ship to captain, she said she knew she had to write her book.

“I thought that was a terrible historical injustice that needed correcting,” she said.

 

Talking about it
Strobel said that she couldn’t talk about the sinking of the Andrea Doria for a long time because of how it impacted her family. It wasn’t until she reconnected with Simpson that she was able to come to terms with her experience.

Strobel met Simpson, whom she hadn’t known on the boat, in 2001, just after Strobel’s husband, Eugene, had died.

“We met, and she interviewed me, and I was Chapter 4 in her book, ‘Alive on the Andrea Doria,’” Strobel said. “Even my sister-in-law said, ‘You never told me you were on the ship.’”

But it turned out, “The best thing I could have done is talk about it.”

Now, she said, feelings return whenever she reads or hears of a crash or similar tragedy.

“I know something of what they’re going through, and I’m so grateful that I’m here, that I met a wonderful man, had a wonderful marriage and three wonderful children,” she said. “It made me realize how precious and fragile life is and that you should thank God for every day.”

Simpson’s film is a documentary interspersed with reenactments, which were filmed in Italy, Dearborn and Ferndale with some local actors and some professional Italian actors.

The full-length film is available to rent at vimeo.com/ondemand/andreadoriadocufilm1956/243748149.