The Last Voyage of the Lakonia – Deadly Christmas Cruise

Forty seven years ago, passengers on the cruise ship Laconia were promised  ”a marvelous Christmas cruise to sunny Madeira and the Canary Islands.”   The brochure read –  ”Have your holiday with all risk eliminated. Enjoy a holiday you will remember for the rest of your life.”    When the fire broke out on December 22, 1963,  the promise of a risk-free holiday proved tragically ironic, though the promise of a unforgettable holiday, no doubt, became regrettably too true.   One hundred twenty eight 128 people died in the Lakonia fire and its aftermath, of which 95 were passengers and 33 were crew members.  Given the recent news that the CO2 firefighting system on the Carnival Splendor failed during the fire aboard the ship in November, the story of the Lakonia remains timely.  Notably, AMVER, which we posted about recently, coordinated the rescue by directing five merchant ships to the burning ship.  The first ship arrived within four hours of the first distress call.   As reported by Time magazine on January 3, 1963:

High Seas: The Last Voyage of the Lakonia

Two nights before Christmas, the ship was in a festive mood. In the main lounge, Captain Zarbis was judging costumed contestants at a Tramps’ Ball; first prize—a bottle of white wine—had just been awarded to a 13-year-old girl in beatnik tights when alarm bells started to ring. In the ship’s cinema, where Bob Hope was cavorting on the screen with Anita Ekberg in Call Me Bwana, the audience at first thought that the ringing bells were part of the film’s plot. But the smell of smoke soon convinced them that something was amiss. Other passengers who had gone to bed early were not yet fully aware of the danger. No fire instructions were issued over the loudspeaker, and the alarm bells stopped ringing so quickly that many people thought it was only a drill.

At 12:22, shortly after Captain Zarbis gave the order to abandon ship, the last mayday message was flashed: “S O S from Lakonia. Last time. I cannot stay any more in the wireless cabin. We are leaving the ship. Please help immediately.”

More than 3,000 miles away, the distress signals were picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard station. The Lakonia’s position was immediately fed into an AMVER (Atlantic Merchant Vessel Report) computer, which plots the location, course and speed—and records such information as whether a doctor is on board—of some 850 merchant ships in the North Atlantic. Within moments, the computer’s memory drums typed out the names of five vessels within 100 miles of the Lakonia, and urgent messages were flashed to them to proceed to the stricken liner. The five were the Argentine passenger liner Salfa, the Belgian merchant ship Charlesville, the British freighters Montcalm and Stratheden, and the Brazilian freighter Rio Grande. Some were already on the way, having picked up the S O S on their own radios. The R.A.F. at Gibraltar hurriedly organized a flight of rescue planes.

Screams in the Air. At Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores, the U.S.’s 57th Air Rescue Squadron also swung into action. Shortly after the Lakonia’s last message was received, four C-54 rescue planes swung out over the Atlantic toward the flaming vessel, 3 hr. 30 min. flying time away. The planes were loaded with 42 life rafts that could carry 600 persons, 400 blankets, food and survival packages, flares of 300,000 candlepower, and six paramedics who could jump into the ocean to help passengers, if necessary.

On board the Lakonia, the nightmare was all too real. With the loudspeaker system not operating, there was near-anarchy on deck. Officers issued contradictory instructions, and crewmen milled around unsure of what to do. Screams filled the air in half a dozen different languages. Unable to comprehend the crew’s cries, passengers took charge of small groups and tried to lead them through the thick smoke to their boat stations. Pressed against the rail were scores of passengers in every variety of dress—nightgowns, pajamas, tramp costumes and evening clothes.

The water was 64°, but many of the children and the elderly passengers were soon dead nevertheless. As dawn broke, the rescue fleet, now swollen to some 20 vessels, looked out on a vast scene of lifeboat debris and bobbing bodies. Despite the calm seas, it was not easy to pick them up. The rafts and lifeboats kept banging into the windward side of the waiting merchantmen; hour after hour the arduous task continued, until at last all the living and dead were hauled aboard. On the Salta, which picked up 478 people from the sea, cognac and blankets were passed out to the shivering survivors, but the crush was so great that soon there was not enough of either to go around. The British aircraft carrier Centaur picked up 55 bodies, then dispatched a helicopter to the Lakonia to see if anyone was still on board; from the vessel, a British officer reported that the liner was a burnt-out hulk. As the rescue ships sped from the scene toward the port of Funchal in Madeira, the ruined liner was taken into tow by the Norwegian salvage tug Herkules.

Thanks to James Walker at CruiseLaw for tweeting about the Lakonia tragedy.

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18 Responses to The Last Voyage of the Lakonia – Deadly Christmas Cruise

  1. This is an excellent reminder of the risks of seagoing. It should be sent to the propaganda – oh Marketing – Departments of ALL Cruise Lines, the CLIA, USCG Marine Safety Offices and NTSB. It is beyond time to a standard for correct and truthful advertising in the cruise industry. Disasters are a series of small incidents which combine and grow to the major event. We are seeing a very troublesome series of incidents in vessels increasing in size, complexity and the number of persons on board, now nearing 5000. Crew standards are NOT improving at the same rate according. Presently serving Officers who are greatly concerned and are contacting me more and more. NAUTICAL LOG is going to take a highly active role and will be posting on this subject during the coming year of 2011. Speculation is not a bad thing when applied logically and aimed at preventing these incidents. Sadly one fears that the major incident is about to happen most likely on one of these floating resorts with 4000-5000 persons aboard.
    Good Watch.

  2. kate jackson says:

    My grandparents survived this tragedy despite the fact that they floated around in life jackets for hours before they were rescued. The few lifeboats available were immediately picked up by the Greek crew who deserted the scene immediately. The fire started in the kitchen,and passengers were informed quite a long time after the fire began. There were many elderly people on board since it was a winter cruise, and many children since it was the Christmas holidays. Many people were rescued too late and died in the freezing water. My father flew out from London to Madeira, thankful that his parents had survived although they were very ill and in a hospital in Funchal. A lawsuit ensued for many years afterwards as surviving passengers and relatives of those who died fought for compensation. Most of the elderly passengers who survived, including my grandparents, continued to have health problems til the end of their lives.

  3. BRYAN ILEY says:

    Sometime about 1967 – 68 I met a man and his wife who were aboard the Lakonia on that fateful cruise.
    They recounted that they met a survivor of the Titanic sinking who was also
    on the Lakonia and who ended up in the same Lakonia lifeboat as they.
    This gentleman was a child in 1912 and is understood to have participated in the BBC 1962 commemorative programme featuring Titanic survivors.
    I have endevoured to find some record of a Titanic survivor being on the Lakonia but without success and I wonder whether anyone else has heard anything of this incredible coincidence.

  4. Christine Watson says:

    I started working in Thos Cook in Berkeley Street in 1964 as a junior shorthand-typist. At that time travellers cheques were very popular as credit/debit cards were non-existent. My office dealt with those cheques belonging to both the survivors and deceased of this tragedy. I can remember each cheque being cellophaned for handling. The serial numbers were checked for ownership and then I helped prepare correspondence to customers and solicitors. Reading this article brought back many memories.

  5. janet blinkhorn says:

    there were quite a few of my family on the Lakonia that day my auntie was never found. I have been searching for a passenger list but upto now have never found one. thanks for information. JAN

  6. S gothard says:

    My Uncle was on the Lakonia. He was born in the North East of England. He met and married a Guernsey girl and they ran a smalll hotel in Guernsey established by her father. As they were in the hotel nudiness holidays were taken off season, he was travelling alone his body was washed ashore, I cannot remember where.

  7. Andrew Dunn says:

    Fascinating to still read comments about this disaster as recently as just a few weeks ago.
    My grandparents were aboard and survived and my only recollections as a seven year old were of a photographer and journalist arriving at my parents house in Glasgow to do an article with my father about his parents being found safe and well and taken to Madeira to recuperate.
    Some years later we found a diary my grandfather had kept of the cruise where he alleged that many of the crew fended for themselves and had no thought at all for the passengers.

  8. Norman Geller says:

    I remember that night very clearly, I was sitting at the captains table at the tramps ball with my family when an officer came to the table to report the problem, we knew there was a problem as smoke was drifting in as he came through the door.
    I was then 21 years old and on holiday with my parents ,sister & aunt. We were the only large party to survive intact!
    My father ( ex regimental sgt major& Dunkirk surviver) said ” give me a hand and we will be fine – this lot haven’t a clue” He insisted on making sure that all the woman were on the lifeboats first.

    He and I left the ship on the last lifeboat when the flames were leaping 50 feet or more into the sky. He gave away our life jackets as we could swim , my mother gave him a hard time about this for years.

    The life boat my mother sister, & aunt was on drifted under the bilge pumps and filled with water,my sister was hit with an oar in the confusion and was knocked out. There is no doubt that she would have drowned if my mother & aunt hadn’t held her head out of the water until she recovered her senses.

    Our boat had the wireless, however the W /O forgot to bring the morse key! We also had an engine, however the officer in charge was useless , he did not stop crying. My father threatened to kick him in the nuts at one stage as he kept holding on to him and sobbing.

    The 3-4 crew members did nothing to assist, the german stewards and the passengers on the other hand were great. I rowed most of the night with one of the stewards sharing an oar , my father was also rowing with another steward, some of the row locks were missing so we could not use all the oars. If you we’re there that night you may remember the parachute flares that were sent up ( that was me) I broke open the flair locker and thankfully the instructions were in English. I do believe that there were no other flares sent up that night.

    We were amazed when we could suddenly see in the light of the flares dozens of people in the water, however we could not get to them – I think about that to this day – most of those people must have died that night!

    At daylight we were picked up by the Salta, suddenly the crew came to life and scrambled up the ladders ahead of the passengers pThe officers of the Salta had to restrain their crew who wanted to throw them off the ship. I heard one shouting ” real sailors don’t behave like that.

    I remember being given cognac and a blanket by a nun who also stuck a lighted cigarette in my mouth! ( I was no t a smoker – but it seemed impolite not to accept it).

    The Salta was taking immigrants to South America, the passengers were not wealthy People ,but they and the crew .were so generous we had the best possible treatment they could under the circumstances.

    My mother’s boat was picked up several hours later, she. Yelled out “get the kettle on” as she was being pulled up – as tough as nails , her sense of humour still intact.

    We circled the area for a two days,picking up survivors and bodies, we ended up in Madeira. We were taken to Reid’s Hotel and stayed there for a few days including New Years Eve, t he party at Reid’s was bizarre – we were excused evening dress – Sandy Gaul the ITN reporter who was there was three sheets to the wind and kept us amused by using the rolls of film as party streamers!

    Almost 50 years have passed since the incident now and this is the 1st time I have written about it, I have all the. Press cuttings and around Christmas time each year I look a t them and count our blessings.

    Norman Geller

  9. David Thomas - 10/01/2013 says:

    I was crew member of SS Stratheden which steamed to help the rescue of
    passengers but we understood that wrong ships position was provided, hence we arrived after all other vessels. The public room I worked in was stripped of all furniture and replaced with camp-beds. Our grand piano we were given to believe would be used as operating table (we had a surgeon on-board), but non of this was used due to the late arrival. Just a few seriously injured were
    taken aboard.

  10. Julia Venables says:

    My Grandad was on the Lakonia. He was picked up from the water. He was 75 years old. He had a knee injury and always walked with a limp after that. I was 9 years old at the time and i always remember my father saying they found out he was still alive on Christmas Day.

  11. Derrick Reid says:

    I was on board HMS Centaur. We had just left Portsmouth for our deployment to the Far East when the engine speed picked up and we went to join the rescue. When we arrived at the scene the Laconia was still on fire and sadly we were tasked with collecting and preparing the bodies recovered for delivery to Gibraltar on Christmas Day. Our crew responsible for preparing the bodies were issued with an extra rum ration to help them in the task.
    For our humanitarian assistance, the Centaur, having missed the transit convoy through the Suez was allowed to transit on her own

  12. Cynthia Nicholas (nee Neary) says:

    My father ,step mother ,uncle and aunt were passengers on the Lakonia and were rescued by the Montcalm,except my uncle who drowned and I believe is buried in Gibraltar,but this has never been confirmed. Can anyone confirm this?

  13. Timothy Leigh says:

    I was on the Lakonia aged 6 with my older brother Stuart and my parents Valerie and Alan. Thank god we all survived due to the ability of my father to find his way from our cabin to the top deck in total darkness due to the acrid thick smoke. He says that he had some sort of premonition and had memorised the route. We all held hands and felt our way. My father always maintained that it was he who raised the alarm as he was playing bridge late into the night and smelled the smoke. After reaching the top deck, I have memories of the lifeboat lowering mechanisms being seized, rusty and non-functioning. We had to cut the supporting chains at both ends of the lifeboat with axes, hoping that they would snap at the same time. I understand that some did not, and the lifeboat occupants were tipped into the sea. We spent many hours in the lifeboat. I was constantly seasick over my father before we were eventually picked up by the Montcalm. I remember holding onto the shoulders of a sailor who climbed up the net onto the rescue boat. We were taken to Casablanca from where we flew home the following day after spending the night in a local hotel. I will never forget that particular christmas and I have never been on a boat cruise since.

  14. David Philip Hollman says:

    I was the Chief Engine Room Artificer of the arresting gear crew on board HMS Centaur and was working on the flight deck as the dead were collected by our helicopters and sea boats. I can assuire relatives and survivors that every care was taken, as far as the circumstances allowed and the dead were treated with respect. All were medically examined, photographed and dental notes were made to assist later identification. We had no body bags: all were sewn in blankets and stored in a cooled aviation weapons magazine. They were landed in Gibraltar on Christmas Day and I believe most were buried there. The effect on Centaur’s ships company seeing the dead men, women and children, was quite devastating. We had left our own wives and children a week before Christmas to get to our duty station, East of Suez, to allow HMS Ark Royal (I think) to get home for their families. Although I left the Royal Navy in 1972 and have lived 41 years in New Zealand that episode left me with lasting, not very pleasant memories. My best wishes to those attending the 50th anniversary memorial ceremonies in Gibraltar later in December.

  15. Gordon Holme says:

    I was also on board H.M.S.Centaur, I was 17 years of age and nearly 50 years on the events are still very much in my mind.
    About 6 years ago I started searching for information relating to where the victims where actually buried, and at that time there was very little information available on the internet.
    I eventually started to get help from Andalucia.com, I am a member of the forum and some of the members actually worked in Gibraltar so they where able to assist me.
    So several years have now passed since I started my quest, and I will be attending the ceremony in Gibraltar on Friday 6th December, 2013, almost 50 years after the tragedy, where a plaque will be unveiled on that day to remember that tragic time.
    There is much information available about the T.S.M.S Lakonia tragedy at Andalucia.com, and I can be also contacted there, if anyone requires further information.
    Gordon Holme

  16. Yesterday 25th. November 2013, I spoke with Patrick Gleeson of Limerick, Ireland. Pat was the Radio Officer of the m/t. “Montcalm” and his story was published in ” The Radio Officer Story 1900-2000 – The Long Silence falls………………. Pat is a true gentleman and now in retirement lives with his wife and family in Limerick. Pat done an excellent job as a Marconiman — Christmas 1963. All Remembered 50 years on. Colman

  17. Jill Tovey says:

    The evening before the 50th anniversary of this disaster I’m feeling quite emotional but incredibly lucky that my family of six all survived. My mother, grandmother, sister, brother and I were in one of the fortunate lifeboats (that stayed upright) for 8 and a half hours and were picked up by the Salta. I was 13 at the time. We were taken to Madeira and stayed at Reid’s Hotel. My father swam for over 4 hours. We had the most wonderful present on Christmas Day when we discovered he was still alive.

    My mother wrote an interesting 8 page account of the disaster and she would be happy to share it with anyone who would like to read it. I can be contacted at jillt2424@mail.com .

    Jill Tovey
    Somerset

  18. Gena Froggatt says:

    I too had relatives aboard but this disaster happened seven years before I was born. My great uncle Roy Wilkinson and his wife, Elizabeth (known as Bish) were survivors but their two young boys, aged around six and eight sadly were not. They were asleep in their cabin whilst their parents dined. Nobody could get to them. It’s heartbreaking and I only found out as my son came home having been taught about this Christmas Cruise, with this year, 2013 being the fiftieth commemorative anniversary of the disaster. I knew an incident at sea had involved my family but assumed it was much longer ago than 1963 and the family had never mentioned christmastime. So devastating to find out. Earlier this month, a group of people related to the disaster met up in Gibraltar and ensured a plaque was placed to commemorate those list and celebrate those who survived.
    Sadly I feel now that I will feel affected every 22nd December. It’s something I wish I had known earlier in my life when I could maybe have spoken to my great uncle Roy if he felt able to discuss it.

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