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.