Posted on Wednesday, November 7, 2012 by Gordon Ghareeb
The morning fog clung to the surface of lower New York Bay. The sound of distant foghorns, seagulls cawing overhead, and buoy bells clanging in the damp air broke the silence. Slowly standing upriver from the Verrazano Narrows came the great white liner. As her apparition loomed larger out of the shrouding mist it became apparent that the ship had endured a beating at the hand of the merciless North Atlantic. Her curved forecastle was buckled back, deck railing and bulwarks were torn away from the bow, window casings held makeshift plywood shutters, and a huge white tarpaulin was strung mournfully across the forward facing expanse of her broad superstructure to shield her visceral wounds from the eyes of the world. With her flag at half-mast, the MICHELANGELO stoically steamed up the Hudson River toward her pier at the foot of West 50th Street.
The voyage from Genoa had commenced nine days earlier under routine circumstances. Leaving the Ponte Andrea Doria Maritime Station at 6:00 pm Thursday, April 7, 1966 Captain Giuseppi Soletti took his command out to sea and headed for Cannes were they arrived later that evening to embark more travelers. After another brief stop at Gibraltar the following morning, the MICHELANGELO was finally out of the Mediterranean and on her way with 775 passengers aboard for the crossing to New York. Life on the transatlantic giant settled into a familiar pattern as the vessel’s 720 crew members looked after their ship and her clientele as she scurried off at 26 knots to cover the 3,200–mile trek across the Western Ocean.
As was usual with the great national liners there was a fair collection of notables onboard. Admiral Ernesto Giurati, President of the Italian Line and former Chief of the Italian Navy, was occupying a suite on the Boat deck as was the Italian Chief of Protocol, Angelo Corrias, who was heading for a vacation in America. Also in first class were German novelist Gunther Grass and his wife, while the creator of the “Archie” comic strip, Bob Montana with his wife and four children, were occupying less pretentious quarters in cabin class. The cruise-like atmosphere of the “Sunny Southern-Route” to New York gave way to that of an ordeal as the weather began to deteriorate on Sunday morning.
By Monday any semblance to a vacation voyage had vanished altogether aboard the heaving MICHELANGELO. Rain battered the ship as her 902-foot length rose and fell over the gale-driven sea. Lifelines had been rigged throughout the labyrinth of public rooms and foyers of the floating palace to enable those passengers still able to sample what amenities the vessel offered in such inclimate circumstances. Furniture and fittings that could be tied-off were secured and all ports were battened down in anticipation of even worse sea conditions indicated from the foreboding harbinger of the weather forecasts. Captain Soletti reduced the Italian Line flagship’s speed to 16 knots and altered course to the southwest to avoid as much of the building storm as possible. Dining room service was finally suspended on Monday evening and passengers with the tenacity to keep any food on their stomachs were offered sandwiches and soup in their cabins.
The MICHELANGELO had been constructed to withstand such a miserable situation. Her 87,000-shaft horsepower turbine-driven twin screws – producing a top speed of 33 knots – held enough reserve to make-up anticipated time lost due to unsavory ocean conditions. Built with her sister ship RAFFAELLO , the two Italian Line vessels were designed without sheer except for the slight upward sweep of the foredecks. They were also the first liners built to meet the new 1960 SOLAS and Method One Fire Regulation standards. Topside weight was saved by the incorporation of aluminum in the superstructure and the distinctive cage-like twin funnels were the results of wind tunnel tests to eliminate boiler soot from wafting down onto the open decks below.
Initial renderings of the MICHELANGELO and RAFFAELLO released in 1959 showed their sleek hulls pierced with five rows of portholes. By the time of their launch in 1962 and 1963 respectively the three lower deck sidelight echelons had been eliminated as an added safety feature. Studies had shown shattering porthole glass and unsecured deadlights responsible for a majority of passenger accidents at sea and the provision of complete air conditioning allowed for the eradication of the traditional offending translucent hazards, despite the convenience they provided.
Each 45,911-gross ton giant could accommodate 1,775 passengers – 535 first class, 550 cabin, and 550 tourist – in a total of 741 cabins all with private shower and toilet. Completed in 1965, many viewed the MICHELANGELO and RAFFAELLO as the epitome of a near-sighted Italian government spending spree that had no place in the jet-dominated passenger world of North Atlantic transportation. While most other transoceanic passenger ships were being phased out of service in deference to the creations of the Boeing and Douglas aircraft manufacturers, it was not always easy to justify two newly-built Atlantic mastodons each boasting 30 public rooms, six swimming pools, a 500-seat theater, drive-in shipboard garage, lido deck infra-red heating, 18 elevators and air-conditioned pet kennels to a tax paying populace still recovering from the Second World War who had footed the bill for their creation and would most likely never even see them at dockside let alone set foot onboard.
Economics aside, the “Mike” and “Ralph” as they became affectionately known in shipping circles, were the culmination of a staunch seafaring nation’s marine technology and art. The sisters were the last liners to be built for the North Atlantic service with three classes of passenger accommodation and in many ways were modernized versions of their famous ancestral pre-war REX and CONTI DI SAVOIA. The modern twins maintained effortlessly the sophistication and panache that the Italian Line had become famous for. The main ballrooms, each two decks high with three huge chandeliers suspended from the tapestried and mirrored clerestory, were well recognized images of postwar civilization at sea. They had grace and a transitional streamlined style that managed to bridge old world elegance with space-age functionalism. They were in short, extensions of a reemerging Italy imbued with ambiance, flair and an understated but anticipated snappiness.
But the works of art adorning the saloons and the inspired interior design of the MICHELANGELO were far from the thoughts of most of the 1,495 people aboard the lurching leviathan as she twisted her way slowly westward 1,500 miles from New York. By Tuesday morning, April 12th, the hurricane had risen to ominous proportions. The 102-foot width of the superliner was tossed back and forth like a toy boat in a bathtub. The ocean exploded against the hull each time the ship headed down into the trough between the great Atlantic rollers and slammed into the oncoming sea as the overtaking bow rose skyward through the water’s crest.
At 10:00 am First Officer Claudio Suttora led a band of seamen topside to lash down a ventilator that had broken loose. Although their objective was secured, Sig. Suttora suffered a broken arm in the process. Passengers clutched their terrified children while bracing themselves along the inside corridor adjacent to the cabin class children’s playroom on Promenade deck where many had come to seek refuge. Occupants of the tourist class lounge aft on the Foyer deck were being thrown from one side of the room to the other along with tables and chairs as the ship’s structure literally whipped back and forth through the maelstrom that had been producing 35-foot seas and 60-knot winds for over five hours.
In the first class lounge some 20 passengers banded together for moral support when one of them, John Stienbach of Chicago, announced that he was going to watch the storm through his Upper deck cabin’s forward window. No one else in the group was interested in further witnessing the fury of the tempest and Mr. Stienbach pulled himself along the lifelines and handrails to the staircase leading two decks up to where his stateroom was located overlooking the liner’s careening bow.
The MICHELANGELO was not the only ship being terrorized by the storm 600 miles southeast of Newfoundland. Five crewmen were swept into the raging sea from the deck of the 411-foot British freighter CHUSCAL some 50 miles to the north and were last seen clinging to floating debris after being washed overboard. The United States Coast Guard cutter BIBB was standing by the 668-foot Liberian tanker ROKOS V bound for New Bruswick when incoming seas smashed all her wheelhouse instruments and flooded the crew’s quarters. One seaman was killed from a skull fracture and four others were injured aboard the Indian freighter INDIAN TRADER. The Liberian freighter SILL was taking on water 75 miles to the west while trying to ride out the storm.
At 10:20 am the MICHELANGELO wrenched sickeningly and dove into another oncoming trough. Before her bow could lift the hull onto the advancing swell a giant 60-foot wall of water slammed head-on into the liner from her forward starboard quarter. The MICHELANGELO shuddered under the impact as the bow and superstructure took the full brunt of the onslaught. Panoramic deck windows burst into the ship spreading flying glass and swirling water throughout her enclosed decks and public rooms. The tourist promenade forward and the starboard first class promenade at once became a tangled mass of deckchairs, broken glass and salt water as the wave roared through the ship. The passengers in the main lounge were flung across the room into a pile of drenched humanity among the flooded carnage of red velvet chairs and glass shards commingled in sea water over a foot deep. The tourist class lounge further aft sustained smashed doors and windows as well as broken furniture strewn among the hysterical and seasick passengers taking shelter there. Seawater and jagged glass now sloshed violently from side to side in the breached saloons as the vessel continued to twist and roll through the combers.
Up on the bridge, 86 feet above the waterline, Staff Captain Claudio Cosulich found himself splayed by flying glass and green water as the mountainous wave engulfed the fore end of the liner and shattered the forward facing navigation windows. The Chief Engineer’s bedroom on Lido deck was wrecked as the Atlantic poured through holes in the superstructure where windows had been. The superstructure below the wheelhouse buckled and caved-in as the force of the falling water deployed its energy against the aluminum bulwarks of the ship ripping open a hole in the bulkhead 45 feet wide and three decks in height. In cabin U-19 – over 70 feet above the waterline – John Steinbach died instantly from traumatic head injuries as the Atlantic tore into the aluminum outer wall of his stateroom.
One level below on the Boat deck Mrs. Werner Berndt was washed out of her cabin and into the stateroom corridor by the wave. She could not navigate the path back into the flooded accommodation to find her husband who had been trying to nap through the storm. Mrs. Brendt was taken to the ship’s hospital by the crewmen who found her. The band of rescuers then returned to the devastated forward area of the Boat deck where Dr. Berndt was discovered unconscious in the cross companionway outside of the decimated cabin and was also taken to the infirmary where he later died from head injuries with Mrs. Berndt at his side.
In the forward crew section of the liner seaman Desiderio Ferrari was slammed against the bulkhead and died of head injuries when the Michelangelo drove into the sea. Another crew member, Marlo Bianchini, suffered a broken femur and skull fracture. Five other crewmen were seriously injured in the crash.
Mrs. Laurence Gross of Wisconsisn was lying on the bed of her Boat deck quarters when the ship went into the wall of ocean. She found herself standing in seawater and surrounded by twisted girders and structural beams: “Everything was smashing around my cabin like a nightmare – water was coming in and I couldn’t get the door opened – I tugged and pulled and yelled for help – in a minute the water was up to my waist.” Rescuing crewmen heard her cries for help and managed to free the woman from the wreckage of what had been her stateroom with axes by chopping a hole through the door of the compartment.
In all, three people were dead and another 50 were injured, 12 of them seriously. Twenty staterooms forward on the Boat and Upper decks were destroyed. The forward superstructure was collapsed and the wheelhouse had lost five windows. Public rooms on the Promenade deck were awash and numerous glass windows were shattered along the starboard side of the vessel. The ship’s stem was bent backwards while metal bulwarks and over 100 feet of railing had been ripped out of the deck and carried into the sea. Bob Montana explained; “The waves looked like apartment buildings. I was worried about how much the ship could take. The ship was not just rolling and pitching – it shuddered. Things jumped, everything fell onto the floor.”
The now drenched band of passengers in the main lounge worked their way down the oscillating staircase to the Purser’s lobby where they wedged themselves into a corner as far away from any glass as they could get and played cards on the floor. Three doctors among the passengers traversed the long Main deck alleyway to the infirmary where they assisted the medical staff of the MICHELANGELO as best as they could under the horrendous circumstances. Dr. Jerry Blaskovich of San Pedro California said, “The working conditions were terrible – we had one patient with an open leg fracture and we were trying to set it but the ship’s motion was so rough he kept rolling off the operating table.”
The great liner continued to claw her way westward through the storm but the worst was over. Slowly the sea began to subside and although the ship’s motion was still miserable it had settled down to the point where dinner could be served in the steamer’s three dining rooms on Tuesday night. The crew mopped up the wreckage and did their best to return the vessel to her normal routine although she was now fully two days behind schedule and would not arrive in New York until Saturday morning, April 16th.
While 60 miles southeast of Nantucket Island on Friday afternoon a United States Coast Guard helicopter flew out to meet the wounded ship. Hovering six feet above the now relatively stable deck, a stretcher was landed and Marlo Bianchini was taken aloft to the chopper who then whisked him away to the United States Public Health Service Hospital in Boston for comprehensive medical treatment.
Outside of New York harbor a press boat carrying 61 reporters and photographers scrambled out to intercept the incoming giant and relate the story of the liner’s agonizing passage to a news hungry public. The MICHELANGELO made her way up the Hudson River and passed the UNITED STATES already at her West 46th Street pier. Crowds thronged the waterfront to see the imprint of the Atlantic’s furry as the battered Italian craft was wrapped into the south side of Pier 90 at 7:15 am. She was met at the wharf by a fleet of ambulances and two coroner wagons. Within five hours the MICHELANGELO was joined at the midtown Manhattan luxury liner docks by four other passenger ships returning from their spring cruises: the BERLIN, OCEANIC, OCEAN MONARCH and VICTORIA. At noon her Italian Line fleet mate LEONARDO DA VINCI pulled into the north side of Pier 90 and disembarked 501 passengers from a relatively pleasant Caribbean vacation.
Captain Soletti told reporters in an onboard conference: “I have been 41 years at sea and it was the most severe I have experienced.” Angelo Corrias reiterated, “They were not waves, they were a mountain range.” The Captain went on with, “A word of praise for my officers and crew. They preformed their duties well. These are not mere words – they acted in the best traditions of the men who go to sea. And I must mention the bravery of my passengers. They followed orders. There was no panic. They have made me proud in a situation over which neither we nor they had any control.”
As soon as the MICHELANGELO was moored a contingent of 115 craftsmen from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Hoboken began working in shifts around the clock to repair the storm damage and make the ship ready for her eastward run which was anticipated to commence in four days. Broken windows and missing railings were replaced while a 3/8 inch steel makeshift patch was installed across the wrecked forward superstructure to enable the ship to return safely home where permanent repairs could be carried out at the builder’s yard in Genoa. The ruined sections of the Boat and Upper decks were sealed off and the ship was made ready for sea as 1,500 passengers embarked Wednesday afternoon, April 20th for the passage east. Of the American shipyard repair in port Captain Soletti remarked that, “They worked beyond expectancy, so quickly without giving us any problems – they just did it.”
At 4:30 pm the QUEEN MARY departed from Pier 92 and set sail for Southampton saluting the MICHELANGELO with three blasts of her steam whistles as the British greyhound proceeded downriver. An hour and a half later the bandaged Italian flagship backed into the Hudson, swung her bow around to starboard, and began the return voyage to her homeland. The crossing was uneventful and landfall was made at Genoa eight days later on Thursday afternoon, April 28th.
The liner was taken to the Molo Giano pier of the Officine Allestimento e Riparazione Navi where the forward superstructure and supporting girders were changed from aluminum to steel (a similar retrofit was given to the RAFFAELLO during her overhaul before the heavy summer season began). Furnishings were renewed and except for the fact that cabins U-16 and U-19 now contained showers in place of the original bathtubs, all signs of the mid-ocean ordeal were gone. On May 8th the MICHELANGELO departed Genoa once more and was back on the scheduled service for which she had been designed.
The MICHELANGELO continued in passenger operation with the RAFFAELLO for another nine years. The end of the fabled Italian Line service came abruptly in 1975 with the halt of the generous government subsidy that had kept the liners financially afloat since their inception. The sisters were finally sold to the Shah of Iran in 1977 for use as barracks ships although there was a rumor to return them to cruise service under the Iranian flag as the REZA SHAH THE GREAT and CYRUS THE GREAT. The political polarization in the Middle East precluded any plans involving international tourism and the liners continued to rot in the harbor at Bandar Abbas. The RAFFAELLO was bombed and sunk by an Iraqi attack on Bushire in 1983. The MICHELANGELO was seriously inspected by Premier Cruise Lines in 1985 for cruise operation out of Florida but it was deemed too costly to put her back into working order. In 1991 the great Italian flagship was towed to Gadani Beach in Pakistan where she was systematically hauled onto the sand, cut up and sold for scrap in a grim undertaking that took six months to complete.
The MICHELANGELO was not the only liner to be damaged by an angry North Atlantic but she certainly is one of the most remembered. The day the weary ship arrived in New York from her mid-ocean struggle two events occurred that signaled essence of the ship’s anachronistic existence. The New York Metropolitan Opera House closed down after 86 years of glamorous operation, and Pan American Airways signed a $525 million contract for 25 Boeing-747 jetliners, then still in the design phase. The grandeur of prewar elegance was being overtaken by the sterile efficiency of the cold war world. In the late 20th Century there was no place for the cash-guzzling sentimentality of life as it had always been. The luxury liner was the biggest sacrifice to technology and one-by-one they were plucked from their ocean routes and lamented to the pages of the history book. The timing of the encounter between the MICHELANGELO and the giant wave survives to remind the world that no matter how advanced the creations of industry, they ultimately are no match against the forces of nature or economics.
Copyright © 2012 Gordon R. Ghareeb