Terror at Sea
MOST of us were tourists from Italy and other European countries returning from vacation in Greece. We left the port city of Patras on Friday morning, August 27, 1971, and headed northwest across the Ionian and Adriatic Seas toward Ancona, Italy. All day Friday the weather was calm, but our progress was very slow. Sometimes it seemed as if the ship were standing still.
We were on the Greek ferryboat Heleanna, a 561-foot-long converted tanker. Despite its huge size, it was not difficult to see that it was overcrowded, more than a thousand passengers occupying every possible corner, along with some 200 autos. I was one of the numerous passengers who did not have a cabin, and so was making the best of it on the upper deck. Here many were enjoying the caresses of the seawater in the swimming pool, and were trying to add to their suntan.
That night many of us slept on deck, using the deck chairs that were available. That was not unpleasant at first, but toward two in the morning a light wind came up and kept increasing in intensity. The chill began to penetrate. Quite a few moved below to find a more protected place. I took my deck chair and followed. In the dining room many passengers were already sleeping, so I found a place and continued my rest.
Fire Breaks Out
At 5:40 a.m. I was suddenly awakened. People were running to and fro, and I saw light smoke outside. Someone said that there was a fire. Then I heard one of the crew cursing the night watchmen for not noticing it earlier. I thought perhaps someone had thrown down a lighted cigarette and started a small fire. But newspapers later reported that the fire started in the kitchen in the rear of the ship.
I returned to the upper deck where my luggage was. People were moving in every direction. Many already had on life jackets. The smoke was increasing. I could see flames leaping high into the air on the port side at the rear of the ship. Some of the crew were hurrying toward the fire with extinguishers.
As the fire increased, so did the panic. Women were fainting, children crying, and men protesting and threatening. Some youngsters, in order to have proof of the experience, were taking pictures while in their life jackets.
People were running to the lifeboats on each side of the deck. I moved my suitcases, which were near the fire, to another place that seemed safer. I kept with me only a handbag, containing documents and valuables.
I approached one of the lifeboats, which some young crew members were working hard to prepare for use. But nothing seemed to work. It was not possible to lower the boat because the heavy lines used for this purpose were too thickly coated with paint. When this problem was remedied, the capstan bar would not function properly to lower the boat.
Momentary Relief; Greater Panic
Meanwhile it seemed that the crew had succeeded somewhat in controlling the fire with the extinguishers. One could see only a little smoke now. The feeling of relief was strengthened by the brief announcement over the public-address system, the only time that it was used: THERE IS NO DANGER, REMAIN IN YOUR PLACES.
But alas! The facts were to the contrary. The strong wind soon whipped the flames, and about five minutes after the announcement they were again seen climbing high. Fanned by the wind, they advanced furiously. The spectacle was terrifying.
This time the passengers, seized by fear, rushed frantically toward the lifeboats. Most of them were only partially dressed, many clad only in pajamas and nightgowns, since they had been asleep in their cabins. In a few moments they filled the lifeboats. Really they did not know what to do, for they had received no instructions whatsoever.
The crew, however, tried to persuade them to get out of the boats, since they could not be lowered. So there was more confusion and panic as people scrambled out. I saw one lady with a finger completely smashed, running for a doctor.
I could see no rescue ships coming, and I was wondering whether an SOS had been sent. We were not far from the Italian coast, for we had seen its lights earlier in the morning. Later we learned we were only fifteen miles from Torre Canne in southwestern Italy. It seems that an SOS was not sent until 6:40 a.m., about an hour after the fire was detected.
Everywhere I looked, faces were full of desperation and terror. Here was an Italian lady about to faint, comforted and encouraged by her daughters. Over there was a courageous French mother, giving instructions to her teen-age daughters. Farther away, a couple were systematically tying the life jackets on their small children, making sure that everything was OK. Even some of the crew’s faces were as pale as white sheets.
About this time two ships were seen on the horizon heading for us, but still a long distance away. This gave a certain feeling of relief. Many thought the ships would send their lifeboats to pick us up. In fact, the word was spread, from an unknown source, that we should go below to the reception area and be ready to descend to the lifeboats when they arrived. I followed this suggestion and went down too.
The reception area was already packed with people faced toward the two exit doors. Fortunately the blowing wind could penetrate these doors, providing some air to breathe.
People were more calm here, although some were still fainting. All were trying to comfort one another. Everyone was looking toward the open sea with the hope of seeing a rescue boat approaching. We were expecting an announcement over the public-address system as to what to do, but none came.
More than a half hour passed, and had smoke not started coming down the stairs we would probably have been caught like mice in a trap and burned alive. I was near the stairs, and so as soon as I saw the smoke I rushed to the upper deck. I went to the front of the ship, away from the fire. Many people were already there. Dense smoke was coming from behind the commander’s deck.
Until this moment I had been rather optimistic, hoping that even if we were to lose our cars and luggage, we could at least escape with our lives. Now, with the flames just at our backs, there was no longer room for optimism. However, despite the danger, I remained calm.
I saw people leaning over the rail and thought that ladders had been lowered for entering lifeboats. But when I looked, I saw the sea full of people! Instead of ladders, heavy lines had been tied to the railing and people were letting themselves down into the sea. The deck was about fifty feet above the water, and the idea of hanging over empty space and letting myself down, without even knowing whether the ship was stopped or not, almost froze the blood in my veins. I was without a life jacket, and I did not know where the others found theirs.
Looking up to the commander’s deck, I saw a crewman with a life jacket on and I asked him if he would give it to me. He took it off and started to throw it down. But we saw that the strong wind would blow it away, leaving us both without a life jacket. So I thanked him and turned to see if there was another means of help. Then I saw a life ring lying on the deck. Someone told me that this was even better than a life jacket, so I took it.
I hardly had it in my hands when a young man, himself without a life jacket, and with a baby girl in his arms, approached me, saying: “Please give it to us. There are four of us and we have no life jackets.” Standing next to him was his wife with another baby in her arms. I immediately gave it to him.
I felt pity for the plight of this young family. How could they manage with two infants? Just in front of them was a young man getting ready to go down the line. Desperately, the father begged him to take one of his babies. The man unselfishly agreed, and with rare skillfulness and attention started down the line carrying the baby. The spectacle was breathtaking, and I was very glad to learn later that all four of this family were saved.
Into the Sea
Now I had to do something myself. There was no time to lose. The smoke was getting thicker and the wind stronger. I had no other choice; I had to go down into the sea on one of the lines! I gathered all my courage, discarded my raincoat, handbag and shoes, and climbed over the rail. I held tightly to the line; the weight of my body quickly pulling me down. Due to the speed of my descent I sank deep into the water. Immediately I struggled to the surface. I breathed deeply, and tried to keep away from the lines floating alongside the ship.
It was then that I noticed deep wounds on some fingers and the palm of my left hand, but I did not feel any pain. The sea was full of people, and one after another others kept coming down from above. More than once people fell on me, pushing me down underneath the water.
I was trying to get away from the ship, but it was not easy, as big waves were catapulting against it. I felt as if I were in the midst of a gigantic whirlpool that was pulling me under the ship, which stood as a huge, terrifying mountain above our heads. It was terrible! I saw clearly the danger of being drowned at any moment.
To make things worse, there was a lifeboat hanging above our heads. No one knew whether it was descending, or left there halfway down. Then as the fire progressed on board, burning pieces of the boat started falling around us.
As the danger increased, I made an extra effort and swam toward the screw of the ship. Fortunately the ship had stopped. I reached the screw and held on for a few minutes to catch my breath and to rest up a bit. Then I started swimming toward the open sea.
Fight for Survival
Nearby was a woman floating with a life jacket on. I heard her crying “Aiuto, Aiuto” (Help, Help), with a fainting voice. She was a middle-aged woman, and most probably not familiar with the sea. Since we were still near the ship, I told her to try to get away to avoid being hurt by falling burning pieces. I took her hand and swam with the other arm, attempting to make it to the open sea.
The waves were big, some five to eight feet high, and swimming was not easy. Nevertheless, I kept ahold of the lady’s hand. I turned to see how she was doing, but her face seemed lifeless. When I called to her, there was no response. Her eyes were half open, and she had a quiet expression on her face. But I did not know whether she had fainted or was dead.
The sea was getting rougher, making my own situation critical, especially since I was without a life jacket. Also, my dress was weighing me down, but I could not get rid of it. Not far away I saw floating in the water a half-burned rope ladder. I tried to get to it, since it could help me in keeping afloat, but I could not reach it.
I could see that there was nothing to do but to swim toward the two ships that I had seen before going overboard. Now there was also a third ship. I held with one hand to the life jacket of the lady, while I swam facing the heavy seas. I was all by myself, really like a nutshell in the midst of the immense sea, with a woman; evidently dead, at my side.
Certainly this was not encouraging, yet I did not feel alone and lost. Since the beginning of the disaster I had directed my thoughts to our Creator, and asked humbly his help and guidance in this difficult moment of my life. I did not take for granted that he had to save me, but I knew he could do it if that was his will. I called continuously upon his divine name Jehovah, and that gave me strength. I could not help but remember what I had read in the Bible, in Acts chapter 27, about a shipwreck experienced by the apostle Paul while also going to Italy.
The hours were passing and there was no evidence of help. The waves were becoming bigger and more violent. I tried to ride the crest of each wave as it slammed into me. Holding to the life jacket of my dead companion was of some help. But the continuous fight to keep afloat made me very tired; my strength was diminishing.
A helicopter passed overhead a few times, apparently trying to locate survivors. Then there was another one. I saw it far behind me picking up persons. As the helicopter was coming in my direction, I waved my hand so as to be seen.
By this time I had almost reached one of the ships that I had been swimming toward, but the wind was pushing me away to the right. With all my attention focused on the helicopter, I had not seen that there was already a motorboat in the water approaching me. Oh, what a relief! What a joy!
When they reached me, they threw a heavy line for me to grab and climb into the boat. But I could not make it. I was completely exhausted, and I had a cramp in my right leg. So two of the sailors leaned over the side and picked me up with their strong arms. They immediately covered me with a blanket and gave me a drink like cognac that made me vomit the seawater that I had swallowed.
I was completely without strength. But what a feeling of contentment to be seated in that boat, liberated from the arms of a furious sea after more than three hours of struggle!
I felt sorry for my dead companion. The sailors had to abandon her in the sea, since they were hurrying to pick up those that they could find alive. But, had it not been for the help that she unknowingly gave me, I do not know whether I could have survived.
In the boat with me were more survivors that had already been picked up. All were wrapped in blankets, and extreme fatigue could be seen in their faces. The motorboat searched speedily for more survivors, and when it was full it returned to its home base, a Yugoslavian ship named Svoboda, meaning “Liberty.”
The crew were extremely helpful. They placed practically everything aboard at our disposal. More than a hundred of the survivors were already on the Svoboda, including the captain of the Heleanna, his wife, and some other members of the crew.
The picture of the shipwreck survivors was pathetic. True, I could see joy and satisfaction on tired faces, grateful for having survived. Yet there were ones very sick, some burned or with arms broken. And most, like myself, had injured hands from slipping down the lines into the sea. Many were extremely worried, not knowing what had happened to other members of their family.
Very touching was the scene of a young man who found his sister. They fell into each other’s arms, crying, since they did not know what had happened to their mother. The young man had tried to help her, but then his strength gave out. There was a lady who was traveling with her four children. Two of them had survived with her, but the two younger ones were missing. Sitting in a corner, speechless, was an Italian girl who had seen her father drown before her eyes. So there was an atmosphere of deep grief among many.
While the Svoboda steamed toward Bari, Italy, where we arrived about three hours later, we tried to dry our clothes in the warm sun, and get a little rest. We were all thinking of what would have happened had the fire started in the night, or had we been farther from the coast. There might have been no survivors. As it was, over a thousand were rescued, and only about two dozen perished.
Police authorities, journalists, nurses and first-aid cars were ready for us ashore. Those of us in need of medical care were promptly taken to hospitals, where we received attentive and loving care. Everything possible was done to relieve us, for which I am grateful. I will also always remember with gratitude my friends who visited me and impressed those around me in the hospital with their numerous and spontaneous expressions of sincere Christian love.
No longer do I have physical pain from the injuries suffered. And although my material loss was considerable, there is this consolation: I still have what is beyond price, my life.—Contributed.