The Folly of Trusting Technology

Monday, June 25, 2012

On a foggy night in July 1956, two passenger liners used the same shipping channel to head in opposite directions.* The Andrea Doria was right where it should be, with its captain on the bridge and its foghorn blowing every two minutes. It probably should have been traveling at a slower speed as it sailed through the fog, but radar was supposed to compensate for the loss of visibility.

The Stockholm was heading east in the westbound channel rather than using the eastbound channel twenty miles south. The westbound channel was shorter and faster, and the Stockholm's captain claimed it crossed the northbound and southbound lanes at a safer point. His action was permissible because use of the designated channels was recommended but not required. After setting a course, the captain retired to his cabin, leaving an inexperienced third officer on watch.

The captain and crew of the Andrea Doria tracked an oncoming ship on radar and determined that the two ships would pass starboard to starboard (right side to right side) at a close but safe distance. The third officer on the Stockholm also tracked an oncoming ship on radar and determined that the two ships would pass port to port (left side to left side) at a close but safe distance. It was only when the two ships were near enough to see each other through the fog that they realized they were on a collision course.

The Stockholm was significantly smaller than the Andrea Doria, but its steel-reinforced bow was made to slice through the ice floes of the North Atlantic. It also proved effective at slicing up the Andrea Doria. It didn't go all the way through, but it cut open a number of first class and tourist class cabins and sent their occupants to a watery grave.

Forty-four Andrea Doria passengers died from the collision, a child died from a rescue-related injury, a male passenger died from a heart attack while resting on a rescue ship, and a woman died six months later from injuries incurred during the disaster. The death toll on the Stockholm was five--all crew members who were in their quarters at the bow at the time of the accident.

But the number of survivors was the bigger story. In an amazing rescue effort involving several Coast Guard, Navy, and commercial boats as well as a French ocean liner that turned around to assist, almost 1,700 people were saved in the eleven hours before the Andrea Doria sank to the bottom of the ocean. And in an ironic twist, the crew of the wounded but still seaworthy Stockholm rescued many of them.

The pictures are incredible, but they are not in the public domain yet.** Although I might be able to claim fair use, I'd rather play it safe and refer you to the Internet to find them for yourselves. Or you can see them in Richard Goldstein's book, Desperate Hours.

The shipping companies and the insurer settled the case before it went to trial, so there was no formal finding of fault. From the sources I read, I think it was a combination of circumstances and human error.

But the greatest contributing factor may have been over reliance on technology. Either the radar was wrong or the crew misread it. The Titanic sank because everyone thought it was unsinkable, and the Andrea Doria sank because crew members on the two ships thought radar was infallible.

It isn't safe to put too much faith in technology.


* If you want more information, I recommend Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria, by Richard Goldstein and Alive on the Andrea Doria: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History, by Pierette Dominica Simpson, who is one of the survivors. It is easier to follow the chain of events if you read Desperate Hours first.

** The picture at the head of this post was not taken on the Andrea Doria, but it is probably typical of the tourist class cabins of the time. The photo shows me with my mother and brothers on the Nova Scotia as we crossed the Atlantic Ocean heading to England (on our way to the Middle East) in September 1957, just over a year after the Andrea Doria sank.

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