In the chaos of foam of the sea and the wave crests,
suddenly appears in a small clear light, certainly that of a torch
in hand. On it we direct cone reflectors that reveal a life raft
captured between the waves that slam back and bend it, sometimes like a blood sandwich.
Reminiscences and Complications of a Rescue at Sea
As told by Captain LC Lugli and Chief Engineer Anthony Neumann.
Published in Nautica 528, in Italian, April 2006.
(Translated into English from the original document written in Italian.)
The M / V “Celerina”, the Swiss flag, with a cargo of wheat from Manitoba on board and sailing from Port of Churchill (Hudson Bay, Canada), hit the Atlantic direct to Antwerp. The crew is mixed, consisting of Italian, Swiss and Dutch. Commander is Captain LC Lugli of Chiavari. The writer is chief engineer Anthony Neumann.
Entering Rough Seas
In the evening, we are approaching Europe on a heavy sea and strong wind from the northwest caused by a sudden storm. The ship does not even feel immersed due to the rough seas.
The only inconvenience is caused by the wireless operator who remains on the air, preventing me to tune my radio receiver (private) on shortwave broadcast of RAI, which at that time provides results of football matches. I give up.
Called to Emergency
After a few minutes I hear the phone trilling. It is the commander who invited me to go on deck. I obey, and in the darkness I can see on the left side, two shadows which are his wife and daughter of the commander. In the center is the silhouette of the helmsman and to the right, bent on the radar screen, I see the commander himself, who without turning away from its position, informs me that we are in an emergency. A passenger plane, a Super Constellation, is in trouble with three engine fails and is preparing to ditch a plane. We are the ship nearest to the place of intended landing and we are to head towards it at full speed, having reversed course.
A Delicate and Technical Maneuver
On deck the staff is already making sure there are no impediments to the turn. The main motor of vessel must be switched from the light to heavy fuel oil for the planned maneuvers. I ran in the machine room, where I step in to convert to light naphtha (heavy oil heated to more than one hundred degrees to decrease the viscosity. The inclusion of oil too fast could heat it too highly, causing the formation of bubbles of steam that would stop the engine).
The staff of an engineering watch shall ensure that all material on the premises are secured and to prevent the displacement of cargo of wheat grain at the time of the turn.
At the bridge, through the telegraph, I report the “ready to operate” and I get the “forward slowly” command. The slow turning of the hull (the grain is unstable and can move a load in the hold) and follow the rudder angle repeater its evolution. The next “full steam ahead” gradually brought the engine to full speed until you hear the crackling of the safety valves of the cylinders.
Reduce speed to a more cautious pace, and then I go back on deck as the ship begins to vibrate and shake at all the blows of the sea on the bow. Obviously, in the hustle and bustle of the change of direction, all the staff of the ship came down to know what was going on.
The ship is now laboriously advancing, and the bow plunges with violence on the hollows between wave and wave to break in a thousand spouts, then spray on the windows of the bridge.
The captain tells me that the Super Constellation was ditched and that the rescue plane, after illuminated with the light signals and parachute area heads towards us. The Celerina” has all the lights on to help detect, which comes shortly after, when a light signal suddenly reveals to us the lights of the aircraft via emergency that goes round over our ship and then we put the bow to direct us to the place where we will find the “Constellation”.
Go down again in the cab to lower the engine speed and eventually “forward slowly.” Meanwhile, the Commander begins the search for survivors on the stretch of sea over which the rescue plane focused and launches other flares. Soon in the area comes to his aid another air rescue service. The signal lights on parachutes create a curtain of purple fog within which it is difficult to see anything. At the end we turn on the reflector installed on board ships traveling at night in order to avoid the Hudson Bay ice shelves or floating blocks of ice that could damage the propeller.
In the chaos of foam of the sea and the wave crests, suddenly appears in a small clear light, certainly that of a torch in hand. On it we direct cone reflectors that reveal a life raft captured between the waves that slam back, and bend it, sometimes like a blood sandwich.
It proves very difficult to approach the task in the sea and wind conditions that prohibit even the setting of one of our lifeboats. We try, but it is removed at the first attempt by a gust of wind. Commander Lugli tells us then how to put on a beam of waves along side of “Celerina” with the starboard side. That manages to pull us over to the passing raft, which, finally, is attached by cables to the side of the ship near the number three cargo hold, where they were prepared to “Japanese” (this features large mesh networks of thick cable that normally are used to hoist loads in bags on board). I extend the “standstill,” and go back on deck. The raft rose and fell depending on the movements of the sea.
The survivors were unable to climb on board alone, some for fear of choosing the wrong time for grabs to the networks, some derived from physical exhaustion for hours spent in the narrow space (the life raft designed to retain up to 25 people but they contained 51), tossed each other.
Among other hardships, the raft had capsized when it was lowered into the water, further restricting the space available. A strong Swiss carpenter was able to take root in the counter helping the survivors of the raft and accompanying them to get out to the many hands of the crew reached out to welcome them, laid them finally on the strength of the deck of “Celerina”. Most of them could not stand up to that change, for which, supported by our sailors, were accompanied in the cabins.
The First Survivors
We learned from the first survivors recovered they were all military personnel serving in the U.S. and Germany, many of them belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division from the U.S.
There were others too. One of the survivors from the raft, a woman, slumped to the ground immediately after setting foot on board. She was examined by a military doctor, who had been trained and made available to us. The woman was dead. She was the wife of an aviation officer and died on the raft.
The doctor took care of some wounded, among whom was the commander of the aircraft, made conspicuous by the placement of a bandage on his head. He went up on deck, refusing to lie down in one of the cabins remaining on the bridge.
As we learned later, the “Super Constellation,” at the time of the impact on the sea, a whole row of seats had separated from the fuselage hurling forward with unfortunate occupants. At the time of the disaster, there were 76 people on the plane including the commander, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, three hostesses and 70 passengers. We recovered on “Celerina” 51 survivors, including the commander, the navigator and a flight attendant. Of these, a woman and a man died from the hardships inside the raft, and a man died of internal injuries suffered after he boarded the ship.
One of the survivors was as a reporter for the U.S. Army newspaper “Stars and Stripes”. I took him into my cabin already occupied by the colonel of aviation, who had lost his wife, who had settled on the couch in my office. The journalist (Master Sergeant Dan Foley) was freed immediately of kerosene soaked clothes. The kerosene came out from a wing of the Constellation that detached from the aircraft at impact and had spilled its fuel that penetrated into the life raft. I gave him my spare set of khaki. He then asked me to accompany him to the radio operator so he could make contact with his newspaper. But the radio station we found, had just received a request via radiotelephone by the Air Rescue Center to send a list of names of survivors, the wounded and the dead.
The captain turned to me, the only one on board who spoke more or less clearly in English, and asked me to take inventory. But I found it difficult to write the names. The lively journalist offered to help me out, so we started the tour of all rooms of the ship where the survivors were lying, exhausted by the experience suffered. It was not easy to wake up and extract the names correctly. It took over an hour.
I had just finished the task that the commander had to tell me that he had received permission to leave the area of the accident, on which now dozens of merchant ships maneuvering that occurred during the night in search of any survivors (only 6 bodies were recovered). We had an appointment at 10:00 that morning in a given area to meet with a Canadian aircraft carrier, the “Bonaventure”, on which we transferred five wounded and two dead castaways.
Approaching the Bonaventure
Around the time fixed, the Commander Lugli called me back on the bridge. We sailed next to this aircraft carrier and a string of flags fluttered. It was a sailor alphabet code whose meaning was absolutely incomprehensible to us.
From aircraft carriers rose in the air a helicopter that took a position on the aft cargo hold with the whirling propeller blades a few meters from the tree from the load. The night of the storm wind had eased but remained a confused sea on which the ship swung in all directions along with the trees. The task of the pilot was not the easiest. We could see it from the deck, while tense, maneuvered to keep a safe distance from the poles. A winch from the side of the helicopter lowered until it touches the deck. A crew member placed a stretcher containing a an injured passenger, an injured woman. Then it was hoisted back to the opening of the helicopter, where other hands took over. The operation of the stretcher was repeated again with the transport of a sergeant.
The other three survivors, less serious, were, one by one, connected by the operator and raised with him on the helicopter, which dropped before leaving the ship boxes with items of comfort for those who remained recovered on board. The “Celerina” had a crew of 34 persons. Adding 48 more people had already created a significant void in the galley on board.
Then we resumed our way to Antwerp. But a far more serious problem was to appear later in the day.
Burns Cause Rumors of Fire on the Ship
Some of the survivors began to complain of having painful spasms (cramps) in the lower limbs, accompanied by redness of the skin. Their number increased rapidly and so the increase in spasms. The air force doctor (who’s wife was also among those affected), along with the ship’s captain, decided to inform the British Relief Center. Burns on the lower limbs were caused by the long stay under water between the high-octane gasoline that was in the raft due to the rupture of a wing of the plane upon impact.
The Rescue Center suggested the hospitalization of severe cases, establishing the time to do so the next morning near the city of Cork, in Ireland. Again via helicopter from ship to hospital.
The night that followed was perhaps the worst, with the complaints of burns that rose from all the cabins and no one could bring them relief.
In the exchange of messages between ship and rescue center, someone misunderstood and spread the story to news agencies that were monitoring the rescue that the “Celerina” had reported cases of burn victims on board and from there, with imagination throughout journalism, there spread news of a fire on board ” Celerina .” During the night, the radio operator on board sent reports of denials. In Italy, however, the next morning, even the “Corriere della Sera” and “Nineteenth Century” came out with reports of a fire.
These false reports were alarming to the families of those aboard.
Off the Coast of Ireland
The quiet waters off the coast of Cork took on less dramatic circumstances of the previous day. Two RAF planes had to intervene to remove two small private plane loads of reporters who wanted to film the scene, disrupting the comings and goings of helicopters. Seventeen survivors were transferred. On board the “Celerina” there remained 27 survivors.
The commander of the crashed aircraft and the military doctor wanted to remain on board for any other assistance. There were few remaining supplies and crates of beer consumed by the robust paratroopers.
Another day on the English Channel there was a near collision with two vessels filled with journalists. They were repelled by force with the jets of fire hydrants on board the “Celerina”. The night at anchor off waiting for the tide of Antwerp and then the grand entrance and moving in the port channel with sirens and flags of all vessels moored on the banks that made the sailor’s tribute to the action taken.