M/S Celerina rescues 48 survivors of airplane catastrophe
“SOS from Valentia radio = following from Shannon Airport . . . at 2220 GMT the Super Constellation Flying Tiger N6923C began with preparations for ditching at 54 North 24 West at 2212 one motor still working 76 persons on board. All ships in the area please prepare for search and rescue End 232220+” (232220 means: 23 September at 22.20 Greenwich Mean Time. With + one hour for Swiss time).
From Strom & See [“Current & Sea” periodical]
October 1962 (pg 60)
German to English Translation by
Introduction by the editor of Strom & See
On the night of the 23rd to the 24th of September  a tragedy played itself out on the North Atlantic, a tragedy that filled the columns of the world press for days. The ocean-going Swiss ship Celerina sped its way to the aid of an airplane with 76 passengers (and crew) on board that had been forced to ditch because of engine failure. In an impressive operation the Celerina managed to rescue 48 of the passengers. The success of the first phase of the rescue operation was principally thanks to the Celerina’s radio operator. We’ve now been able to contact him to hear his story.
Thirty-year-old Georg Stöckli was born in Pfeffingen [Switzerland] and lives in Aisch, near Basel. When he finished school he had already completed a course as wireless radio operator, but did not think of this as an occupation for him. He began work as a radio technician, but then began to listen quite a bit to wireless radio messages broadcast from Swiss ships at sea (this was not really a surprise as the Hans Jurt, the town clerk in Aisch, was a former radioman himself who had sailed the seven seas on Swiss ships). Finally he decided to apply to the school of navigation in Bremen, and later in Bern in 1956 passed his radioman examination. After that he sailed on board the “Cristallina,” the “Carona” and the “Regina,” from the Swiss Shipyards in Bern, later aboard the “St.Cergue” and the “Nyon” from the Swiss-Atlantic Company in Lausanne. After this he returned to Aisch to live, but after a call from the shipyards, he sailed again, this time on the “Celerina.”
Georg Stöckli tells us in his own words, how the grim news of the disaster reached him and how the ship acquitted itself in the following hours. Our author, together with the entire crew, deserves a hearty thanks; the ship did the Swiss flag great honor on the high seas. A.B.
Radio operator Stöckli’s story:
It was Sunday, the 23rd of September 1962. The M/S “Celerina” was on the return journey from Port Churchill in Canada to Antwerp with 12,000 tons of grain. In the last few days we had had two powerful storms, not unusual for the mid-Atlantic, and looked forward to the better weather that had been forecast. I had done my last watch from 20.00 to 22.00 (8 to 10 pm) GMT. From the receiver I could hear the usual noise of radio traffic from countless ships as well as shore stations, and I was just about to start work on my wage and equipment statements, as I planned to leave the ship in Antwerp.
Suddenly, at 21.20 GMT, I heard the emergency signal “XXX” from Valentia Radio on the Irish coast. Although the numbers were very clear, there was considerable interference from other stations.
“XXX” from Valentia Radio = we have received the following from Shannon Airport – at 21.17 we have an alert …Last position 54.05 North 30.30 West at 20.49 GMT . . . 167 knots . . . 76 RES … Motors 1 and 3 failed End 2321172 = Repeat the position: N6923C over 54 North 30 West North 20 West 5000 54.05 North 30.30 West Tas 167 Sob 76+
From this disturbed signal I could determine with certainty the following: The Super Constellation “Flying Tiger” out of Gander in Newfoundland and underway to Europe had had an engine failure and was at 54.05 North 30.30 West; she had 76 persons on board and was flying at a speed of 167 knots at a height of 5000 feet, and now was attempting fly over 54 North 30 West, 53 North 20 West, presumably to come down near the weather ship 4YAJ (“Juliet”). Such messages occur over the North Atlantic relatively frequently and the outcome is most often a search by a number of ships for several days, with the best one can expect being finding oil spots on the water.
After a comparison on the sea chart with the message, the captain gave me our position from 21.00 GMT to send to Valentia radio at Shannon Airport. Unfortunately it took a while to get through to Valentia radio, as there was constantly more radio traffic on the emergency frequency as well as considerable atmospheric interference. After a time I achieved contact with the weather ship “Juliet,” which in addition to her weather duty, served also as an emergency station for air traffic, and thus was fitted with a direct telephone connection to Shannon Airport. I gave the “Juliet” our position to pass on to Valentia.
For most ships, radio duty is over at 22.00 GMT and the automatic alarm is switched on. Should an emergency occur during this time when the radio station is not manned, the signal will be a special alarm signal which sets off the automatic alarm on the receiving ship on the bridge as well as in the radio cabin, a bell begins to ring. You know then that someone is in need, the receiver is immediately turned on, and the message that was sent two minutes after the alarm signal can be heard.
In our case we knew for sure that the airplane was coming nearer to us and that in the case of a rescue operation the “Celerina” had a duty to participate immediately. So I stayed by the receiver, waiting for further messages. At 22.18 GMT I received the alarm signal, and two minutes later the following was sent from Valentia radio:
SOS Raises The Alert – Rise to Action
“SOS from Valentia radio = following from Shannon Airport . . . at 2220 GMT the Superconstellation Flying Tiger N6923C began with preparations for ditching at 54 North 24 West at 2212 one motor still working 76 persons on board. All ships in the area please prepare for search and rescue End 232220+” (232220 means: 23 September at 22.20 Greenwich Mean Time. With + one hour for Swiss time).
At 22.26 GMT I received the following radio message from the weather ship “Juliet”: “From Shannon Airport to M/S “Celerina” = Please steer for 54.10 North 24.05 West, where the airplane has already ditched +.”
I brought this message, as I had all the others, direct to the captain in the chart room, where it was quickly determined that we were only 64 sea miles (circa 120 km. [75 miles]) from the crash position. We could get there in about 5 hours. The captain altered course immediately and steered as fast as possible toward the position we had been given. A confirming radio message was sent off to Shannon airport via the “Juliet” in order that the search planes could be informed.
The pilot of the Super Constellation, John D. Murray, told me after his rescue that he had tried with just two engines to reach Shannon, but then had doubts that he could make it. Then he decided to fly toward the weather ship “Juliet” which lay at the halfway point and perhaps set down there. As the third engine began spitting, he saw he had no other choice than to set down as best he could and as soon as possible.
While Murray was still in telephone contact with Shannon airport, another airplane, flying the same route in the other direction towards Gander, made contact and said that he had immediately changed course and was flying in their direction in order to observe the ditching of the Super Constellation. He was shortly at their position, fixed the position of the ditched airplane and radioed it to Shannon, which in turn sent it on via Valentia radio to the “Juliet” and other ship traffic.
Light-buoys and emergency flares light ocean
Subsequently the airplane circled for several hours above the crash site, threw out light-buoys and gave red and white light signals to draw the attention of approaching ships. At the same time the search planes took off from Shannon airport, including a water plane, to lead the rescue operation, search the sea and mark any life rafts that were spotted. The ocean was still very churned up from the last storm and waves were as high as 20 feet. In these conditions there was no chance that the water plane could land.
In the meantime other nearby ships had made contact, given their positions and indicated that they were on their way as fast as possible. An English ship, the “Manchester Progress” contacted me as it neared the site and asked if I had contact with the rescue planes (that had now arrived at the site) on radio frequency 2182 Kcs. Regretfully, I had to tell the radio operator that I had only middle and shortwave available. The operator on the “Manchester Progress” then offered immediately to help, as he had a radio-telephone available and could make direct contact with the search planes. The search planes then telephoned to the “Manchester Progress” which in turn telegraphed the “Celerina” and vice versa.
Via the “Manchester Progress” we requested the search planes to throw signal lights. They did this and at 01.15 GMT we saw three red and white flares ahead of us and the ship’s course was adjusted accordingly. We notified the search planes via the “Manchester Progress” and gave our present position. We were soon requested to signal with the ship’s searchlight and shortly thereafter we heard a plane flying in our direction. It circled over our ship, and then flew ahead of us, showing us the right direction. At almost the same moment we received a message that a life raft with survivors on board had been spotted and marked.
Rescue Ship Spots Lone Life Raft
At 02.55 GMT we saw the first light buoys and then a weak, moving light that often disappeared for a longer stretch. But it wasn’t until 03.30 GMT that we could with certainty identify the weak light as coming from the life raft. Soon our searchlight showed us the raft, whose yellow color glowed out of the grey of the night and the waves.
At 04.20 GMT it lay at last next to the ship, but it was constantly pulled away from the ship by the waves and wind. Our searchlight was still directed at the raft, to be sure that we didn’t lose it. It seemed to be loaded with a very large number of people, some cried out and signaled us with their hands. Only after some maneuvering, we managed to bring the raft to the lee side of the ship with some protection from the wind and waves. One of our sailors threw a line, which someone caught and we were able to tie the raft firmly to the ship. That was at 04.40 GMT.
One can imagine how the people on board felt after they had spent more than six hours in that raft, buffeted by the waves, some chest deep in water; some were badly injured as well. The raft was so full with the survivors that we couldn’t even send someone down to them from the ship. We lowered a rope ladder, a net and a breeches buoy, and those who were able to hold on were quickly and carefully hauled up to the deck by several strong sailors.
Sailors Risk Lives by Dropping Down to Tossing Raft
When there was finally some room on the raft, a huge sailor named Zimmermann, and H. Wunderlin from Mumpf and the sailor Spampinato climbed down to help the weak and the more seriously injured. The ship was rolling considerably and because of the high waves, the raft came sometimes as high as the ship’s railing, only to plunge down again 15 or 20 feet.
It took nearly an hour to get everyone on board. The crew spontaneously gave up their cabins for the survivors. Coffee was made, cognac passed out and the injured were treated. Even the wife and daughter of Captain D. Lugli, who themselves were suffering from seasickness, actively helped and were everywhere where someone was needed. No one held back, everyone gave from their own supplies dry clothing for the survivors to put on.
Both sides, the rescuers and the rescued deserve admiration for their courage. 51 people were on board the raft, but sadly three were already dead.
Several hours later other ships had pulled 9 bodies from the water, 16 were still missing and 4 other rafts had been found empty. Nearly all the passengers on board the Super Constellation had been young American parachute troops, but there were also several women as well as a mother with two children. Among the survivors was an army doctor who, badly injured himself, dragged himself from cabin to cabin aboard the ship to give expert help where he could. Fortunately we had enough medicine and dressing for the moment.
Shannon sent me a message that a Canadian aircraft carrier, the “Bonaventure”/CGLE was underway to us and would reach us in the course of Monday afternoon [24th Sept.].
Reporter/Survivor Tells of Raft Ordeal
An American Army reporter, Peter Foley of The Stars and Stripes, also one of the survivors, wrote later a report on what he had experienced from the first engine failure until he was rescued. We’ll let Peter Foley tell the story himself:
“Four hours after our takeoff from Gander in Newfoundland two of the engines failed. On engine number one the propeller flew off and then engine number three caught fire. Even though the plane could fly with only two engines, the stewardesses began with practicing the emergency landing drill. The mood on board was very good, and some of the young soldiers (the most of whom were flying abroad for the first time) joked with the stewardesses. It was already dark as a third engine began shooting sparks. Suddenly there was a bang and the motor stopped.
“The pilot, John Murray, spoke to the passengers over the cabin loudspeakers and told them that he would be forced to ditch. The cabin lights were turned off so that our eyes could adjust to the darkness. We could feel that the plane was descending. Suddenly we heard over the loudspeakers: Attention! Prepare for ditching!” Immediately after came a hard crash. There was no panic, but everyone started to leave the plane as fast as possible.
“A strong wind was blowing and the waves were very high. In the darkness you couldn’t see anything but struggling swimmers calling for a life raft. A life raft was driven up against the port side and was immediately filled with exhausted swimmers (normally such a life raft is designed for 20, this one now had 51 on board).
“This group was tossed by the waves for nearly 6 hours, constantly drenched with salt water, many covered in water up to the chest. The time seemed to pass very slowly, but the plane circling above us gave us courage and hope that we would soon be rescued.
“The life raft had unfortunately landed in the water upside-down and the emergency fittings were therefore beneath the raft. The captain’s flashlight, which he had gone back to grab at the last minute, was all we had to help us. As the survivors first boarded the raft, there was a bit of panic, but everyone tried in the first hours to keep their spirits up. They sang, told jokes and sometimes everyone prayed.
“Very few of us could move, those in the middle of the raft had to try to keep their heads above water and those at the edges tried to bail with hats or plastic bags. It was mostly thanks to the flight navigator S. Nicholson that the water in the raft went down at all and didn’t completely flood it.
“Sometimes the raft would be spun like a top and ride up onto the peak of a wave, only to immediately slide down into the valley between the waves. It was at these moments that the raft would nearly be folded in half by the two waves and the people in the raft would be crushed together, resulting in moans and screams. Sometimes someone would call out: “A ship is coming!”, but it always turned out to be a light buoy or a star. Even the moon was mistaken for a ship.
“The first sign that help was nearing was the green running light of the “Celerina”. It was nearly an hour later that her searchlight, guided by the captain’s flashlight, found the raft. The ship’s captain said later: “Without that flashlight we would have been searching much longer.” A couple of hours more would have meant that more would have died. The water temperature was 9° to 10° Celsius [48°-50° F].
“Of the 46 men and 5 women on the raft 3 had died of their injuries.” Report from Peter Foley.
Others offer to help
Monday morning we received a signal from the passenger ship “Mauretania” who offered to help, but we had to decline; we already had a doctor on board and evacuating survivors ship to ship in such sea conditions was impossible.
We steered then in the direction of the aircraft carrier. At 14.00 GMT the first helicopter flew over the “Celerina” and lowered two more doctors as well as medical supplies. Later, as we lay next to the aircraft carrier, 4 badly injured survivors as well as the 3 bodies from the raft were transferred to the carrier by the helicopter. In the late evening we sailed towards Antwerp, the aircraft carrier no longer had enough fuel to stay with us.
Two days later we saw that some of the survivors were suffering from severe skin inflammation. As the plane had ditched, one of the wings had ripped off and the fuel tanks had emptied into the sea. The survivors clothing had immediately absorbed it, together with seawater, and during the 6 hours on the raft with the violent movement of the waves, the skin (mostly on the legs) was chafed and dissolved. These people needed to come to a hospital immediately and could not stay with us until Antwerp. We were in the meantime much closer to Ireland and we were able to request helicopter support from the “Southern Rescue Cooperation Center Plymouth.” The meeting point was Cork in Southern Ireland.
Evacuation at Galley Head – On to Antwerp
On the 26th of September we were 8 miles from Galley Head in Cork and waited for the helicopter that would bring more medical supplies as well as some foodstuffs, and that would evacuate 17 of the injured to Cork hopitals. We had to admire the skill of the helicopter crew as they quickly and accurately lowered boxes and cartons to the ship, raised the wounded to the helicopter with a small “elevator” on a cable and then flew back. By early afternoon all supplies were on board and the wounded brought on land. By evening we could sail again.
On the afternoon of the 27th we were in harbor in Antwerp, where the 27 remaining survivors were received by the American Army authorities. On the same evening the Americans invited the entire crew of the “Celerina” to a party in the Dock Hotel, where a press conference was also held.
Thanks and recognition is owed to everyone who contributed to the success of this outstanding rescue mission; most particularly to Valentia Radio, the weather ship “Juliet”, the “Manchester Progress”, the search planes, the helicopter crews, and to the captain and crew of the “Celerina”.
One might wish in the future for better cooperation between the airplane companies and the marine. And a better observance of Article 35 of the “International Radio Regulations” concerning the priority of telegrams would be desirable. A couple of hours after the original SOS message there was a veritable flood of messages from the press over various agencies looking for something sensational to report. This was an unnecessary burden on the coastal radio stations as well as the ships’ radio stations.
GEORG STÖCKLI , radio operator, M/S Celerina, during the rescue action.
(Our thanks to Karen Eldred-Stephan for sending this story and for translating it for us from the original German version. Mrs. Eldred-Stephan is the daughter of two passengers who went down with the airplane that fatal night, Capt Robert C. Eldred, who survived and his wife. Mrs. Edna Eldred, who tragically perished at sea.)