Reports from the crew members
(First Officer, Chiavari – Genova )
Crew member: Claudio Suttora
Task: First Officer
Event: Accident happened to the Michelangelo on 12 April 1966
Personal unpublished evidence written by witness 1st officer Claudio Suttora on March 1991.
(A piece of history)
(WARNING: the copyright belong to Mr. Claudio Suttora. The text or parts of it may not be used out of this site, without the permission of the legitimate owner)
During 1966 winter, the Atlantic Ocean gave seamen a rough time. Storms left Cape Hatteras like clay pigeons shot one after the other one and leaving a restless ocean without even a short stopping that in hardest winters too permit to the high pressure to flat-down a little the sea surface.
Aboard fast liners like Michelangelo, Raffaello, Leonardo da Vinci and Cristoforo Colombo or other international companies ships crossing the ocean in less than four-five days, those weather- calms permitted you, if lucky, the passage avoiding to hit against the storm since the moment of leaving the Strait of Gibraltar. This at least until Azzorre Islands, after which all did change. Last miles to New York harbour required a great amount of skill and luck, especially luck! To reach New York harbor there was no other thing to do that get directly into storms and gales. On our daily upgraded weather-charts it seemed swarm of flying hornets.
As I said, the 1966 winter was really severe with seamen, but not so much than the first new moon period after spring equinox.
In that period I was first officer aboard S/s Michelangelo, a North America liner with the twin ship Raffaello and other Italian Line ships, I was employed on the third duty, nicknamed “dog duty”, midnight to 4 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m.
Why do I remember this story today, after 25 years? Some evenings ago, I was rummaging through my old papers and I found a letter from my mother dated 14th april 1966. This letter flashed me back to those moments. She wrote: “My dearest Claudio, I am astonished listening to the radio about what happened on your ship…”. What happened to us? Of course the bad sea adventure that now I will relate. To do it better I have recovered in my archives two charts that I drew to help my Master, Capt. Soletti (today passed away) to write his report intended to Maritime Authorities and Insurance Companies. These charts were necessary to show the weather conditions at time of facts. On these charts (see the copy) I noted all fixes (ship’s positions) and the corresponding depressionary centres according to weather reports radio-received from Halifax and Washington. Furthermore I noted positions and facts regarding other ships in zone (wireless contacted) too. The charts seem to be clear, on the first one it’s visible the course of Michelangelo, respective fixes at noons of each passage days, and the point where happened “sea fortune” with the various course variations until noon of April 13th, when slowly we finally did head the fore to our destination. The second chart shows more clearly the weather situation before, during and after the event. On both charts are visible the “hornets” or better the “swarms” positions numbered according to relative weather bulletins.
In the central section of the second chart, at the day 12th point, it results clearly how the ship were at only 300 nautical miles (abt. 540 km) from the centre of the storm, while by the valuations of bulletins the storm should be at more than 600 NM (abt.1.100 km) from our noon fix of 12th April. The storm had a width of 1’000 NM and then it was unavoidable.
As I said, days after spring equinox were really hard; all central-north-western Atlantic area was continuously run by strong storms that in succession didn’t give to the Ocean the time to calm-down itself, or rather the situation became worse.
Since during the passing of a weather disturbance the wind turns clockwise from south-east (sirocco), due to this rotation, the sea all-around becomes of worst kind: very high and crossed waves, (boiling sea or “Bullezzumme”, as called by ligurian seamen). Prevailing the 3rd and 4th quadrants winds, also biggest breakers high 33 feet and more came from these directions and properly this one was the fore sea that was disturbing latest two days of passage to New York. We entered Atlantic ocean on day 9th and we found bad weather already formed. Weather forecast was bad but not more worrying than usual. Throughout the whole day 9th the sailing had been regular at abt. 24 kts cruising speed. The life aboard was disturbed by usual unexpected shakes caused by the very sharp bow cutting big water whirlpools. Only few belly strokes due to arising hull on a wave and falling on the following one.
Between days 10th and 11th we had the usual calm period due to Azzorre Island shelter. On 11th afternoon we start to feel first advises of a depressed situation organizing in north-western Atlantic zone. In the meanwhile at 1200 NM west of Michelangelo, along north American coast, in the middle warm current named Gulf Stream it was forming the “killer depression”. At that moment it did results of only 742 Hg-mm (29.21 inches-Hg) and Halifax forecasts indicates it was moving fastly toward north-east.
Unfortunately these forecast, our calculations and those of other neighbour ships at the event moment resulted wrong.
On chart #2 we can see that the 742 mm depression decreased, at 00.00 GMT of day 12th, at 734 mm (28.89”Hg) with a further decreasing trend, and that its moving-away speed was even cutted in half, so the meeting with its centre should be happened at only 300 NM rather than 600 NM as forecast.
This fact was confirmed by further bulletins and we appreciated a gradual weather worsening.
That night I finished my duty as usual just a little after 4 a.m. and I was very tired: it was been a hard duty because since its starting, wind and sea was heavily risen.
Michelangelo due to the rough sea was pitching and rolling, skidding ahead and doing slow down like in a crazy dance. I got down in my berth but, despite tiredness, I attempt without results to fall asleep. The same thing, I believe, did happened to all other people on the ship.
The Master capt. Soletti on the bridge since the beginning of storm, in the meantime, did ordered to maintain the loxodromic course to keep the sea on the starboard bow and not directly at fore. The new course was steady to 240°. Prudently, since the day before, all passengers of front hull cabins were transferred in internal cabins. Frontal cabins were mostly requested for the unlimited visual on the sea horizon. Furthermore usual routine precautions had been kept. All frontal and side windows and portholes were armoured from sea level to Halls-deck, all watertight doors closed, safety ropes pulled tight trough the saloons, halls and largest rooms. Public-address system announced warning messages to avoid useless persons movement.
In the meanwhile the depression was coming to strike Michelangelo and the other ship in the same area.
The first struck ship was the Liberian tanker “Rokos” positioned abt. 100 nm NW our position, Rokos transmitted first SOS received by U.S. Coast Guard and by which re-transmitted to all ships in the area.
Hereby the dramatic message received by our marconists at 06.38 : “This is U.S.C.G.- Distress call from S/S Rokos sinking – swamping cargo holds – unstopping leak – they are sinking – WX (weather cond.) Wind NNW 35 to 50 kts – Waves 14 to 20 ft. – Wind gusts 60 kts – strong squalls of rain and wind – unknown course “ . Since Michelangelo was the nearest ship, Capt. Soletti ordered without hesitation “Head for Rokos, full speed depending sea conditions!” Any other seaman had taken this decision listening to that desperate call.
Michelangelo did seem comprise how much we were asking her, she ran superbly cutting the waves and lifting highest splashes until funnels.
Heavy waves did strike the fore like hammers then sweeping the deck. That forced run that should had to last five hours finished only half an hour after because our radio-room received following message: “Michelangelo from Rokos – water leak under control – no immediate assistance required – please maintain radio contact – The Master”. Master Soletti grumbled something and ordered “Rehead for New York!”. The fate mixed our play-cards with those of Rokos. The first his gamble was almost successful, now other two terrible hits had to be launched. Within the end of the day the result was of eight victims, abt. twenty injured of which ten or so very seriously.
Here the facts succession: after interrupted Rokos rescue, we returned on our course and, at this point, the Electrician officer informed us that, due to sea strokes, the air intakes of fore deck-house, containing cargo-winches motors, was damaged. Master Soletti, quite agree with the Chief Engineer and 2nd Master Cosulich, decided that when a repair team should been ready, had bore up enough to carry out repairing with sea and wind astern. And this had been done.
In this way a link of reasons were building the mechanism that had bring us to the fatal moment.
The ship before the wind (astern wind) was relatively peaceful and the repairing team could doing its work enough easily. Outside the colors palette was the worst imaginable, all the greys ranges until darkest tones were present. The engine speed was been a little increased to improve the dynamic performance of stabilizer system fins so that the ship wasn’t pitching and rolling like with previous fore-sea.
This relaxed period lasted about one hour but was fatal for many people aboard Michelangelo.
What did happen in this one hour of almost relaxed sailing? By my side, tired to be shaken in my berth, I shaved myself and had a breakfast before returning on the bridge to following the situation. The german couple Mr. and Mrs. Berndt returned to their original frontal cabin to change their dresses; an American, mr. Steinback did the same thing accompanied by the servant mr. Arcidiacono in the neighbour cabin of mr. and mrs. Berndt. A group of out-of-duty servants had the bad idea to visit their colleague of the higher decks to looking out the front portholes to have a sight of the Ocean and, why not?, shoot some nice photographs. Other people, during that interval, moved free and easy around the ship locals. These normal actions were not destined to be forgotten, among these people three lost their lives.
About at 10 o-clock, the 2nd Master capt. Cosulich informed by phone Master Soletti that the repair operations on fore deck-house were finished; to avoid further water leaks, waxed covers were fitted on air intakes “fungus”. All was ready to re-head Michelangelo on his course to New York.
In that moment I did come back on the bridge. I preserve a photographic memory of that moments: Master Soletti and 1st Officer Ascheri were leaned against handrail corresponding two last starboard windows, slightly bowed looking to ship proceeding on the stormy sea. At the port window there was the ship official photographer shooting frames to most attractive breakers. Furthermore there were the steerman and subordinate officers looking to the radars and in chart-room.
Greeting the presents I went to central window looking outside and I asked about the situation. 1st Officer Ascheri indicated me the men on the deck returning after the above mentioned service and explained me the reason of sailing with sea astern. Just in that moment arrived the phone call from Capt. Cosulich announcing the end of repairing on fore deck-house. I have again in my ears the loud and calm voice of Master Soletti ordering “Screws slow-down to 120 RPM”.
In that moment the fate decided for my life; if I had been there for a few minutes more the “monster”, smashing the window crystal, had cutted-off my head too. Instead I thought to go in the chart-room to looking the charts. While I was bowed on the chart with a pair of compasses in my hand, I heard again the voice of Master Soletti ordering to the helmsman “Slowly return to 240° course!”.
I don’t know exactly how many minutes will have been passed from slow-down order to course return order, surely not too much, but I am absolutely sure that these orders were in the spirit of events after hours of stress and repeated course variations due to the Rokos rescue, emergency repairs and in the intentions of who had ever faced up to hard situations with good results. I know that censors stated “Master Soletti, before ordering the course corrections would have been sure of the execution of the previous order, that was “screws slow-down”.
Rest in peace Capt. Soletti, all us, who were on the bridge of Michelangelo are always there with the same spirit of those days, that spirit of who face up to the risk and not that one of who, around a table, without dangers, tries to find the human error.
A few minutes after the order to re-head the ship, the Michelangelo collided with a salt-water monster. This happened after a fatal glide on a largest slope dark like the hell. The crash was terrible, really too strong to hear and remember it. We had a moment of total darkness. I can only remember what did happen to me: I found myself dragged on the floor by a water flood burst into the bridge room; then the water flowed out through I don’t know where and the light came back in that unlucky day. An unreal concert of alarm bells and buzzers became from the bridge wheelhouse, over all this alarms the loudest was the engine order-repeaters alarm bells. Completely soaked I got up and did run to wheelhouse with a deep sense of anxiety. I was walking in the water throughout scrapped materials. Almost all windows were widely open, crystals were disappeared, broken into a myriad of small and large splinters.
At a glance I did comprise the situation: Master Soletti was in front of two starboard windows strangely intact, he was silent and looking to me remaining again bowed like to defend himself counter another stroke. The same thing was for capt. Ascheri, at my left; the helmsman was tight held to the steering wheel and was fixed astound on me with a little stream of blood on face. I asked him “How are you? Does the ship respond to the helm?” – “Yes sir, I feel fine and the ship responds to the helm!” – “Well, please hold she firmly!”. Then to the Master: “The ship responds, Master we are okay!”. That word “responds” meant our salvation. Despite the destroying stroke the steering mechanism was save so the ship was under control. Otherwise probably we were not here to relate this history because with an abeam sea the ship had been attacked and destroyed easily.
After the first confusion moment, the Master re-hold the situation and quickly gave all that orders necessary to fight the emergency. Do you remember the ship-photographer? Well, he was again crouched-down in the port corner, the crystal of his window wasn’t broken but a few inches above his head there was a big glass splinter driven into the wall like a nail. An inch below it had been lethal. The officer on duty at radar was framed between the walls of the radar-cabin. He resulted unharmed but radars were seriously damaged. In the chart-room in that moment there was also Chief Electrician Officer sit on the sofa. He resulted soaked until knees, being half-dried he did provide to acknowledge all sounding alarms.
Well, all this should be the answer to the letter of my mother but for who is reading, I believe it’s opportune I continue with the account of rest of the voyage to New York.
In the following moments we had no time to think, we knew only that all that disaster was been caused by a very strong sea stroke.
Captain Soletti, firm and impassive as usual, then gave the order to bear up the ship to have the sea astern and then the order to setting up the speed to achieve the best stabilizers performance. Then he gave me a glance. I did comprise immediately: he did need a first valuation of damages suffered by the ship, the passengers and by the crew. In that moment I was the only free-of-duty officer.
2nd Master Cosulich and 1st officer Badessi were both caught together the repairing team by the sea-stroke on Promenade Deck. This deck too, despite shut watertight doors was partially flood. Anyway Capt. Badessi after a few time reached Master Soletti on the bridge to have other duties, Capt. Cosulich was missing.
Let us proceed with order, below I will try to describe the situation step-by-step.
Exactly below the bridge, on fore Lido Deck, there was Master’s and Chief Engineer’s cabins. Here an elderly servant, an old but lively ligurian man, pale like a white sheet, was jumping on the flood floor looking for, in both cabins, objects and things to be recovered. In that place the water did seem to be entered through the broken windows and not from front bulkhead, bowed to inner side but intact.
On the next deck down the situation was really worst. The sea stroke did break the front bulkhead plates torn like paper sheets. Here, the sea destroyed all fore cabins smashing all the contents against inner bulkheads. All around was a general destruction, an incredible mix of wares and materials. When I did arrive in this place I found a general excitement due to the presence of the couple Berndt, Mr. Steinback with servant Arcidiacono and other servants came here to have a look of the storm show.
In the terrible moment of the wave stroke, several servants and boys and a chambermaid too, were seriously injured and they were been transported to the board hospital.
A few of them resulted really grave; the boy Ferrari lost his life in a short time, another boy, Bianchini, the day 15th were transported with an helicopter of U.S.C.G. to be urgently recovered and operated in the U.S. Navy Hospital of Boston. Many others were operated aboard due to a series of bad broken up fractures.
At the roll-call resulted missing the above mentioned passengers. The couple of Mr. and Mrs. Berndt were be found a little after by me and by some servants in the external passage of the same deck. They survived at the sea stroke and then swallowed and dragged, through the hole of broken bulkhead, in the external passage. From there, they moved themselves on their hands and knees leaving bloody traces looking for help until an internal doorway where we found them completely worn-out. Mrs.Berndt did survive, the husband unfortunately arrived dead in the hospital.
In the cabin where Mr. Steinback and the servant had been noted, by the moment wasn’t impossible to get in, due to the amount of smashed materials stacked against the door. Only after several hours of hard work it had been possible to take off its hinges the door and come in climbing over scrapped materials. The external bulkhead didn’t longer exist and it was possible have a look of the fore, the sea and sky. The servant Arcidiacono was found alive but numb in a narrow space between scrapped wares; Mr. Steinback laid dead on his bed, with broken neck and covered with the materials of his destroyed cabin.
Proceeding on my inspection I immediately noted that while I was going down the damages did becomes less heavy and this was reassuring.
The hardest situation had been created on three higher decks. Presenting an enormous hole it did seem the Michelangelo had received a large-bore cannon shot. Looking at this zone from main-deck I had the real feeling of a cannon shot directed to the forecastle!
Then I got down in the 1st class Hall where I found Chief Purser that was trying to calm an old American lady, yet in evening dress, that was walking around with stunned eyes and a glass of gin hold in her hand. The passengers situation seemed to be under control. No panic scenes and now we are sailing once again with sea astern, people could move themselves relatively easily.
A big fear, someone told me, had been felt by the fore lower decks passengers. This because all the water flooded throw the hole went down the main stairway and then flooded the lower deck cabins. In some cabins the water reached the berths level and it was a hard work to empty it with buckets and mops.
I did a turn-around on the Halls-decks where there placed dining rooms and galleys. Some stewards were distributing sandwiches and I seized hold one. I was again soaked but I didn’t care and I was hungry. A second class bar-tender related me of a passenger hurled throw an aisle against a glass-door breaking down it. Thought dead he was transported to hospital, but despite heavy injured, he had save his life.
When I reached the Hospital the amount of deceased was already at two, only after noon I had the notice of finding of Mr. Steinback’s body, total number: three.
In the board Hospital the confusion were impressive. The doctors were busy like in a field military hospital after a battle.
The wound chamber-maid lay on a bed and she was moaning at every ship movement: she had fractured pelvis. Other peoples were moaning waiting for doctors help. Here I had another surprise: in a room of the Hospital I found 2nd Master, capt. Cosulich lay on a bed with wide open eyes. He had a plastered broken arm. He told me that after repairing on fore deck-house he got into the ship to advise by phone Master Soletti of carried out work. Then he run the starboard Promenade deck when the wave hit the ship and capt. Cosulich fell down. In that zone the stroke caused the breaking of hydraulic piping of watertight doors plant so the oil fell on the floor. Capt. Cosulich tried to stand-up, he slipped on the oil and fell-down again on the floor with broken right hand and wrist. Even people come to help him had problems to standing up on oily floor but finally he was recovered in the Hospital. Capt. Cosulich was the only injured officer but fortunately, after the arm plaster he could return on duty. With the help of Capt. Badessi he could carry out the great deal of technical and office work after the event. Death certificates, inventories, accident reports for passengers and crew members, ships damages reports and so on.
All this work had been carried out during following three days of sailing to New York with the general help of all crew members: officers, apprentice officers, petty officers and commons. I spent two days writing, copying and reproducing copies and copies of nautical and average reports written by Master Soletti that, I must note, had the perfect behaviour of a real seaman. He were worthy of the best tradition of Lussino (an Italian zone famous for illustrious captains and seamen). His writing remained the usual one: clear and well-legible. Neither signals of hesitation nor signals of tiredness despite professional, moral and physical stress.
Since “repetita juvant” (to repeat it’s useful), let’s go on asking ourselves once more time: what did happened really? Why that gigantic wave hit the ship tearing the loof-rails like paper sheets? And then sweeping and bending all things along his run smashing itself against the midship-house bulkhead? Why it did destroy all interiors and the windows of the bridge destroying wheelhouse and the chart-room? The port side wing wooden sliding-door was strong and heavy, nevertheless I remember to have seen it floating like a raft.
As I told before, it happened that a big wave hit us hardly when the bow was not again climbed over the deep valley caused by the previous wave. Technician and experts talked about an “anomalous wave” and “human error”. They said: “It was necessary to slowing-down by time and more, before re-heading the ship fore sea”. Well, now and here I like say no judgements. I know only that if I were been in the shoes of Master Soletti I would have done the same things he did. In that event it was impossible thinking like a General that, far from the battle, has the time to reason about Academy lessons. Under enemy strokes it’s impossible to make an academic study, it’s absolutely necessary to react hardly and quickly. Of course it’s easy to fail or worst to dead. For everyone there is a crossway, a meeting with the fate. For instance, if I were remained some minutes more near that windows, fascinated by those water mountains, now I should not be here to tell my adventure.
So happened for two passengers, for the boy of Michelangelo and so happened to five seamen of english ship “Chuscal”.
The “Chuscal” was a large cargo sailing about a 20 miles eastern us and that about half-an-hour after us were hit by the fate. Hereby her radio-message: “M/V Chuscal – QTH (position) 40° 57’ N – 43° 23’ W – windforce 12 – mountainous sea – 5 men lost over board – maybe clung to wooden scraps”. Those were not the only victims of furious monster, in facts on the day 14th , when we were getting out the “great dance”, our marconists did receive following message from Navy ship “Indian Trader” : -“A man fatally wounded, maybe dead – another man with both broken arms – all ships with doctors aboard please reply”-
Don’t we forget furthermore the several wounds aboard the liner “France” sailing to N.Y. too, that on date 12th and followings days had to sail 20 degrees portside listed due to the windforce. In her messages the WX (weather) was defined “hurricane” and was punctually corrected by American Weather Station that wouldn’t hear the definition “hurricane” but only “storm”!
What I could add to all these evidences? Just a wish: please don’t call it an “anomalous wave”, waves like that one are usual in furious oceans.
The night between 12th and 13th april, the depressionary centre went away, the weather conditions did improve and we could gradually re-head the ship on the New York course. The day after I could call by phone my mother to reassure her.
Meanwhile the weather did get better again and a U.S.C.G. helicopter could pick-up our gravest wound, boy Bianchini, to transport him to the Boston great U.S. Navy Hospital.
About following days I have only a pale recollection. I remember never-ending and restless days spent to inspect, check, write. All this complicated by the presence aboard (exactly in that voyage!) of the Italian Line General Chairman, a retired Admiral.
Another annoying fact was the journalist insistence, especially those of main Italian Newspapers. They asked steady to speak with the Master at any time, day and night, to address him foolish and trite questions. Master Soletti, imperturbable, patient and kind did answer everyone.
We arrived in New York harbour on day 16th. Eight a.m. o-clock we were already docked to West Side Pier 90. We were under attack by American and world-wide journalists. Breaking news about the wonderful Italian ship accident hit the public opinion. A big deal of right and stupid words were written about Michelangelo unlucky adventure.
Still today I feel the harrowing looking of the ripped front bulkhead of the most beautiful ship on which I had never sailed.
In conclusion, I wish to repeat once more that exhortation I care: “please don’t call anomalous the wave that hit Michelangelo at 10.20 on 12th april 1966. This because innumerable other similar waves did run the oceans until today and so much people saw a lot of similar breakers without calling it anomalous”. I would to “squawk” the U.S. Weather Radio Station who reproached the Master of ship France: “No hurricane, just storm, please!” Then let us repeat “No anomalous wave, just a big wave please!”. This even if it caused the death of unlucky men like the three victims aboard Michelangelo, the five seamen of “Chuscal” and the poor Apprentice Officer of “Indian Trader.
Notice about S/s Michelangelo – Italian Line:
Overall length: 902 ft
Passengers aboard in that voyage: 775
Maximum Passenger number: 1’771 (561 -1st Class, 550 -2nd Class, 690 Tourist. Class)
Crew member: 720
Max. Speed: 31 Kts, Cruise speed 26.5 kts
Officers on duty (12th april 1966):
2nd Master Claudio Cosulich
1st Officer Corrado Badessi
Written and signed by Claudio Suttora, Chiavari (Italy, Genoa) March 1991
(The author’s gratitude to Master Giovanni Belfiore – Genoa, Italy Genoa, re-writer of whole evidence from paper to a digital support.)
English translation by Paolo Serravalle, written in Pietranera (Italy, Genoa), July 30th, 2013.