Archive for the ‘Lakonia’ Tag

In the sea’s lips (Lakonia 5)

This morning on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 they discussed T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I listened in my half-sleep and was reminded that a copy of it was sitting half-read about ten inches from head, on my bedside table. I finished it later in the garden, it being a mild and sunny winter’s day.

So today is the day of the tragic Lakonia fire – 22nd December. A copy of the 1964 Paris Match with the burning liner on the cover arrived this very morning in the post from France. I read the second half of Four Quartets and these lines from The Dry Salvages (1940) stood out…

And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

IV

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.

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Stella Maris : Star of the Sea

To round off my Lakonia posts on this day of the disaster, remembering the 128 that perished and my two that survived, here is the conclusion (on the rescue ship)  of my grandmother’s typescript narrative of the events which served as the basis for her A Survivor’s Story broadcast…

“Later, banded together in the corridor, we talked, cried and tried to comfort each other. No praise can be high enough for the Salta crew who were so kind and sympathetic and even gave their own food and clothing to the survivors.

When we arrived in Funchal [Madeira] I tried to thank one of the senior officers, the only one I could find who spoke English, but he turned and said: “Do not thank me, Madam, it is a sad day for all of us.” As we were waiting to disembark I was horrified to see the quayside lined with ambulances and buzzing with doctors, nurses and newspapermen. It was now one realised how many dead and injured we must have aboard. …

[I] would like to thank from the bottom of my heart all those who were so brave, generous and kind to us. After witnessing this experience I really believe that there is a God and if you are destined to live through anything such as this, then nothing can stop you.”

 

The day of the disaster (Lakonia 4)

So we’re now into 22nd December, the day of the Lakonia disaster. I’ve just come upstairs from watching the end of James Cameron’s Titanic on Film4 – it looked different through this filter, many of the same safety lapses as occurred 51 years later on the Lakonia. The Lakonia fire, with the loss of 128 souls, was the worst cruise ship disaster since the sinking of the Titanic. I reckon my grandparents make a good Jack & Rose (they’ve even got the railing)…

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Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964

To mark the day I decided both to add Ian and Rita to the Wikipedia entry and to make an archive record of the documentation in our family.

  • 2 B&W photos marked Foto Perestrellos of survivors on the Salta
  • Telegram from Ian Harris aboard Salta to Marilyn Gee (nee Harris) in London
  • Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris [son] dated Tues (24th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Marilyn Harris [daughter] to Ian & Rita Harris dated Wed 25th Dec 1963
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Christmas Day (Wed 25th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Sat (28th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963 – I get a mention (“To … my lovely little grandson Adam” – I was her first and just 3 months old)
  • Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964
  • 4 photos of newspaper article headlined Skipper Defends CrewDaily News Thurs 26 Dec 1963
  • Script for A Survivor’s Story item on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio Light Programme, 2nd July 1964
  • Newspaper billing for previous radio programme
  • 5 page typescript from which radio programme script is extracted (ie longer version)
  • 14 page manuscript account by Rita Harris
  • 1 page typescript leading in to 5 page typescript above
  • Video interview with Ian Harris 10/1/99 in which he recounts the disaster and rescue – here is the last section
  • [there are other items at my mum’s house which I’ll add in due course]

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BBC Radio 5 covered the Lakonia story the day before yesterday on Five Live Daily with Adrian Chiles

A Survivor’s Story (Lakonia 3)

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This is a Remittance Advice from BBC Radio (signed off by a certain Teresa McGonagle (Miss)) for a talk my grandmother, Rita Harris, gave on Woman’s Hour on 2nd July 1964, recounting her perspective on the Lakonia disaster (see previous two posts). I also have the transcript:

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What is striking about the account (for which she received the princely sum of 12 guineas) is the litany of safety failings from the moment they set foot on board the ill-fated vessel in Southampton. Here are some extracts:

“We arrived at Southampton and boarded the Lakonia. From the very beginning things seemed to go wrong. The corridors were still teaming (sic) with workmen, the gangways were still down, and the wind whistled around the ship. Eventually the workmen scrambled ashore and two hours late we were under way.”

“Next morning we received the ship’s newspaper with the programme for the day. At 10.15am there was to be a fire drill. So after breakfast we made our way to the promenade deck, where we waited sitting wrapped up in rugs. Some 30 minutes before the drill was to commence some passengers were already walking around wearing their life-jackets. As a result of the subsequent way the fire drill was carried out, at least two thirds of the passengers would have no conceivable idea of what to do if a real emergency arose. My husband was so disgusted that he wanted to complain to the Captain, as he said it was the biggest nonsense that he had ever taken part in. I am sorry to this day that I did not let him carry out this threat.”

In one section it is clear that my grandfather, Ian Harris, had his camera on him at the time of the tragedy because he was taking photos of the crowning of the King and Queen of the Tramps at the Tramps Ball that was taking place when the fire broke out. He was the only person on board who had a camera (although I believe another man may have had a movie camera). All the stills one sees taken on board during the disaster were by him.

“To take the photos of the crowning, my husband made his way to the main entrance of the room [the Lakonia Room]. As he went a steward whispered something to the Captain who was at the next table – he immediately jumped up and ran out of the room. My husband returned more quickly than he’d left, and quietly informed our table that the ship was on fire and we should go to our cabins and get our life-jackets on. Simultaneously smoke started to billow in through the now open doors. As we made our way down to our cabin the alarm sounded, short and faint, then died away never to be heard again, for the tannoy system broke down almost immediately.”

“We rapidly made our way to the main dining room, where we had been ordered to go. Here we found many women and children barefoot and in their nightwear. We realised that we were two decks below the fire! Things now became chaotic. People were milling round the dining hall. Fire hoses appeared in the corridor which were so entangled they reminded me of spaghetti. Water was everywhere except coming from the hoses. Many people were crying – elderly people were wearing life-jackets but had no idea how to do them up and the tapes were hanging loose. I spent some time tying them up properly. When my husband could stand it no longer, he had an argument with an officer who was still directing people downstairs into the already overcrowded dining room. He argued that if there was a bad fire, everybody would be trapped below. The officer gave in and we all started for our life-boat stations. Half-way up the stairs we received a counter-order sent by the Captain to return to the dining room. People were now becoming really distressed.”

“Finally we received the order to make our way to our boat stations. In an attempt to reach the lifeboats, members of the crew were hacking with firemen’s axes at supposedly moveable partitions. These partitions were stuck fast with either paint or varnish.”

“We were not able to get into our lifeboat, which incidently tipped up [due to painted up ropes] and never reached the water. We went to the next lifeboat in which there were already about 40 people. The officer was about to cast off. After another argument my husband managed to get us aboard together with a further half dozen. This lifeboat had a capacity of 85 persons and so approximately 30 more lives could have been saved if it had been correctly filled. The next day we counted only 26 aboard another lifeboat.”

“Although the lifeboat wasn’t full to capacity it hadn’t been loaded properly and I spent the night sitting on a tiny space of about ten inches, while my husband stood, as there was no room for him to sit. Gradually the water started to rise in the bottom of the boat.”

The water had risen to knee depth by the time my grandfather and another man, both ex-navy men, spotted ship signals in the dark, about half an hour away. The Salta eventually rescued them, hampered by the swell. After a tumbler of Cognac and a sweet black coffee my grandmother was given a berth in the crew’s quarters.

“I found the corridor filled with women and children. A lady to whom I had previously no more than nodded the time of day recognised me and cuddled me like a long lost relation. Folk who seemed like strangers a few short days ago, now felt like family.”

Last night (19th December) was the night the Lakonia sailed, today was the first day at sea.

All Safe (Lakonia 2)

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Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964

Picking up from Sinking of the Lakonia this photo, from Paris Match magazine, shows my grandparents after their rescue from the Lakonia. They are on board the ship that rescued them, the Salta (an Argentine vessel – see Update at bottom of last post), probably on Tuesday 24th December 1963.

Here’s a wider shot of the scene I found among the family papers.

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The Salta rescue ship

This is the telegram (featured in last post) sent from that ship at 03:00 on Tuesday 24th December to my mother and uncle in my childhood home.

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What I’ve discovered since first posting this telegram is that because my grandfather signed it “Daddy” my mother and uncle spent another 36 hours agonising as to whether the omission of “Mummy” signified held-back bad news. So do be careful when wording that all-important telegram or urgent text from some desperate situation. You can see such a text being composed in one brief shot of Clint Eastwood’s excellent new movie Sully about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ plane crash – or rather plane landing (under desperate circumstances).

Here’s a letter my mother wrote to her rescued parents on Christmas Day, 1963 (no mention of Christmas or festivities).

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letter of Wednesday 25th December 1963 from Marilyn Harris

Some stand-out sections:

“Monday was positively the worst day of my life. I can honestly say it’s the first time I have ever prayed”

“Today I had a heart-breaking phonecall from a lady in Cornwall somewhere, who told me what a saint and veritable tower of strength Daddy has been to her and so many others. She told me of his endless searching for the missing and how she is still hoping her husband is alive somewhere, perhaps suffering from temporary loss of memory.”

“My brother-in-law [Johnny Gee] phoned early on Monday morning to say your ship was on fire and sinking, little hope of survivors. I listened to each news and help sounded so far away, and completely hopeless. … Eventually we managed to get through to the shipping office only to be told they had no names of survivors. John [brother] and I just sat and looked at each other for 36 endless hours. Finally a friend’s mother phoned to say she was sure she saw Mummy standing aboard a rescue ship sobbing in Daddy’s arms.”

Here’s the cover of that Paris Match:

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It already indicates that there may be a scandal behind the disaster. There was – both in terms of the condition of the vessel, and the competency of the crew and its practice and procedures. The story also made the cover of Life magazine.

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edition of 3rd January 1964

Later in 1964 my grandmother recounted her experiences on Woman’s Hour on the Light Programme of BBC Radio. Here’s the transcript:

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It opens by detailing how all was not well on the Lakonia from the moment they boarded in Southampton.

Sinking of the Lakonia

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On 22nd December 1963 my grandparents lives changed forever. My grandmother started what she considered her second bite of the cherry of life. My grandfather watched rich men’s possessions float by him in the water and never again put any value on them (though he was always modest materially being from an immigrant working class background). The night of 22nd December 1963 was the night the cruise ship Lakonia went on fire and 128 souls were lost at sea. A Christmas cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands turned into a terrifying brush with death.

Yesterday my brother heard a trail on BBC Radio 5 for a programme about the disaster next Tuesday morning on Five Live hosted by Adrian Chiles. Today I tracked down the production team in Salford to offer some of our family archives. As I start to delve into them I thought it would be fun to share the investigations and discoveries here.

First (above) is the telegram my mother received from my grandfather on Christmas eve confirming her parents were alive and safe. She had just had her first child (yours truly) and was settling in to her first home of her own (it cost them £4,000 if I remember correctly). JFK had been shot 5 weeks earlier.

The sender of that telegram is mentioned in this article from Life magazine (edition of 3rd January 1964)

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That’s my grandma looking terrified on the left. Her husband was the “Ian Harris of London” referred to in the copy “the only man known to have taken pictures while on board the doomed Lakonia”. He worked for Picture Post (the British rival of Life with photographers like Bill Brandt and Thurston Hopkins). He was a scientist involved with the technicalities of printing photographs and a keen amateur photographer so his photos featured in the Life picture story were the work of a man in the wrong place at the right time with his omnipresent camera (now you know where I got the bug from).

More to follow as I burrow away…

Update 17/12/16:

“Salta” referred to on the telegram above was an Argentine ship which was heading west to Argentina filled with immigrants from Europe, which picked up my grandparents after dawn of 23rd December from their lifeboat. The passengers were hauled up one by one by rope after a landing stage the Salta crew had dropped was smashed by the lifeboat. My grandfather thought it would make a great shot but my grandmother forbade him as she didn’t want the indignity captured for posterity. He still seemed to regret missing the shot 36 years later when I interviewed him on film. He was wearing, by chance, a grey jumper he had been given in Funchal, Madiera after landing from the Salta in sea-shrunken clothes.

PART 2

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