In the early ‘80s there was an underground network of North-east wreck divers that maintained exchanges as the Andrea Doria became the annual destination. Since the water is the warmest and the winds relent, July is the peak weather window to visit the site that is over one-hundred miles offshore.
Andrea Doria adventurers got the latest trip news on the dive boat, at the dive shop, and by phone before the internet. Most qualified divers jumped at the opportunity just to dive the wreck. To be invited to be a part of a project was an infrequent chance.
Article and photos by Gene Peterson
Diving the Andrea Doria is a merit for any enthusiast and going back has been regarded as the mark of a veteran. Those divers that relished the moment and pledged to return found themselves in a committed brotherhood. Exploring the interior skeleton of the behemoth structure required numerous treks to get a full understanding of this expansive hulk. It is a dedicated dive where one needs to devote time to gain experience to deal with the current, cold, and deep water. Great technical skill is necessary to navigate the dangerous crumbling structure.
In the mid-nineties, I organized several trips to the wreck. The Andrea Doria remained majestic, still intact, and cavernous. My first concern was getting qualified divers to safely explore the wreck. Measuring attitude is equally important as a skill. Just because you are certified doesn’t mean you’re qualified. I required 150 dives over 150 feet in the North Atlantic, and a personality that would mesh well on the three to five-day ventures. Experience is the greatest prerequisite. To get this type of experience, it usually takes a devoted diver about five years and 500-plus wreck dives.
Fortunately, I was privy to some chance opportunities as an instructor for The Dive Shop of New Jersey that was in Sewell, New Jersey. Decades of deep wreck diving was propagated through the leadership of owner Norman Lichtman, and divemaster Gary Gentile. The shop inspired deep wreck diving, decompression diving, and formed a magnetic relationship with serious divers. This type of diving was frowned upon by traditional training facilities, but Norman evoked it and promoted it.
The Doria expedition was Gary Gentiles’ own inspiration separate from the shop. After my first trip to the Andrea Doria, I wanted to return to the deep. In early July 1983, Gary’s first season trip back to the Andrea Doria turned out to be epic. Gary Gentile and Steve Gatto explored Gimbel’s Hole, a cut in the hull where Peter Gimbel recovered the First-Class bank safe in the summer of 1981. Gimbel’s mission cost $1.75 million to recover the safe and produce the film “Andrea Doria: The Final Chapter”. Gimbel hired Oceaneering Inc., a saturation team and spent 35 days working the site.
Gary took advantage of Gimbels expensive new entranceway. On their last dive of the trip, he and Gatto dropped down to 200 feet inside the shaft, then travelled aft 85 feet to another perpendicular corridor. In later explorations, Gary would find this drop-off led to the First-Class Gift Shop. On this dive, they jumped over the shaft and happened upon a pile of assorted china dishes, cups and glassware. A first-class china cabinet had fallen to the ledge next to the corridor. Over the past 27 years, wooden shelving disintegrated leaving copper tubing dish holders and assorted china. Had it fallen a few feet forward, it would have dropped through the void to the bottom of the hull into no-man’s land.
On the way back from that trip, Gary dropped by to visit me on his way south to another trip. He explained that he and Steve took a few pieces, snapped a couple pictures, and then due to time, they reluctantly left the discovery. This was the first-time intact china was recovered from the wreck except for Gimbels project. A treasure trove of first-class china was waiting for the next diver venturing to the site. That was an opportunity for our group. Gary was not able to go on our trip but was willing to share the prospect with me. Gary laid down the deck plans on the kitchen table and I reviewed his interpretation. He made it as simple as possible, reassuring me I was capable. It seemed simple, drop down a hole, swim a few feet, bag up and ascend with treasure. I knew that this was not a simple dive by any means. At that time, we were air diving with interpreted Navy decompression tables, mechanical analog depth and timing devices, double tanks with a maximum capacity of 80 cubic feet, and limited hyperbaric access. Few divers were dropping down to the deck of the wreck, even less were venturing inside on open circuit. Gary continued to reassure. After some more reviews, I conceded it was an attainable goal because my dive partners, John Moyer and Art Kirshner were excellent wreck divers.
John Moyer and I agreed to picked up Art Kirshner in route to Montauk, New York. He said I would find him with no problem. I did. His equipment was stacked on the corner of a busy street in Freeport, Long Island. I dropped John off to look for Arty and circled the block. When I got back, Arty was standing on the corner with a basket of fruit, vegetables, and some loaves of bread. After a few more Arty detours, and more groceries, we made it to the dock and loaded the boat. At dinner, we discussed dive plans to recover the china and went over Gary’s diagram. Appreciating each other’s experience and insight, we decided success was at hand.
Anchoring into the right area was not an easy task. Sal Arena had ventured to the wreck more than any other captain at the time. He was a proficient boat handler and understood the task required to put us on the forward Foyer Deck.
Sal nailed the sight and Artie tied a cable to a lifeboat davit less than 30 feet from the china hole. A cable allows the dive boat Sea Hunter to pivot 360 degrees as the current swings around in direction. This is our only safe tether back to the surface. If it breaks or slips, we must shoot a lift bag with line to the surface to make an emergency ascent. If the current is strong it can drive your bag down current and make greater difficulty in completing decompression.
As we descend the cable, I can make out the dark rectangular hole drawing us down to the sloping side of the behemoth ship. This hole in the Foyer deck seems like a deep elevator shaft. We briefly checked our redundant lights, then John and I descended into the darkness. Working our way down the murky passageway, we were aware of the silty bottom and debris scattered in our pathway. Above us, a tub dangled, held only by pipe fixtures. Cables were draped across the rooms attached at intervals with switches and broken sockets. I pushed a shattered desk table and chair off to the side to make way for our passage. Continuously, I looked upward noting our air bubbles and the rust-cicles dripping down through the crevices in the wall hanging over us. Each breathe raddled the iron stalactites and red rust rained down on us. The floor was on my right. On my return the floor would be on my left; I noted mentally. A stanchion stuck out perpendicular to the floor blocking our route. Here a tabletop was once attached. The top has fallen and only a pipe-like base remained. John and I passed over it. Ahead was the open corridor described by Gary. Beyond the drop-off we saw the glimmer of white, red, and gold ringed dishes, china cups, and saucers. We carefully sifted through the assortment trying to recover a variety to equally split. Being careful not to silt out our escape route, we gingerly placed the china into our mesh bags. Even with our prudence, the silt was rising, mutually we decided to pull out. We cautiously retraced our route, nimbly picking our way back and out to the top of the wreck. The ascent was arduous and cold as we fought the downward currents until we reached the shallow clear surface waters warmed by the summer sun. Here, we shook hands on our success and gazed through the mesh bags at the delicate treasure brought to light. We satisfied our goal making the long hang worthwhile. The meaning of this china has become more significant over the years. It represents our great adventure and fulfilment, but there is more. Unfortunately, the risk to recover this china has taken a toll on the diving community.
In 2001, John Moyer put together an Andrea Doria exhibit in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. An elderly lady wandered through the show. Seeing how interested she was, I introduced myself and asked her if she had any inquiries. She introduced herself as Lillian Tassini, a retired teacher from Manasquan, New Jersey. She then related; she was an Andrea Doria survivor. She came to see the exhibit and reminisce about her experience on board the Andrea Doria. Vividly, she described the night the ship was struck by the S.S. Stockholm on July 25, 1956. As she spoke, I felt a sudden illumination or contrast to Rose Calvert, James Cameron’s fictional Titanic survivor. She recalled that she was dancing with her husband when they heard a muffled crash. She went out on deck just after the collision to cool off and see what was happening. After realizing they might be on deck for a while, her husband went down to the cabin to get her more comfortable shoes and a warm coat.
As the situation became more dire, they understood the ship was sinking. Soon she and her husband, Carl Watres, were evacuated to the Stockholm. On board the Stockholm, because there were limited sleeping arrangements, women were separated from the men. In the morning of June 26, the Andrea Doria slipped beneath the surface. Lillian then detailed her experience on the morning of the sinking. An agent came to her room where she and several other passengers had bunked. The agent relayed that her husband had a heart attacked and sadly passed away that night. He was considered one of the 52 victims of the sinking. As she walked through the exhibit, she ambled up to the glass display case filled with dishes and cups. Taking a deep breath, she stared and put her hand up to the glass over the china. “To think my late husband Carl and I may have shared our last dinner together on these dishes,” she mused. John and I bore witness to this touching moment. When I look at those dishes today, they remind me of a love story and a tragic loss for many linked with the Andrea Doria.
The year after the exhibit, in December 2002 Lillian Jackson Tassini passed away at the age of 86. Although, she was predeceased by two other spouses, she is buried alongside Carl Watres, her first love lost on the Andrea Doria.
Shipwreck Exhibits for Wreck Divers
Support these local museums.
Cape May County Museum
504 North Route 9 Cape May Court House, NJ 08210
NJ Maritime Museum
528 Dock Road
Beach Haven, New Jersey