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Maritime Historian, CruisenShip Reviewer
Author & Maritime Lecturer
Memories of the JVO
m.s. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt
The Final Voyage of the TSMS Lakonia
Ex Johan van Oldenbarnevelt
This page has been updated in September 2010
With many new photographs and accounts of this tragic event!
The Lakonia looking simply superb and ready for another cruise
On 19 December 1963, this now elderly but greatly respected ship cast off for the very last time. She departed two hours late at 7 pm due to a number of problems that had occurred aboard due to the refit. Aboard were 1,022 persons, a total of 646 passengers and 376 crew ready to serve these happy vacationers. Commanding the Lakonia was Captain Mathios Zarbis who was a veteran sailor from the Aegean Island of Andros. Her crew was multi-national, a mix of Greek, Cypriot, Dutch, German, British, Canadian, Belgian, French and a handful of Chinese laundry men. All were involved and concerned with the smooth running of a big ocean-going cruise ship and to look after the welfare of over six hundred passengers. She had a very popular Cruise Director, who had been previously on the Greek Lines' Arkadia, George Herbert, he would keep the passengers entertained and busy with a vast range of shipboard activities. The holiday of a lifetime finally was on the way. But the sad truth was many who were looking forward to this special Christmas holiday on the Lakonia would never come home.
The Lakonia looking simply pristine but these lifeboats would soon be tested for real!
Lakonia's days were tragically coming to an end. On Sunday, 22 December, around 10pm someone noticed the smell of smoke. But up in the grand Lakonia Room (ex Statesman Lounge), passengers were filled with laughter as they participated in the Tropical Tramps Ball. The Cruise Director had announced the Hobo King and Queen and given out the appropriate prizes. Captain Zarbis entertained several passengers at his table. Then even in the Lakonia Room several passengers began to notice the smell of smoke, but they tended to dismiss it as strong cigar smoke or something. Then a lady cried out Fire, fire but very few people took any notice, thinking that it must be part of the frolics. But now smoke began to fill the lower decks and it began filtering up into the Lakonia Room.
The Purser, Antonio Bogetti, was about to leave his office for a break, when a steward came in hastily announcing that there was a fire in the barbershop. By now, passengers up on promenade deck and in lounges as well as many in their cabins were alerted by the strong odour of smoke. However, all remained quite calm and some went up to the promenade deck to enquire what was happening. No one at that time thought it was serious. It became apparent to the crew, that the barbershop had been ablaze for at least a half-hour and that the fire had now started to spread and that it was becoming very serious. A fire squad of six men was sent to the trouble spot, attempting to halt the fire. But they soon realised that they could only try to contain or at least slow the spread of the fire for the situation had now become critical and even out of hand and it was going to get worse by the second!
Many things went wrong that fateful night of Sunday 22 December. The major problem was poor communication and total lack of direction between the crew, especially when the fire began to spread dangerously.
A Special Commendation! Cruise Director Mr. George Herbert.
After the alarm was finally given, it was George the Cruise Director who bravely took the task on himself of calmly mustering the passengers to their respective boat stations. He remained on board after all the available lifeboats had been lowered and cleared the ship. Due to what could be called poor maintenance, a number of derricks simply failed and refused to move their lifeboats. Others only just managed to release their lifeboats as the crew had to work very hard to get them down. Some boats crashed into the side of the ship, with others crashing into sea inflicting a number of injuries. Some people were afraid and refused to get into the lifeboats due to what they considered a fiasco. In the end over two hundred passengers remained on board after all the operational lifeboats had gone. But it was George who continued to keep the calm, especially with the elderly and those who were unwell.
Later it would be from the Agora, many fearfully climbed out of its windows, clinging onto rope ladders and knotted ropes, slowly proceeding down to the dark sea beneath. It became a scene of chaos with some of the elderly attempting to reach the water by climbing down a rope, but losing their nerve part way down, eventually falling, some hitting their head against the ship landing dead in the water. Others in fear simply jumped into the black abyss, sometimes landing on top of other passengers already in the water. Port and starboard shipboard ladders had been lowered and some were able to walk down and make their entry in the sea much easier. With the fire rapidly spreading and the ship now listing, all realised that time was short. It was time to abandon ship.
Captain Mathios Zarbis
early the next morning, Monday 23 December at 3:30 a.m.,
just four hours after the first distress call, the Argentine
passenger liner *MS Salta arrived on the scene. The
Argentinean Passenger ship SS Salta
Provided by the Captain Josť Barrere
Visit the SS Salta story
The younger Captain Josť Barrere of the SS Salta
Provided by Captain Barrere
Lakonia looking a sad sight
Photograph by © Gerhard Jourdan
History has it that the majority of the
survivors were in fact saved by the
photographs of a tragic day
Gerhards photographs of a tragic day
Photographers © Copyright: All the series of photographs that follow are by Gerhard Jourdan, who was a sailor on board the Belgian ship Charlesville and I wish to advise that I am using these on the basis that they are copyright © and they many NOT be copied or used with out express permission. You MUST email the author and request for the use of one or more image that are shown on this page. We have established with firms around the world that legal action can and will be taken according to International Law if this copyright is abused!
In addition: Most of these photographs were badly damaged and they have been reworked and vastly improved. Their original Black and white to sepia may have changed in some instances, but a clearer and far better picture has come to light. It has taken countless hours of work by the author of ssMaritime to restore these excellent photographs by Gerhard.
I am grateful to Gerhard for providing these fine images and setting the record straight, for most of the credits had been taken by the first two ships, but as Gerhard testifies that the Charlesville was there and worked extremely hard and saved countless of lives, yet so little is said about their achievements anywhere! I hope that the record has been set straight!
Gerhard photographs the rescue operations as many arrive at the Charlesville
The last of one group of Lakonia survivors climbing up the ladder
Arriving at the ship, the Lakonia looks a tragedy
All her lifeboats have gone as have her passengers and crew
They circle the Lakonia and the surrounding area looking for any survivors in the area
The glazed area on Promenade deck is the Agora Shopping Center
The damage is extensive!
Here is another boatload of survivors
Getting ready to take then on board but soon there is one more journey to be made
Lakonias Captain is still on his ship!
Charlesvilles Engineer Jean-Marie Kolbach seen at the tiller of the lifeboat that has just rescued Lakonias Captain Zabris who is sitting just in front of him
Charlesvilles officer and three crew members return to their ship - the name of the man front right is Pesh
The search has been completed and the lifeboat will be taken up and fixed in her place
As I said each of the rescue vessels dispatched boats to pluck survivors from the water and did a wonderful job and all are to be applauded! In addition there were four United States Air Force C-54rescue planes searching for survivors. These planes dropped flares, lifejackets, life rafts and survival kits for people in the water.
Rescue efforts were difficult as the Lakonia had drifted for a few miles from the commencement of the fire and during the evacuation. People in the water were dispersed over a 5 km radius. Therefore rescue ships were reluctant to get too close to the Lakonia as the Stratheden photographs testifies.
Lakonias Captain Zarbis was spotted still
on board at daybreak pacing the decks of the still-burning ship,
thus the Captain of the Charlesville quickly sent a lifeboat to
rescue Lakonia's Captain who was the last person to leave the
Lakonia alive. Most of the Lakonias survivors were taken to
Madeira, whilst others, including the Captain, were taken to
by Chris Titchen
Below is short story
received from a passenger who was on one of the rescue ships and
witnessed the sad events that was the tragedy as the
Below is short story received from a passenger who was on one of the rescue ships and witnessed the sad events that was the tragedy as the Lakonia Fire!
I was on the Stratheden with my brother and parents and wondered why the engines were suddenly going full blast when they normally slowed down during the night.
We were told that the back of our ship had been made into a morgue but that no bodies were put there, though I've always wondered whether that was true. There was a whip round all the passengers to give one item of clothing each of the survivors.
I have 2 official photos taken by the ships photographer. (Shown below)
Photograph taken from the SS Stratheden and Lakonia can be seen on fire
Photograph by the P&O/ships photographer provided by Chris Titchen
A lifeboat is lowered to head for the rescue area
Photograph by the P&O/ships photographer provided by Chris Titchen
still ablaze as seen from the air
Lakonia still ablaze as seen from the air
now seen later when the fire had gone out
Lakonia now seen later when the fire had gone out
The helicopter is from the HMS Centaur to the right is the Norwegian tug Herkules
From the authors collection
On December 24 at 5.30p the Norwegian tug Hercules attached a tow line to the Lakonia with the intension of towing her to port to salvage her. However, Chapter nine will provide details of the grand finale!
A dramatic aerial photograph of the aft section of the Lakonia ablaze and there
are still passengers onboard the next morning, as can be seen on the gangway
As seen in the photograph above and below, there is a man is clinging to the outside of the railing on promenade deck, attempting to climb down to a lower deck with the fire burning the on the railing just one and a half meters from his hands. However, down on the starboard lowered shipboard gangway stands a man on the third step from the water. This was a Mr. Leslie Hodgson who had decided that this was the safest place to be. Should the fire reach, he was at least very close to the water.
From the authors collection
Chapter 9 The End is Near
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