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With Reuben Goossens

Maritime Historian, Cruise‘n’Ship Reviewer

Author & Maritime Lecturer

“Memories of the JVO

 

m.s. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt

 

Chapter Eight

 

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 vacationer’s. 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.

The SOS signal was sent in the evening around 11.30pm. By midnight flames had taken control of the mid section of the ship. Those who remained on board, except for the fire fighters, were gathered aft in the glass enclosed Shopping Centre, the "Agora."

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

Very 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 Salta was under the command of Captain Josť Barrere and the ship had been on its way from Genoa, Italy to Buenos Aires. Then the British ship the Montcalm arrived a half hour later at 4:00 a.m. Salta had rescued it’s first survivors at 4.29am, which was a great effort! The Montcalm

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 Salta and Montcalm which is not quite true and I intend to correct this and will do this with photographic evidence! It is recorded that Salta rescued 475 people and took aboard most of Lakonia’s lifeboats. However, very little is said of the massive work done by other ships that arrived on the scene including the Belgian ship, the 10,946 GRT Charlesville which was the third ship to arrive on the scene very soon after the Montcalm and did a massive operation of rescuing survivors! Gerhard Jourdan was a sailor on the Charlesville and he was part of the group of ships, including the Brazilian freighter Rio Grande, the British passenger ship Stratheden and the Panamanian freighter Mehdi that searched for the last survivors of the Lakonia. Gerhard Jourdan told me of the extensive search that he and the crew of his ship undertook and how they picked up countless of Lakonia’s survivor’s. He has kindly sent me a series of photographs that he and his companions took, which testifies of the hard work done by him and the crew of his ship, revealing a great deal about the last day of the Lakonia. However what is not known that that the Captain and some of the crew including Gerhard actually boarded the burning Lakonia “looking for survivors that had been abandoned by the crew”. Whilst there, Gerhard tells me that they were very close to several explosions and eventually had to leave. As most of his writings were in French and I had to use an online translator, I did not obtain the full details, but what I did get was that the Captain and the crew of the Belgian ship Charlesville were exceedingly brave!

Gerhard’s photographs of a tragic day

Photographer’s © 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 photograph’s 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

Lakonia’s Captain is still on his ship!

 

Charlesville’s Engineer Jean-Marie Kolbach seen at the tiller of the lifeboat that has just rescued Lakonia’s Captain Zabris who is sitting just in front of him

 

Charlesville’s 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.

Lakonia’s 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 Lakonia’s survivors were taken to Madeira, whilst others, including the Captain, were taken to Casablanca

 “Lakonia fire”

 

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 “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)

Chris Titchen.

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 

RAF and US aircraft also came to the rescue scene. A RAF pilot commented over his radio. “I say, there's a hell of a mess down there,” an understatement indeed.

Photographs taken from these aircraft present a tragic picture.

Lakonia still ablaze as seen from the air

 

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 author’s 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. 

This is an early photo showing two men on the ship, one holding onto the railing (mid left) and

Mr. Leslie Hodgson at the bottom of the ships gangway looking into a porthole

From the author’s collection

 

Chapter 9 The End is Near

 

Or the - JVO Index

 

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Photographs on ssmaritime and its associate pages are by the author or from the author’s private collection; be they taken by him, from his private collection such as postcards, images purchased or photographs copied from brochures from his collection. In addition there are some images that have been provided by Shipping Companies and private photographers or collectors. Credit is given to all contributors.

 

However, there are some photographs that have been provided to me by supporters of ssmaritime but without details regarding the photographer or /owner concerned. Therefore, I hereby invite owners of these images to be so kind as to make them-selves known to me per email at info@ssmaritime.com, in order that due credit may be given to them.

 

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