The Death of Angelina Lauro

Warning: This is a sad story about a 24,000-ton lady, a princess and three angels. My eyewitness account of the lady’s death at St. Thomas in 1979.

On St. Thomas in March of 1979, the cruise season was still in full swing. Ships arrived every day and thousands of passengers poured into the downtown shopping area to lighten their bank accounts. Merchants and cab drivers competed fiercely for a share of the bounty.

For me, the morning of Friday, March 30 was filled with apprehension. Two days earlier, the reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania melted down, and information was extremely hard to come by. Kris was pregnant with our first child, and medical complications beyond the local hospital’s ability to treat had mandated her return to the mainland several weeks earlier for treatment and rest. She was staying with her parents in her childhood home outside of Philadelphia. I was extremely concerned for their safety.

I started the workday in the usual way. Breakfast at Sparky’s Waterfront Saloon was a daily ritual among a large group of Americans settled in the territory. I sat with two of my coworkers, Frank and Jody. Jody was actually a native of the island, but he looked and acted like the rest of us — members of a population group referred to as ‘continentals’. Both of the guys were members of the VI Search and Rescue organization, and between them told a lot of fascinating stories of rescues, both humorous and dramatic, on the seas and on land. I heard many of those stories during my years on St. Thomas, and this day would give rise to a story that I’m sure they are still telling. I know I am, and you’re reading it now.

I bought a Virgin Islands Daily News and a San Juan Star from a young boy who made the rounds inside the restaurant. To my disappointment, neither paper held any substantive information about the drama unfolding in Pennsylvania near my wife and unborn child. There were wild rumors, and they weren’t good. Locally, the big news was the arrival of more film crews for the production of two network television shows. Filming had already begun, and there were famous people roaming the island.

The season openers for The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels were being combined this year for back-to-back showings on network TV. The plot called for the angels to board the cruise ship for a much-deserved vacation. While on the ship, the Angels were supposed to become involved in some sort of intrigue that would spill over onto St. Thomas during a port of call. The ship used on Love Boat was actually the Pacific Princess, which sailed under that name for the last time in 2002.

Frank and I left Sparky’s and went to the office a block down the waterfront. We ran a business called Alert Systems for a man who had retired to the Virgin Islands at a young age after selling his NYC-based Musicast business to rival Muzak. He could not sit still, and began buying local businesses. We operated monitored alarm systems for the downtown businesses, and had just started the first pocket paging (beeper) business in the Caribbean. I had fallen into this line of work shortly after Barclay’s Bank padlocked the Virgin Islands Adventure multi-media show. It was a very interesting experience — not exactly my regular line, but I wanted to stay in the islands for a while and I had to do something for a living (I could easily write another book on the topic).

Friday night view from home

I liked Fridays because many of the ships stayed late in port. Kris and I lived way up the steep slope overlooking the harbor, just below the Mountaintop Hotel and across the street from Fairchild’s Park. It gets dark early year-round by the local clock in St. Thomas, so by the time I got home from work on Fridays, the remaining ships stood lighted and beautiful in a stunning vista visible from our porch.

As four o’clock approached that Friday afternoon I was able to taste the coming weekend. I just had to ensure that the night staff showed up to monitor the alarm systems, and then I would be free. We had a collection of radio scanners in the office, and suddenly the quiet airwaves came to life. “Fire at the dock. Units responding.”

I went outside and looked directly across the harbor where four ships were tied to the West Indian Company dock. Just the usual sights, though emergency vehicles were rushing along the waterfront highway heading for Havensight. Back inside the office, confusion reigned on the airwaves. The officials couldn’t figure out what was going on, and it was certainly no clearer to me. A few minutes later the night staff showed up, and I left.

On the waterfront I saw a clue. A little smoke could be seen, apparently coming from a familiar blue and white ship operated by Costa. It was here every Friday. Angelina Lauro had the classic profile of ocean liners from decades earlier. She was no longer counted among the more handsome vessels to frequent this place, and she did not usually get a position at the dock. Ordinarily, Angelina anchored in the harbor where she provided a big target for landing seaplanes. Passengers ferried ashore in the ship’s tenders. For some reason Angelina had a spot at the dock on this day, last in a line of four ships tied there. Most of the ship’s superstructure extended past the end of the dock itself and stuck out into the harbor.

Angelina Lauro on a regular day

As I stood there watching the smoke, Frank rushed out of the office, two-way radio in hand. “Search and rescue — ship’s on fire. If you see Jody, tell him to get over to the dock,” said Frank as he rushed past me. He jumped in his car and was gone in a flash.

Lacking anything better to do, I decided to stay put and watch. Maybe I’d get to see one of Charlie’s Angels. Over the next hour, the wisp of smoke turned into a cloud and then into a storm.

There was a steady wind blowing, and the smoke left the ship and blew horizontally out through the mouth of the harbor.

As darkness fell, I could see some flames. By 9:00 that night, a lot of flames could be seen. About 9:30, the trucks of the VIFD came roaring back the way they had come. Firefighters had been given the retreat command.

An hour or so later, a firefighting tug arrived. It had been dispatched from the Hess refinery on St. Croix and it immediately went to work. “OK,” I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere”. The VIFD trucks came outof hibernation, and returned to the scene.

The three other ships at the dock left before the scheduled times, their passengers recalled by continual blasts of ships’ horns. I found out later that they also carried the passengers and crew of Angelina Lauro back to San Juan. After watching the drama unfold for more than seven hours, I returned to the office to see if any news was available. The dispatcher relayed a report that Jody had been trapped in an elevator on the ship and was rescued. He was in the hospital and his condition was not known. No one had heard from Frank, which was unusual since he used his two-way radio like people use cell phones today. He was always in touch.

Around midnight, I went home and tried to sleep. Between thoughts of my approaching parenthood, Kris with complications an ocean away, nuclear clouds and now the burning ship, it was a fitful night. I was sure the morning would bring an end at least to this latest of these events. At dawn, I went outside. A huge column of smoke rose from the harbor, making it look like Three Mile Island had sailed here and blown its top.

I got my camera, a little 110 Instamatic, and drove toward the dock. The sight was incredible, and got more so as I closed in. The ship was fully engulfed in flame, and she was leaning hard to port. Apparently the weight of the water being poured into it from a number of boats and shore crews caused the ship to settle to the shallow bottom and roll. Angelina Lauro was being held up by the lines, which somehow escaped the heat and fire. With surprising ease of access I took a road up the hill just behind the dock, got out and took some pictures. I was sorry I didn’t have a ‘real’ camera.

Frank ended up in the hospital, too. He later told me the story. It seems that a military team was dispatched from the sub base to help fight the fire. They arrived in full firefighting regalia, with breathing packs and fire-resistant suits. The commander took one look at what was going on, and tried desperately to stop the disaster from compounding. Fuel was pouring from the ship into the harbor, and the VIFD was pumping the fuel-laden water right back onto the flames. Wherever the hoses were aimed, the fire burst forth with vigor. When the fire chief insisted that diesel fuel wouldn’t burn, the commander ordered his military team to leave the scene immediately. Shortly thereafter, the fire grew so intense that it became impossible to remain on the dock. A general evacuation was ordered.

Frank saw a motorcycle policeman he knew, and asked for a ride off the dock. The policeman decided to show off his riding skills, weaving recklessly through people and vehicles, going entirely too fast. They came upon a row of ambulances that had sat patiently through the night, waiting for customers to materialize. There had only been one minor injury during the whole episode (Jody) — until now, that is. A man was walking parallel to the row of ambulances, on a path about four feet distant. Traveling at 30 MPH, the officer tooted his horn and gunned the bike toward the gap between the man and the vehicles. Unfortunately the pedestrian darted toward the ambulance rather than away from it, closing off the passage. The officer swerved and crashed.

Frank recently recounted the incident for me. “I remember flying through the air. I landed on the pavement, staring straight up. I could feel pain in my hand, and as I raised it to take a look, I saw something dropping out of the sky. The cop’s helmet came off in the crash, flew through the air and hit me square in the forehead. I still have a bump,” said Frank, pointing to a pronounced lump above his eye. “I was kind of woozy, but I checked my hand and it wasn’t too bad. I felt for my radio. It wasn’t on my belt, so I started crawling around looking for it. That’s when the ambulance attendants found me. They thought I was either nuts or concussed, but they were glad to finally have someone to cart away.”

Angelina Lauro burned for many days. The last flames were not really extinguished — they simply ran out of combustible material. The fire was declared out on April 4, though I recall smoke and stream rising for several days after that.

The Charlie’s Angels/Love Boat film cast and crew were presented with a big problem. They were here on a tight schedule, and for the first few days it was not possible to get a shot of anything on the island without a big column of smoke appearing in the frame. After that, the hulking wreckage dominated every view of the harbor. Writers were called in to salvage the shoot. They made the burning ship central to the plot, and filming quickly resumed. Every day, individual crews would set up in multiple locations around the island, and the actors would shuttle around doing scenes. I wonder how many people later watched those shows and thought they were seeing some really good special effects. I got to see the whole thing live.

By the baby’s due date a couple of weeks later, I had scraped up enough money to fly to Philadelphia and cover the cab fare to Kris’s parents’ house. My arrival was a surprise, as was the fact that Kris did not glow in the dark. We hung around for two weeks before the doctors induced Kris into labor. Ryan was born on May 1. May Day, May Day.

Two weeks after Ryan’s birth, we boarded a flight for home with our new baby. I admired the two swirling cowlicks in his abundant hair. I couldn’t have known that they foreshadowed the arrival of Hurricanes David and Frederick later that year.

Angelina Lauro sat leaning on the harbor bottom by the dock for several months. Other ships came and went as usual, though the sight must have been unsettling to the passengers and crews. Eventually, she was pumped out and refloated. A huge Japanese tug towed her away. Halfway across the Pacific the radically unbalanced Angelina Lauro took a list, rolled over and sank.

In the fall of that year, the single local TV station was granted special permission to broadcast the opening shows of The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels. We saw it in black and white. The plot was full of holes.

Jody Davis recovered nicely from his harrowing experience. His was one of only two reported injuries tied to the fire (Frank’s was not), and it is to Jody that we can attribute the little signs on ships warning passengers not to use the elevators in the event of fire.

According to the official Coast Guard report, the fire started in an overheated pan of cooking oil left unattended in the crew galley. Angelina Lauro was built in 1939, and although retrofit with 1960’s safety improvements including sprinklers, some serious design and construction flaws sealed her fate. A number of improvements for shipboard fire safety came out of this episode. Good ideas, like placing sprinkler heads in the service areas above the ceilings, installing effective dampers, improved fire door design (and more importantly, the mandatory closing of these doors), sprinkler pumps that can energize more than a few heads at once, reduced use of wood and other combustible materials,
and more effective training and procedure development.

Curiously, the sister ship to Angelina Lauro became infamous some years later. In 1985, Achille Lauro was highjacked off the coast of Egypt. She too met a fiery end, in 1994 off Somalia. I wasn’t there.

If you are interested, the complete Coast Guard Report on the Angelina Lauro incident is now public.

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