On Thursday, December 19th, 1963, my family and I sailed on the Greek registered ship the TSMS “Lakonia”, from Southampton. We were bound for Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. The family at that time consisted of my 73-year-old mother, severely crippled with osteo-arthritis and in a wheel-chair, ‘Tricia (15), Jill (13) and Michael (11), plus my husband David and myself.
On the first day out I happened to meet a ‘girl’, (we were both about 40!) née Mary Taylor, with whom I had been at school. She was travelling with her mother and her husband.
We were due to arrive off Madeira on the morning of Monday 23rd December and a large number of the passengers were due to disembark there. Consequently, George Herbert, the cruise director (‘social’, nothing to do with the ship’s crew) had arranged a “Tramps’ Ball” for the Sunday evening, during an interval of which a small ‘choir’ was going to sing a few carols… There started our lucky succession of coincidences without which I do not believe we would have survived.
As it was a “Tramps’ Ball” we had not ‘dressed up’ – the girls and I were just in cotton dresses or a blouse and skirt. My mother did have a very old fur cape and her handbag with her. Michael had been given the small solo part of the Page to sing in ‘Good King Wenceslas’ so ‘Tricia, Jill, David and I joined in to give him support. If it had not been for the carols, the children and my mother would almost certainly have all been in their bunks and probably asleep before the fire started.
About 11.20pm, shortly after the carols had finished, a sailor came into the room, whispered to the Captain and they both left hurriedly. As they left through the door beside which we happened to be sitting, we could see dirty, dark smoke swirling up the stairwell, which was just outside. After a while, when it was impossible to leave by the door near which we were sitting, on the starboard side of the ship, everyone left the room through the steward’s pantry which was in the opposite corner, on the port side.
The first day we were on board we had lifeboat drill and our station was forward on the starboard side and our lifeboat was ultimately engulfed in the fire. Also, all our life jackets were in our cabins where we could not reach them.
When we got out onto the deck on the port side, we thought at least we should try to get on the same side of the ship as our life-boat station and you will see how lucky that was! We managed to make our way through to the starboard side (of the ship) and as we got there I was just passing a cupboard when a sailor opened it and I saw it contained spare life-belts, so I grabbed six, smartly – lucky stroke Number 2! We also grabbed some ship’s rugs off deck-chairs although within a very short time we had given them all to children who were brought up from below in their night clothes, except that we made my mother keep hers.
[important color=orange title=TSMS “Lakonia”: Tragedy]TSMS Lakonia was originally the ms Johan van Oldenbarnevelt built at Amsterdam and launched in 1929. She saw service as a troop ship during the Second World War. Post war and a major refit she resumed service on the Amsterdam Batavia route, but by 1950 the situation as the Indonesians struggled for their independence from the Dutch became very volatile and the vessel was switched to a Holland-Australia service. Around 1959 with Southampton as her base she operated round-the-world services until early 1963. In March 1963 she was sold by the Netherlands Line to the General Steam Navigation Company. Another substantial refit took place and her name changed to TSMS Lakonia. Operated by the Osmos Shipping Company, perhaps better known as The Great Line, she offered a service between Southampton and the Canary Islands.
In the Lakonia disaster 128 people died. Of these most died not from the fire but from exposure, drowning and when trying to escape the fire by jumping into the sea. The first alarm of fire was raised around 2300hrs on December 22nd, but the ship itself did not sink until December 29th when under tow to Gibraltar.
The subsequent investigation into the disaster by the Greek Marine authorities lasted almost two years and its findings were highly critical of the condition of some of the life-saving equipment on the vessel and also of the actions taken aboard when the emergency occurred.[/important]
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2009 Issue