John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: September, 2021

Reporting the Sinking of the Andrea Doria

On July 26, 1956, I awoke at home in Ridgewood, Queens to the news that the Italian luxury liner, Andrea Doria, had collided with a smaller Swedish combo / passenger ship and freighter, the MV Stockholm, off Nantucket Island the previous night. I switched on the Today Show on NBC, the premier morning news show, then just four years old and hosted by Dave Garroway, where I became mesmerized with the terminal struggle of this proud liner.

I thought I was viewing live action. Instead, NBC was broadcasting taped footage shot by camera men flying out of New York and Cape Cod that had been rushed to various networks and newspapers.

The two ships were operating in thick fog, the Andrea Doria inbound to New York from Genoa and the Stockholm, outbound from New York to Europe. At 10:45 pm, they established radar contact, but the officers manning each bridge, wrongly anticipated the other’s intentions without bothering to verbally communicate with each other leading to a radar influenced collision at 11:10 pm.

The radio room at The New York Times received an SOS radio signal from the Andrea Doria one hour later. Managing Editor, Turner Catlidge, rousted out of bed just after midnight, stopped the presses just after the early morning bulldog edition had been printed. So did the overnight editors at the Daily News, Mirror and The Herald Tribune.

At 3 am, Gabe Pressman’s bedside telephone rang him awake. Bill Corley, running NBC’s network overnight news desk explained: “Gabe, the Andrea Doria has been in a collision off Nantucket. Get down to Coast Guard headquarters at the Battery as fast as you can. They’re coordinating search and rescue from there.”

Gabe Pressman, then 36, was a radio reporter with NBC’s New York AM Radio station, then using the call sign, WRCA.  

Pressman filed several TV and radio reports early the morning of July 26. At about 7 am, he was invited by the Coast Guard to represent national broadcasters on a USCG plane about to leave from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Pressman signed on, and 90-minutes later, Gabe arrived over the stricken Andrea Doria.

Not to be outdone by NBC, Don Hewitt, at CBS, who would go on to create 60 Minutes, had enough clout to charter a seaplane out of Nantucket with a TV crew aboard to keep CBS viable. So did ABC and by the early afternoon, New York’s afternoon newspapers, The Post, Journal-American and The World-Telegram and Sun marshalled their reporters, re-writers and editors to blanket this modern tragedy.

Yet, despite the mobilization of print and media reporting, the story of the sinking of the Andrea Doria belonged to Gabe Pressman. I offer to you his account of “ The Death of a Great Ocean Liner:”

So, I boarded the two-engine plane with the others at Floyd Bennett Field. About 90 minutes later, we were flying over the Andrea Doria. The sleek, beautiful ship was listing heavily to the right side. None of us expected it would sink.

But as we circled overhead, the list became greater. It suddenly became clear that the ship was sinking before our eyes.

The sky was clear. The sun shone brightly on the calm sea. We found out later that, by this time, the survivors had been taken off the ship. There was no one alive aboard.

Then, as we watched in amazement and horror, the ship suddenly went from a 50-degree list to a 60-degree list to starboard and, within a few minutes, it fell beneath the Atlantic waters. I saw  huge bubbles rise to the surface.

I had a primitive tape recorder and spoke into it. “I am looking at the death throes of the Andrea Doria, pride of the Italian Line. It’s turning over, like a toy in a bathtub. And now it is sinking. It’s a horrible sight. The water is bubbling as the ship goes down in the waters off Nantucket.”

An hour and a half later, we landed at Floyd Bennett, and I rushed to a phone booth. The program director at WRCA Radio, Steve White, was a music man, who asked me “Is this story important?” I replied: “You’d better believe it and it’s exclusive.”

White told me that Al Jazzbo Collins was doing his jazz show, but since I said this was important, he’d have him put it on right away. I recorded a three-minute spot that went out to Jazzbo’s jazz junkies.

Later in the day, a solid newsman and producer, Joe Dembo, took my rather excited sounding tape and the film of the sinking, edited it down and it was carried on the network news that night. Fifty-one passengers aboard the two ships had died. More than 1,600 passengers and crew had survived.

Those were challenging old days. We weren’t sure we knew what we were doing. But it was a time when the goal for all of us was to gather news for television- and broadcast it to the greatest audience in history.

We were caught up in this new kind of journalism and determined to do the best job we could.

Gabe Pressman remained a presence at WNBC Television, Channel 4  even after he retired. He passed in June of 2017 at 93.

The World Trade Center Club

Austin Tobin was the driving force behind the construction of the World Trade Center. As Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he envisioned the twin towers to be the centerpiece of international trade. He decided that these towers should be the tallest buildings in the world to project their importance, but he wanted a crown jewel to enhance their glory. He commissioned The World Trade Center Club, his personal gift to power. Located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, The Club became a magnificent drinking and dining facility with private rooms, vintage wines and aged cigars. He recruited powerful restaurateurs who assembled a staff that exuded the proper snobbery of an elite country club. It became a new home for the three-martini lunch and featured a men’s room, adorned in pink and white Italian Marble, so magnificent, it could be an appropriate setting for a national leader to lie in state. The Club kept its own accounts and neither cash nor credit cards were accepted.

The press became aware of the privacy and opulence of The Club and all hell broke loose. How could a public agency promote a subsidized private club? Tobin had to pacify the press and politicos and so, at night it became “Windows on the World,” the unique public restaurant 107 floors in the air. The NY Times first review read in part: “…as to the quality of the food, you cannot beat the view.”

At lunchtime, The Club remained members only. This was in the era of private lunch clubs when senior corporate officers frequented these clubs, belonging to one or more. They were swell places to entertain clients, prospects and underwriters with the bills going on generous expense accounts. My mentor, Charlie R, introduced me to The WTC Club. Charlie drank Bombay Gin Martinis and loved to entertain there. He especially liked to show it off to visiting British brokers and their wives. This was an era when British firms sent their senior and most promising junior brokers to the United States for two or three weeks at a time in the company of their wives. The Labour Government’s tax rate was 90% and these trips provided an alternate method of compensation. The Brits usually invaded New York in May and October when the weather is best.

Charlie’s greatest coup came during a dinner for visiting Brits in one of the private dining rooms. He disappeared and, on his return announced: “ May I have your attention. I have arranged a special event for the ladies, a tour of the most magnificent men’s room in the world.” Charlie had convinced the staff to temporarily close the men’s room, and he proceeded to escort the ladies, including my wife, on a private tour to the delight of all.

Charlie encouraged me to become a member. We worked in midtown and the cost was discounted if you were north of Canal Street. I took his advice and, during my 20 years as a member, I hosted many a lunch and dinner there. I utilized their private rooms to set agendas, deal with crises, welcome visitors, congratulate success, say goodbye to retirees, good luck to transferees and accomplished other matters of commerce.

The view was paramount and at times dramatic. On crystal clear winter nights, the brightness of the city overwhelmed while the surrounding areas stretched to the horizon in strands of light. Manhattan buildings, seen from above, stood out silhouetted by spotlights and ground lights. If the moon was strong, or full, its reflected light causing rivers, bays and the ocean to glow. Helicopters flew by at altitudes lower than The Club. The only view above us was of lights from airplanes and the stars. During dinner one night, as low clouds swept in from the west, the streets and buildings grew fainter and fainter until they disappeared. And yet, since these clouds were below The Club, we could still see the stars.

Such was life in the fast lane, 1970s and 1980s style. However, as the 1990s arrived, the Club had become an anachronism. The era of  private luncheon clubs was over. The Harbor View Club, Drug and Chemical Club, The Wall Street Club and the infamous Whitehall Club, with its deadly bartender, Spiro, had all closed. Business had changed in focus, diversity and geography with a reduced tolerance for lunchtime drinking. This and loss of tax deductibility, the cost of space and the desirability of their locations conspired to hasten their demise.

The terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 had forced The Club to close, I thought permanently. So, it was with surprise that I opened an announcement in 1995 advising The Club would re-open. I re-joined at a discounted fee, but seldom used it as I too had changed. I hosted my last dinner in the fall of 1999 for a group of French underwriters from AXA Insurance Company. The summer before, they had entertained us and our client at their chateau in Bordeaux, a once in a lifetime event. My colleagues and I decided to introduce them to The Club and the weather cooperated fully. The view was superb, the food good and the wine far too expensive, but they were as impressed as the French would ever admit.

I resigned from The Club in 2000 when I retired and never returned. On September 1, 2001 the Club died when the North Tower fell. It was no longer relevant, but my world changed forever with that tragedy.

To relieve my post-destruction gloom, I searched for and found my old photographs taken as a young man. I worked on Park Row at the time in sight of the towers as they climbed higher and higher. I thrilled at their ascent and frequently photographed their promise as new stories were added. I also found my last WTC membership card. I thought this evidence and my memories would be the final epitaph.

            Curiously, it was not. A letter arrived with the return address being Mr. Jules Roinnel in Baldwin, Long Island. Jules was the Club’s Manager. Dated October 12, 2001, it began: ”Dear Member:” This was a surprise, not because I was no longer a member, but rather that a letter had actually been sent. The letter spoke of the 72 staff members who died and advised that two surviving luncheon clubs would offer guest privileges until the end of the year. Even though it read in part: “…the future of The World Trade Center Club is unclear.” it had an upbeat tone about it.

Perhaps Jules was going through the motions? Perhaps the Club could gain a third life? If it did whatever its name, or location, it could not duplicate what was. The Club, like its era and the towers belong to history.

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001, should have been one of the 10 best days of the year weather wise in New York City. Seasonably warm, but clear without haze and free of humidity, Manhattan shined in all its glory living up to one of its nicknames, Babylon on the Hudson.

Overcoming my disappointment of having suffered through an opening night loss by my beloved Giants to the Chiefs  in Kansas City the previous night, I planned to travel to my company’s midtown headquarters at 1166 Avenue of the Americas to have lunch with my old boss, Steve P.  But first, I began a 45-minute workout on my treadmill to get my heart started.

Marsh & McLennan, the firm I had worked for from 1971until I retired on April 1, 2000, also had operations in World Trade Center. They occupied eight floors in the North Tower from 93 to 100. As I power walked, I watched as NBC cut away from their regular programming to reveal that an airplane had crashed into the upper floors of the north side of the North Tower. Little did we know at that moment that the high jackers managed to strike every one of the floors that Marsh & McLennan occupied expect 100. 

A longtime colleague, Jim H, had an office on 99 facing north. I still wonder if he saw the American Airlines plane as it hurtled in his direction. Flight Number 11 struck his office at 8:46 AM. Coincidently, Jim’s brother-in-law, Bill W, worked for AON on one of the nine floors occupied by that insurance brokerage firm in the South Tower. The folks who worked in that tower above the 85th Floor had 17 minutes to evacuate before United Flight No. 175 plunged into the south side of that tower. Although many workers did evacuate, Bill chose not to. Neither did Tony D, another former Marsh man who had joined AON. Tony had married late in life and his wife had recently given birth to twin girls. They would never see their father again.   

Two hundred and ninety-five Marsh employees died that day along with 63 contract employees. That total, 358, was the third highest behind the FDNY and Cantor Fitzgerald. Jeff L. was one of those Cantor Fitzgerald casualties. Before joining Canter, Jeff had worked in midtown, and I would often share an early morning cab ride from Penn Station with him.

My niece, Rita, was lucky. Employed by Deutsche Bank at their 39-story building on 130 Liberty Street close to the South Tower, she evacuated when that tower was hit. Rita set out for Brooklyn and was about to cross the Brooklyn Bridge when that tower fell wrecking her place of work. She spent the night in a convent. It would take years to demolish that building since it contained human remains from the South Tower.

Michelle G. had worked for me when I was the Manager of Marsh’s New York Marine and Energy operation. She was scheduled to attend an all-day conference at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th Floor of the North Tower. Michelle chose to forgo the pre-conference breakfast choosing instead to meander through the Barnes and Noble bookshop in the lobby.

When American Flight 11 struck the tower, Michelle made a run to the PATH Station to catch one of the last trains to leave the WTC Station for New Jersey. Her train was in one of the 100-year-old cast iron tubes under the Hudson River when the second airplane hit. Michelle told me: “The tunnel moved violently from side to side. The train ground to a halt and the lights went out. I have never been so scared. Finally, the lights came back on and very slowly, the train crept to the Exchange Place Station in Jersey City. I cringed when I emerged into the morning light to see both buildings were burning.”       

Our son, Mike and our daughter Beth both worked for Marsh & McLennan companies at 1166. Beth’s husband, Tom, also worked in Manhattan. The three of them met near Tom’s office on Broadway then made their way to Beth and Tom’s apartment in NoHo on Mott Street safely north of the poisonous smoke pouring from the debris. Mike spent the night with them.  

America shut down to protect the homeland. The FAA grounded every aircraft in USA airspace ordering those airplanes in the air to land immediately. Incoming international flights were instructed to return to their points of origin or find airports of refuge. If you ever see the play, Come From Away, you will discover the story of the jumble of transatlantic flights that landed in Gander, Newfoundland that day.

Emergency rooms geared up to treat the anticipated multitude of casualties that never materialized. There was only the living and the dead and most of the dead disintegrated under the massive pile of debris.

Relatives and friends of the dead created massive bulletin boards throughout the city featuring photographs of the missing with notes pleading for information about their status. Beth, a licensed social worker, volunteered at an armory to council those seeking help to cope with their loved ones who were now MIA.

A sense of loss, anger and absolute sadness blanketed the city. It enveloped me and may have consumed me except that Mary Ann and I and two other couples, the Cruises and the Markeys managed to escape to Ireland in early October on a pre-arranged holiday.

Good craic, the hospitality of Erin, rain, wind, laughter, Guinness and Irish whiskey soothed our souls and raised our morale. It feathered our anger and permitted me to be a human again.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of that dark day, next Wednesday, I will republish my piece about the Club at the World Trade Center that died on what should have been one of the 10 best days of the year for 2001.