Reporting the Sinking of the Andrea Doria

by John Delach

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.