Massive liner sinks twice in 17 years
ST. GEORGE’S, Grenada — Most visitors to this tiny island-nation in the Eastern Caribbean are interested to learn about the traumatic events that shook the world here 33 years ago:
The Oct. 25, 1983 invasion of Grenada by more than 5,000 U.S. troops that reversed a bloody Cuban and Soviet-backed overthrow of the government and ensured the safety of the estimated 1,000 Americans on the island who faced possible arrest, injury or even death at the hands of the coup organizers.
Several coup and invasion sites are open to the public, including the bullet-pocked wall where the pro-communist coup leaders lined up and assassinated the nation’s prime minister and 15 of his aides, and an airport, now abandoned, where two large Soviet military aircraft, unable to get off the ground when U.S. Army Rangers stormed the field, remain today at the end of the runway… twisted, grotesque reminders of a long-forgotten war.
Travelers to this 133-square-mile island who are deep-sea divers and devotees of naval and maritime history also find their niche on Grenada, which boasts some of the Caribbean’s most picturesque and accessible shipwrecks, one of which has been named by diving magazines as among the world’s top 10 dive sites.
That ship is the Bianca C, a 600-foot luxury Italian passenger liner that caught fire and sank off St. George’s outer harbor on Oct. 22, 1961, 13 years before Grenada gained independence from Great Britain.
What befell the 18,500-ton Bianca C during its final, terrible hours is captivating and intriguing, particularly when one learns that its sinking 55 years ago was not its first. It also sank a few days after its launching in 1944.
The wreck, which lies upright in about 150 feet of water near this capital city’s main beach, has been visited several times by American expatriates and experienced SCUBA divers Dr. Emily Vogler and her husband, Dr. Dan Flynn, and they have explored its passenger cabins and swum inside its main deck swimming pool which, Emily notes, is always full of water.
Both the Bianca C and the ship that tried to save her from a Grenadian watery grave have decided military backgrounds. In fact, the Bianca C, which bore four different names during its 17-year career, was first sunk during World War II.
Built in France for a French passenger line, the ship, initially named the Marshal Petain, was being towed from one shipyard to another for final completion and conversion into a troop transport when it was torpedoed by the Germans off the coast of Marseille. Refloated, refitted, remodeled for passenger service and renamed La Marseillaise, the liner, however, was soon sold to the Arosa Steamship Line of Panana and given its third name, the Arosa Sky.
Two years later, in 1959, she was sold again, this time to the Costa Line of Italy and renamed Bianca C, the first name of the line owner’s daughter.
Refurbished and modernized, Bianca C was placed in service on the Italy-Caribbean-Venezuela cruise route, and it was here in St. George’s harbor on Sunday morning, Oct. 22, 1961, as the ship was preparing to leave its mooring and sail to Italy, that a violent explosion erupted in the engine room, instantly killing one crew member and wounding two others who died in a hospital the following day. A dozen of the crew also received non-life-threatening injuries.
Most of the 400 passengers and 300 crew members who were lining the Bianca C’s rails to watch the departure from Grenada were thrown to the decks by the blast. A fire began spreading throughout the ship, and Capt. Francisco Crevaco, believing the situation hopeless, sounded the ship’s whistle and foghorn and hoisted a flag that denoted the vessel was on fire and in danger of sinking. Some of the passengers and crew were taken off by the ship’s lifeboats. Others crawled down rope ladders that were lashed to the decks of Grenadian pleasure craft and cargo boats which had immediately responded to the emergency.
It wasn’t long before all aboard the ship had been taken ashore and put up in local hotels, guesthouses and private homes. In two days, two Costa Line passenger ships arrived at St. George’s and carried the Bianca C crew and passengers to Genoa, their original destination.
Meanwhile, the Bianca C, which had no adequate on-board firefighting equipment, had drifted toward the port while fires raged for two days. Fearing the ship might sink in the harbor entrance or its flames reach the city, the island’s British governor appealed for help from the Royal Navy, and it wasn’t long before the 370-foot frigate HMS Londonderry, which was attached to Britain’s West Indies Squadron, arrived on scene. Donning asbestos protective gear, several Londonderry officers boarded the Bianca C to inspect the damage. They realized the ship could not be saved and ordered a towline attached to the Londonderry with the hopes the Bianca C could be towed to a secluded shoreline and beached.
But this was not to be. Rough seas came up, the Bianca C’s rudder had become jammed, and one towline after another broke. Within a few hundred yards from Grand Anse Beach, a strong gust of wind swung Bianca C around, it lost momentum, hesitated momentarily, shuddered and slipped beneath the surface, stern-firs