Remembering The Andrea Doria

After the Titanic, the sinking of the Andrea Doria was the most dramatic peacetime sea disaster of the 20th century. Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1956, a collision with another ship doomed the Italian passenger liner — and triggered a frantic rescue effort for the more than 1,700 people on board.

For her time, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger, the Andrea Doria was top of the line. She was the pride of the Italian fleet — and the way to America for Antonio De Girolamo and his family, who were immigrating in 1956.

"Oh, it was a beautiful thing — it was like one of the cruise ships today," he says.

The De Girolamos made it to New York, but not the way they planned.

Just after 11 p.m., just off Nantucket, on July 25, 1956, the inbound Andrea Doria was rammed by the outbound ocean liner the Stockholm and started sinking.

De Girolamo admits that for a while, he thought he was going to die.

"We had nuns on deck, we had priests on deck. We were blessing each other, and if we die, you know, talking to us, keeping us calm," he says.

There were more than 1,700 passengers and crew aboard all scrambling for lifeboats.

"Most of the people were either barefooted, they had hardly any clothes on," says Mario De Girolamo. "People were walking with underwear on, nightgowns."

One problem for the Andrea Doria, says maritime historian Bill Miller, is that the Stockholm "was reinforced, as Scandinavian ships were, for ice, so her bow was jagged, like a knife into butter."

But how could two ships, both with radar, collide in the open sea?

"There were always unfound facts about this situation — mysteries," Miller says.

The Andrea Doria was the larger, more modern ship and had plenty of time to steer clear. For years, people blamed the captain for the collision.

"He was known to wander the streets of Genoa mumbling all sorts of things," Miller says. "He never went back to sea again. He was completely in shock for the rest of his days."

But just a year ago, historians discovered that the Andrea Doria's rudder might have been defective — and that the shipping line was unwilling to fix it.

All but 46 of the people on board the Andrea Doria were rescued and brought to New York by a small armada of ships. Had the ship sunk faster or farther out to sea, it could have been a disaster on the scale of the Titanic

Fifty years later, the Andrea Doria sits under about 250 feet of water — not far off the coast, and never far from the thoughts of her survivors.

Says Antonio De Girolamo: "I still carry my rosary with me."