Skip to content

Tom Kelly recounts being on board when SS Andrea Doria sank

Just south of Nantucket, Mass rests the “unsinkable” SS Andrea Doria, where one of the greatest civilian maritime rescue efforts ever recorded replaces lost Italian paintings and bronze sculptures

Just south of Nantucket, Mass. rests the “unsinkable” SS Andrea Doria, where one of the greatest civilian maritime rescue efforts ever recorded replaces lost Italian paintings and bronze sculptures. 

The luxurious 29,000 ton, 700 foot vessel designed by architect Giulio Minoletti has been dubbed one of the most beautiful ships to ever sail the Atlantic by some historical accounts. 

66 years after the infamous shipwreck, steam turbines still propel the 92-year-old mind of Thomas Kelly.

Locally regarded as one of Lake State University’s (LSSU) most popular sociology professors, there was a time when Kelly was a newly ordained priest aboard an ill-fated ship.

Many of his former Pontifical Gregorian University classmates had left Rome immediately after ordination, but not Kelly. He opted to explore the ancient city before beginning a life of service with the Archdiocese of Chicago. To this day, Kelly believes he was exactly where he needed to be when he needed to be there.  

He boarded the luxurious Italian ocean liner in Genoa, Italy on Tuesday, July 17, 1956, and headed west toward New York City. There was much swimming, dancing, fine dining, and art gazing to be had on the cruise… faithful participation in Catholic mass services helped Kelly feel right at home. 

The ship’s steel double hull with 11 watertight compartments reassured all 1,660 passengers, crew, and staff they were safe and sound. That felling of security would not last long. 

“I went up to the bridge deck, and I couldn't see the water,” Kelly vividly remembered the night of Wednesday, July 25, 1956 through the dense fog and ear piercing screams that continue to haunt his memories. “They didn’t know what happened. Both of them had radar. Stockholm Captain Harry Gunnar Nordenson came roaring around in the deep water, and then came roaring back.”

The Swedish liner struck Andrea Doria around 11 p.m, ramming itself approximately 30 feet into the ship’s starboard side.

"Many were sleeping in their cabins," said Kelly, who felt the ship's “shattering, rumbling, muted roar.”

He answered to the call of of duty in a rescue mission one could only deem as “miraculous.”  

Kelly has vividly recounted 11 hours of sheer panic, calmed by faith and love, in his new book – “A Night to Remember: The Sinking of the Andrea Doria, Fatal Human Losses, Yet an Historic Rescue.” The book can be purchased at Island Books and Crafts. 

Kelly looked down, slowly shook his head, and pondered, “It was all very strange.”

Not only did he choose to stay in Rome a few extra days, he was an avid swimmer trained to handle himself in emergency situations. 

“What was my response? he asked, rhetorically. “My Jesuit teacher would love this. ‘Then, Tom, get busy being of service to your shipmates.’”

Kelly, along with three or four other guys, wasted no time.

“We were half-dressed for bed,” said Kelly. “We redressed. I kept my pajamas on and put on my pants and suit coat over them. I put my life jacket over everything. I left off the Roman priest collar. I suggested we not wear socks because we might have to swim.”

The men opened the cabin door.

“A huge crowd in bed clothes were running, screaming, or just ran in the direction of the stairs,” said Kelly. “We joined the ‘mob.’ Our muster station was up two levels. As I entered the first step of the stairs, a crew member assisting us spoke, ‘Everything is going to be fine.”

“Well, he’s just doing his job…” Kelly thought, quietly chuckling at the thought all these years later.

Passengers arrived at their muster stations on the port side of the ship.

“I could see there were individual curtains that could be partially opened or lowered over the window to shut out the hot sun in earlier days with deck chairs on the inner walls,” Kelly said. “But as the ship sank to the starboard side, chairs fell ‘Helter-Skelter’ about along the wall, preventing easy walking and there was a moisture gathering as well on our deck.” 

The deck ascended into blinding fog, which meant all lifeboats on the ship’s port side could no longer be used. Many passengers left their life jackets behind in panic. 

“We resolved to go down to their abandoned state rooms to retrieve them,” Kelly said. “Going down two decks was in itself quite the challenge because of the rising water level in the Andrea Doria. It was amazing to enter cabins with half open doors to witness jewlery and money scattered around the room.”

They opened closets still containing life jackets.

“I don't remember how many trips we made, but in the end, almost everyone had a jacket,” Kelly said, unable to estimate the amount of frightened people crowded into muster stations.  

Finally, the Stockholm crew appeared in the ugly mist. Île-de-France had departed from the New York Harbor and could be seen in the distance, appearing to Kelly with lights of a “hovering angel.” 

“The Captain, Raoul De Beau Dean, famous for the rescue, heard our S.O.S. (Save our Ship) at 11:50 p.m.," said Kelly. "He turned the Île-de-France around despite the dense fog and raced back.”

Seven US Coast Guard cutters also assisted in passenger rescue.

“14 ships did not respond to the S.O.S.,” he noted.

Additional lifeboats were provided by the Stockholm and Île-de-France.

“I was greeted and helped into a large lifeboat by a Swedish sailor with the statement, ‘Welcome aboard, Sir, we are the ones who sank you,” Kelly remembered.

Andrea Doria Captain Piero Calamari was the last person to get off the ship.

"In fact, he carefully checked each rescue position along the port side, four of them, to make sure all passengers were safe," said Kelly. "It is said that the last crewmen with him had to force him to leave 'his ship.' The captain never fully recovered. He never sailed again and would be found wandering the streets of Genoa, muttering regrets about the sinking." 

Kelly was safely aboard the Stockholm, wandering its sun deck when greeted by a Lutheran chaplain.

“He quickly approached and told me, ‘Several of the Spanish crew, men who sleep in the bow cabins of the ship, were seriously injured in the collision. Four of them are in the sickbay of our ship. They are Catholic. Could you visit and absolve them?’ I don't know how he knew I was the priest,” said Kelly. 

He instinctively resumed his priestly duties and climbed down to the ship’s infirmary.

“I had no sacred oil for the last rites, but I prayed individually with each and blessed them,” Kelly said, later learning that two of the men did not survive. ”To this day, I pray for them.”  

Kelly served a parish in Waukegan, IL for two years following the shipwreck. He was then sent to teach at the place where his story began, his old seminary school in Quigley, IL.

Kelly taught there for twelve years, eventually deciding, “I felt my calling was in higher education.”  

He obtained a masters degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1964, and masters of education from Loyola University in 1979.

Kelly sought a ‘leave of absence’ from the Cardinal of Chicago. 

“When I was a teacher at Lake Superior State University, where there is a large coast guard presence, I got a call from a newly arrived sailor telling me he had helped save me from the Andrea Doria,” Kelly shared. “Naturally, I warmly thanked him.” 

He married Mary Ann Duffy at the LSSU Newman Center in April of 1972, after receiving dispensation of his priestly vows from the Vatican.

“My dearest lover and partner died 36 years later,” said Kelly. “I still feel her presence daily. I am now retired at age 92 after 21 years teaching at the university as a full-time professor. I still stay active in my parish, Hospice of the EUP, and as the chairperson of Chippewa County Department of Health and Human Services.”

Today, Kelly's thoughts and prayers remain with the 46 lives lost aboard the Andrea Doria, and five aboard the Stockholm.   

He largely credits the lives saved to the dedicated captains and crew members aboard the Stockholm and Île-de-France, always remembering the "courage, honor, justice, and bravery" of the passengers who diligently followed their commands.

"We were blessed in many ways as the collision was so close to New York with the presence of the Île-de-France," said Kelly concluding his story with a poem:

"Surfing the TV channels one lazy summer afternoon, I chanced upon the closing scene of the movie 'Titanic.' My first response, as I saw the two young co-stars in the frigid sea, holding on to a piece of debris was – I've seen this award-winning 'flick,' and my finger was ready to click. Suddenly, there was a visceral flashback to my near water demise that sent a shutter up my spine and brought a torrent of uncontrolled tears to my eyes – almost even traumatic. I don't think I ever remember, 'grieving' my personal experience in the sinking of the Andrea Doria, some 56 years before. Yet, now, I was convulsed with moans and tears as if now a torrent of feelings overwhelmed me as if from a yet unopened door. Where was a series of images aboard the sinking ship, and images of passengers that came rushing out at me. Scene after scene flashed in my mind's eye in a touchable tangible way that I never could in any way for see. Why had I been spared? What future was now expected of me? Questions that seemed to place me again in that foggy threatening sea. On that enclosed deck, I had confronted the reality of my death in those three hours, waiting to be rescued; And somehow with the help of Grace had accepted such a fate. It took away the fear and gave me an Impulse, a surge that seemed my energy to rejuvenate. Today, I see it as kind of second birth, a second chance. Seeing the film, I was caused to calculate how I had lived these 56 years that I was gifted. As the film ended, Celine Dion, singing the theme song 'My Heart Will Go On' filled me with a rededicated serene joy, and in the end my purged feelings were spirit-like lifted."