Fire at sea… the last moments for the TSMS LAKONIA.
The passenger ship TSMS Lakonia, sailed by Greek Line, was sailing on a Christmas cruise on December 22, 1963 around 11 pm while the ship was about 180 miles north of Madeira when fire broke out.
There were 646 passengers and 376 crewmen on board: a total of 1,022 people. All but 21 of the passengers were British citizens, and the crew members were mostly Greek and German. The captain of the Lakonia was 53-year-old Mathios Zarbis.
The Lakonia looking simply superb and ready for another cruise.
Evacuation of the ship was extremely difficult. Some lifeboats burned before they could be lowered. Two of the lifeboats were swamped, spilling their occupants into the sea; one when it was lowered only by one end, and the other when its davits broke off. Chains had rusted in many of the davits, making boats difficult or impossible to move. In the end, just over half of the lifeboats made it safely away from the Lakonia, some of them less than half full. Several people who dived overboard struck the side of the ship on the way down, killing them before they hit the water.
When all of the boats were away, there were still people adrift in the water and over 100 people left on board the burning ship. The Lakonia continued to burn fiercely and was rocked by violent explosions. Those who remained on board flocked to the glass-enclosed Agora Shopping Center at the stern of the ship. After several hours, the flames closed in on them, and they were forced to descend ropes and rope ladders into the ocean. The port and starboard gangways were lowered as well, and people walked down the gangways single file into the sea.
At 3:30 a.m., four hours after the first distress call, the 495-foot (151 m) Argentine passenger ship Salta arrived on the scene. The Salta, under the command of Captain José Barrere, had been on its way from Genoa, Italy to Buenos Aires. The 440-foot (130 m) British tanker Montcalm arrived half an hour later at 4:00 a.m. The majority of the survivors were saved by these two ships. The Salta rescued 475 people and took aboard most of Lakonia’s lifeboats.
In the hours that followed, the Belgian ship Charlesville, the Brazilian freighter Rio Grande, the British passenger ship Stratheden and the Panamanian freighter Mehdi all arrived to take part in the rescue. Each of the rescue vessels dispatched boats to pluck survivors from the water. Also, four United States Air Force C-54 planes were sent from the Lajes Air Base in the Azores. The planes dropped flares, lifejackets, life rafts and survival kits to people in the water.
A total of 128 people died in the Lakonia disaster, of which 95 were passengers and 33 were crew members. Only 53 people were killed in the actual fire. The rest died from exposure, drowning and injuries sustained while diving overboard
Lakonia had originally been the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt operated by Netherland Line and later by Holland America Line.