Crew member: Claudio Suttora
Task: First Officer
Event: Accident happened to the Michelangelo on 12
(WARNING: the copyright belong to Mr. Claudio Suttora. The text or parts of
it may not be used out of this site, without the permission of the
Many thanks to Master Giovanni Belfiore
(Genoa) for to have entered this statement in digital form from the original
paper written by the 1st Officer Claudio Suttora.
Many thanks to Mr.
Paolo Serravalle (Genoa) for this
translation to English.
Personal unpublished evidence written by witness 1st
officer Claudio Suttora on March 1991. (A piece of history)
(Note: mr. Claudio Suttora has the copyright of this evidence. Whole
text or parts cannot be used without his written permission).
winter, the Atlantic Ocean gave seamen a rough time. Storms left Cape
Hatteras like clay pigeons shot one after the other one and leaving a
restless ocean without even a short stopping that in hardest winters too
permit to the high pressure to flat-down a little the sea surface.
Aboard fast liners like Michelangelo, Raffaello, Leonardo da Vinci and
Cristoforo Colombo or other international companies ships crossing the ocean
in less than four-five days, those weather- calms permitted you, if lucky,
the passage avoiding to hit against the storm since the moment of leaving
the Strait of Gibraltar. This at least until Azzorre Islands, after which
all did change. Last miles to New York harbour required a great amount of
skill and luck, especially luck! To reach New York harbor there was no other
thing to do that get directly into storms and gales. On our daily upgraded
weather-charts it seemed swarm of flying hornets.
As I said, the 1966 winter was really severe with seamen, but not so much
than the first new moon period after spring equinox.
In that period I was first officer aboard S/s Michelangelo, a North America
liner with the twin ship Raffaello and other Italian Line ships, I was
employed on the third duty, nicknamed “dog duty”, midnight to 4 a.m. and
noon to 4 p.m.
Why do I remember this story today, after 25 years? Some evenings ago, I was
rummaging through my old papers and I found a letter from my mother dated
14th april 1966. This letter flashed me back to those moments. She wrote:
“My dearest Claudio, I am astonished listening to the radio about what
happened on your ship…”. What happened to us? Of course the bad sea
adventure that now I will relate. To do it better I have recovered in my
archives two charts that I drew to help my Master, Capt. Soletti (today
passed away) to write his report intended to Maritime Authorities and
Insurance Companies. These charts were necessary to show the weather
conditions at time of facts. On these charts (see the copy) I noted all
fixes (ship’s positions) and the corresponding depressionary centres
according to weather reports radio-received from Halifax and Washington.
Furthermore I noted positions and facts regarding other ships in zone
(wireless contacted) too. The charts seem to be clear, on the first one it’s
visible the course of Michelangelo, respective fixes at noons of each
passage days, and the point where happened “sea fortune” with the various
course variations until noon of April 13th, when slowly we finally did head
the fore to our destination. The second chart shows more clearly the weather
situation before, during and after the event. On both charts are visible the
“hornets” or better the “swarms” positions numbered according to relative
In the central section of the second chart, at the day 12th point, it
results clearly how the ship were at only 300 nautical miles (abt. 540 km)
from the centre of the storm, while by the valuations of bulletins the storm
should be at more than 600 NM (abt.1.100 km) from our noon fix of 12th
April. The storm had a width of 1’000 NM and then it was unavoidable.
As I said, days after spring equinox were really hard; all
central-north-western Atlantic area was continuously run by strong storms
that in succession didn’t give to the Ocean the time to calm-down itself, or
rather the situation became worse.
Since during the passing of a weather disturbance the wind turns clockwise
from south-east (sirocco), due to this rotation, the sea all-around becomes
of worst kind: very high and crossed waves, (boiling sea or “Bullezzumme”,
as called by ligurian seamen). Prevailing the 3rd and 4th quadrants winds,
also biggest breakers high 33 feet and more came from these directions and
properly this one was the fore sea that was disturbing latest two days of
passage to New York. We entered Atlantic ocean on day 9th and we found bad
weather already formed. Weather forecast was bad but not more worrying than
usual. Throughout the whole day 9th the sailing had been regular at abt. 24
kts cruising speed. The life aboard was disturbed by usual unexpected shakes
caused by the very sharp bow cutting big water whirlpools. Only few belly
strokes due to arising hull on a wave and falling on the following one.
Between days 10th and 11th we had the usual calm period due
to Azzorre Island shelter. On 11th afternoon we start to feel first advises
of a depressed situation organizing in north-western Atlantic zone. In the
meanwhile at 1200 NM west of Michelangelo, along north American coast, in
the middle warm current named Gulf Stream it was forming the “killer
depression”. At that moment it did results of only 742 Hg-mm (29.21
inches-Hg) and Halifax forecasts indicates it was moving fastly toward
Unfortunately these forecast, our calculations and those of other neighbour
ships at the event moment resulted wrong.
On chart #2 we can see that the 742 mm depression decreased, at 00.00 GMT of
day 12th, at 734 mm (28.89”Hg) with a further decreasing trend, and that its
moving-away speed was even cutted in half, so the meeting with its centre
should be happened at only 300 NM rather than 600 NM as forecast.
This fact was confirmed by further bulletins and we appreciated a gradual
That night I finished my duty as usual just a little after 4 a.m. and I was
very tired: it was been a hard duty because since its starting, wind and sea
was heavily risen.
Michelangelo due to the rough sea was pitching and rolling, skidding ahead
and doing slow down like in a crazy dance. I got down in my berth but,
despite tiredness, I attempt without results to fall asleep. The same thing,
I believe, did happened to all other people on the ship.
The Master capt. Soletti on the bridge since the beginning of storm, in the
meantime, did ordered to maintain the loxodromic course to keep the sea on
the starboard bow and not directly at fore. The new course was steady to
240°. Prudently, since the day before, all passengers of front hull cabins
were transferred in internal cabins. Frontal cabins were mostly requested
for the unlimited visual on the sea horizon. Furthermore usual routine
precautions had been kept. All frontal and side windows and portholes were
armoured from sea level to Halls-deck, all watertight doors closed, safety
ropes pulled tight trough the saloons, halls and largest rooms.
Public-address system announced warning messages to avoid useless persons
In the meanwhile the depression was coming to strike Michelangelo and the
other ship in the same area.
The first struck ship was the Liberian tanker “Rokos” positioned abt. 100 nm
NW our position, Rokos transmitted first SOS received by U.S. Coast Guard
and by which re-transmitted to all ships in the area.
Hereby the dramatic message received by our marconists at 06.38 : “This is
U.S.C.G.- Distress call from S/S Rokos sinking – swamping cargo holds –
unstopping leak – they are sinking – WX (weather cond.) Wind NNW 35 to 50
kts – Waves 14 to 20 ft. – Wind gusts 60 kts – strong squalls of rain and
wind – unknown course “ . Since Michelangelo was the nearest ship, Capt.
Soletti ordered without hesitation “Head for Rokos, full speed depending sea
conditions!” Any other seaman had taken this decision listening to that
Michelangelo did seem comprise how much we were asking her, she ran superbly
cutting the waves and lifting highest splashes until funnels.
Heavy waves did strike the fore like hammers then sweeping the deck. That
forced run that should had to last five hours finished only half an hour
after because our radio-room received following message: “Michelangelo from
Rokos – water leak under control – no immediate assistance required – please
maintain radio contact – The Master”. Master Soletti grumbled something and
ordered “Rehead for New York!”. The fate mixed our play-cards with those of
Rokos. The first his gamble was almost successful, now other two terrible
hits had to be launched. Within the end of the day the result was of eight
victims, abt. twenty injured of which ten or so very seriously.
Here the facts succession: after interrupted Rokos rescue, we returned on
our course and, at this point, the Electrician officer informed us that, due
to sea strokes, the air intakes of fore deck-house, containing cargo-winches
motors, was damaged. Master Soletti, quite agree with the Chief Engineer and
2nd Master Cosulich, decided that when a repair team should been ready, had
bore up enough to carry out repairing with sea and wind astern. And this had
In this way a link of reasons were building the mechanism that had bring us
to the fatal moment.
The ship before the wind (astern wind) was relatively peaceful and the
repairing team could doing its work enough easily. Outside the colors
palette was the worst imaginable, all the greys ranges until darkest tones
were present. The engine speed was been a little increased to improve the
dynamic performance of stabilizer system fins so that the ship wasn’t
pitching and rolling like with previous fore-sea.
This relaxed period lasted about one hour but was fatal for many people
What did happen in this one hour of almost relaxed sailing? By my side,
tired to be shaken in my berth, I shaved myself and had a breakfast before
returning on the bridge to following the situation. The german couple Mr.
and Mrs. Berndt returned to their original frontal cabin to change their
dresses; an American, mr. Steinback did the same thing accompanied by the
servant mr. Arcidiacono in the neighbour cabin of mr. and mrs. Berndt. A
group of out-of-duty servants had the bad idea to visit their colleague of
the higher decks to looking out the front portholes to have a sight of the
Ocean and, why not?, shoot some nice photographs. Other people, during that
interval, moved free and easy around the ship locals. These normal actions
were not destined to be forgotten, among these people three lost their
About at 10 o-clock, the 2nd Master capt. Cosulich informed by phone Master
Soletti that the repair operations on fore deck-house were finished; to
avoid further water leaks, waxed covers were fitted on air intakes “fungus”.
All was ready to re-head Michelangelo on his course to New York.
In that moment I did come back on the bridge. I preserve a photographic
memory of that moments: Master Soletti and 1st Officer Ascheri were leaned
against handrail corresponding two last starboard windows, slightly bowed
looking to ship proceeding on the stormy sea. At the port window there was
the ship official photographer shooting frames to most attractive breakers.
Furthermore there were the steerman and subordinate officers looking to the
radars and in chart-room.
Greeting the presents I went to central window looking outside and I asked
about the situation. 1st Officer Ascheri indicated me the men on the deck
returning after the above mentioned service and explained me the reason of
sailing with sea astern. Just in that moment arrived the phone call from
Capt. Cosulich announcing the end of repairing on fore deck-house. I have
again in my ears the loud and calm voice of Master Soletti ordering “Screws
slow-down to 120 RPM”.
In that moment the fate decided for my life; if I had been there for a few
minutes more the “monster”, smashing the window crystal, had cutted-off my
head too. Instead I thought to go in the chart-room to looking the charts.
While I was bowed on the chart with a pair of compasses in my hand, I heard
again the voice of Master Soletti ordering to the helmsman “Slowly return to
I don’t know exactly how many minutes will have been passed from slow-down
order to course return order, surely not too much, but I am absolutely sure
that these orders were in the spirit of events after hours of stress and
repeated course variations due to the Rokos rescue, emergency repairs and in
the intentions of who had ever faced up to hard situations with good
results. I know that censors stated “Master Soletti, before ordering the
course corrections would have been sure of the execution of the previous
order, that was “screws slow-down”.
Rest in peace Capt. Soletti, all us, who were on the bridge of Michelangelo
are always there with the same spirit of those days, that spirit of who face
up to the risk and not that one of who, around a table, without dangers,
tries to find the human error.
A few minutes after the order to re-head the ship, the
Michelangelo collided with a salt-water monster. This happened after a fatal
glide on a largest slope dark like the hell. The crash was terrible, really
too strong to hear and remember it. We had a moment of total darkness. I can
only remember what did happen to me: I found myself dragged on the floor by
a water flood burst into the bridge room; then the water flowed out through
I don’t know where and the light came back in that unlucky day. An unreal
concert of alarm bells and buzzers became from the bridge wheelhouse, over
all this alarms the loudest was the engine order-repeaters alarm bells.
Completely soaked I got up and did run to wheelhouse with a deep sense of
anxiety. I was walking in the water throughout scrapped materials. Almost
all windows were widely open, crystals were disappeared, broken into a
myriad of small and large splinters.
At a glance I did comprise the situation: Master Soletti was in front of two
starboard windows strangely intact, he was silent and looking to me
remaining again bowed like to defend himself counter another stroke. The
same thing was for capt. Ascheri, at my left; the helmsman was tight held to
the steering wheel and was fixed astound on me with a little stream of blood
on face. I asked him “How are you? Does the ship respond to the helm?” –
“Yes sir, I feel fine and the ship responds to the helm!” – “Well, please
hold she firmly!”. Then to the Master: “The ship responds, Master we are
okay!”. That word “responds” meant our salvation. Despite the destroying
stroke the steering mechanism was save so the ship was under control.
Otherwise probably we were not here to relate this history because with an
abeam sea the ship had been attacked and destroyed easily.
After the first confusion moment, the Master re-hold the situation and
quickly gave all that orders necessary to fight the emergency. Do you
remember the ship-photographer? Well, he was again crouched-down in the port
corner, the crystal of his window wasn’t broken but a few inches above his
head there was a big glass splinter driven into the wall like a nail. An
inch below it had been lethal. The officer on duty at radar was framed
between the walls of the radar-cabin. He resulted unharmed but radars were
seriously damaged. In the chart-room in that moment there was also Chief
Electrician Officer sit on the sofa. He resulted soaked until knees, being
half-dried he did provide to acknowledge all sounding alarms.
Well, all this should be the answer to the letter of my mother but for who
is reading, I believe it’s opportune I continue with the account of rest of
the voyage to New York.
In the following moments we had no time to think, we knew only that all that
disaster was been caused by a very strong sea stroke.
Captain Soletti, firm and impassive as usual, then gave the order to bear up
the ship to have the sea astern and then the order to setting up the speed
to achieve the best stabilizers performance. Then he gave me a glance. I did
comprise immediately: he did need a first valuation of damages suffered by
the ship, the passengers and by the crew. In that moment I was the only
2nd Master Cosulich and 1st officer Badessi were both caught together the
repairing team by the sea-stroke on Promenade Deck. This deck too, despite
shut watertight doors was partially flood. Anyway Capt. Badessi after a few
time reached Master Soletti on the bridge to have other duties, Capt.
Cosulich was missing.
Let us proceed with order, below I will try to describe the situation
Exactly below the bridge, on fore Lido Deck, there was Master’s and Chief
Engineer’s cabins. Here an elderly servant, an old but lively ligurian man,
pale like a white sheet, was jumping on the flood floor looking for, in both
cabins, objects and things to be recovered. In that place the water did seem
to be entered through the broken windows and not from front bulkhead, bowed
to inner side but intact.
On the next deck down the situation was really worst. The sea stroke did
break the front bulkhead plates torn like paper sheets. Here, the sea
destroyed all fore cabins smashing all the contents against inner bulkheads.
All around was a general destruction, an incredible mix of wares and
materials. When I did arrive in this place I found a general excitement due
to the presence of the couple Berndt, Mr. Steinback with servant Arcidiacono
and other servants came here to have a look of the storm show.
In the terrible moment of the wave stroke,
several servants and boys and a chambermaid too, were seriously injured and
they were been transported to the board hospital.
A few of them resulted really grave; the boy Ferrari lost his life in a
short time, another boy, Bianchini, the day 15th were transported with an
helicopter of U.S.C.G. to be urgently recovered and operated in the U.S.
Navy Hospital of Boston. Many others were operated aboard due to a series of
bad broken up fractures.
At the roll-call resulted missing the above mentioned passengers. The couple
of Mr. and Mrs. Berndt were be found a little after by me and by some
servants in the external passage of the same deck. They survived at the sea
stroke and then swallowed and dragged, through the hole of broken bulkhead,
in the external passage. From there, they moved themselves on their hands
and knees leaving bloody traces looking for help until an internal doorway
where we found them completely worn-out. Mrs.Berndt did survive, the husband
unfortunately arrived dead in the hospital.
In the cabin where Mr. Steinback and the servant had been noted, by the
moment wasn’t impossible to get in, due to the amount of smashed materials
stacked against the door. Only after several hours of hard work it had been
possible to take off its hinges the door and come in climbing over scrapped
materials. The external bulkhead didn’t longer exist and it was possible
have a look of the fore, the sea and sky. The servant Arcidiacono was found
alive but numb in a narrow space between scrapped wares; Mr. Steinback laid
dead on his bed, with broken neck and covered with the materials of his
Proceeding on my inspection I immediately noted that while I was going down
the damages did becomes less heavy and this was reassuring.
The hardest situation had been created on three higher decks. Presenting an
enormous hole it did seem the Michelangelo had received a large-bore cannon
shot. Looking at this zone from main-deck I had the real feeling of a cannon
shot directed to the forecastle!
Then I got down in the 1st class Hall where I found Chief Purser that was
trying to calm an old American lady, yet in evening dress, that was walking
around with stunned eyes and a glass of gin hold in her hand. The passengers
situation seemed to be under control. No panic scenes and now we are sailing
once again with sea astern, people could move themselves relatively easily.
A big fear, someone told me, had been felt by the fore lower decks
passengers. This because all the water flooded throw the hole went down the
main stairway and then flooded the lower deck cabins. In some cabins the
water reached the berths level and it was a hard work to empty it with
buckets and mops.
I did a turn-around on the Halls-decks where there placed dining rooms and
galleys. Some stewards were distributing sandwiches and I seized hold one. I
was again soaked but I didn’t care and I was hungry. A second class
bar-tender related me of a passenger hurled throw an aisle against a
glass-door breaking down it. Thought dead he was transported to hospital,
but despite heavy injured, he had save his life.
When I reached the Hospital the amount of deceased was already at two, only
after noon I had the notice of finding of Mr. Steinback’s body, total
In the board Hospital the confusion were impressive. The doctors were busy
like in a field military hospital after a battle.
The wound chamber-maid lay on a bed and she was moaning at every ship
movement: she had fractured pelvis. Other peoples were moaning waiting for
doctors help. Here I had another surprise: in a room of the Hospital I found
2nd Master, capt. Cosulich lay on a bed with wide open eyes. He had a
plastered broken arm. He told me that after repairing on fore deck-house he
got into the ship to advise by phone Master Soletti of carried out work.
Then he run the starboard Promenade deck when the wave hit the ship and capt.
Cosulich fell down. In that zone the stroke caused the breaking of hydraulic
piping of watertight doors plant so the oil fell on the floor. Capt.
Cosulich tried to stand-up, he slipped on the oil and fell-down again on the
floor with broken right hand and wrist. Even people come to help him had
problems to standing up on oily floor but finally he was recovered in the
Hospital. Capt. Cosulich was the only injured officer but fortunately, after
the arm plaster he could return on duty. With the help of Capt. Badessi he
could carry out the great deal of technical and office work after the event.
Death certificates, inventories, accident reports for passengers and crew
members, ships damages reports and so on.
All this work had been carried out during following three
days of sailing to New York with the general help of all crew members:
officers, apprentice officers, petty officers and commons. I spent two days
writing, copying and reproducing copies and copies of nautical and average
reports written by Master Soletti that, I must note, had the perfect
behaviour of a real seaman. He were worthy of the best tradition of Lussino
(an Italian zone famous for illustrious captains and seamen). His writing
remained the usual one: clear and well-legible. Neither signals of
hesitation nor signals of tiredness despite professional, moral and physical
Since “repetita juvant” (to repeat it’s useful), let’s go on asking
ourselves once more time: what did happened really? Why that gigantic wave
hit the ship tearing the loof-rails like paper sheets? And then sweeping and
bending all things along his run smashing itself against the midship-house
bulkhead? Why it did destroy all interiors and the windows of the bridge
destroying wheelhouse and the chart-room? The port side wing wooden
sliding-door was strong and heavy, nevertheless I remember to have seen it
floating like a raft.
As I told before, it happened that a big wave hit us hardly when the bow was
not again climbed over the deep valley caused by the previous wave.
Technician and experts talked about an “anomalous wave” and “human error”.
They said: “It was necessary to slowing-down by time and more, before
re-heading the ship fore sea”. Well, now and here I like say no judgements.
I know only that if I were been in the shoes of Master Soletti I would have
done the same things he did. In that event it was impossible thinking like a
General that, far from the battle, has the time to reason about Academy
lessons. Under enemy strokes it’s impossible to make an academic study, it’s
absolutely necessary to react hardly and quickly. Of course it’s easy to
fail or worst to dead. For everyone there is a crossway, a meeting with the
fate. For instance, if I were remained some minutes more near that windows,
fascinated by those water mountains, now I should not be here to tell my
So happened for two passengers, for the boy of Michelangelo and so happened
to five seamen of english ship “Chuscal”.
The “Chuscal” was a large cargo sailing about a 20 miles eastern us and that
about half-an-hour after us were hit by the fate. Hereby her radio-message:
“M/V Chuscal – QTH (position) 40° 57’ N – 43° 23’ W – windforce 12 –
mountainous sea – 5 men lost over board – maybe clung to wooden scraps”.
Those were not the only victims of furious monster, in facts on the day 14th
, when we were getting out the “great dance”, our marconists did receive
following message from Navy ship “Indian Trader” : -“A man fatally wounded,
maybe dead – another man with both broken arms – all ships with doctors
aboard please reply”-
Don’t we forget furthermore the several wounds aboard the liner “France”
sailing to N.Y. too, that on date 12th and followings days had to sail 20
degrees portside listed due to the windforce. In her messages the WX
(weather) was defined “hurricane” and was punctually corrected by American
Weather Station that wouldn’t hear the definition “hurricane” but only
What I could add to all these evidences? Just a wish: please don’t call it
an “anomalous wave”, waves like that one are usual in furious oceans.
The night between 12th and 13th april, the depressionary centre went away,
the weather conditions did improve and we could gradually re-head the ship
on the New York course. The day after I could call by phone my mother to
Meanwhile the weather did get better again and a U.S.C.G. helicopter could
pick-up our gravest wound, boy Bianchini, to transport him to the Boston
great U.S. Navy Hospital.
About following days I have only a pale recollection. I remember
never-ending and restless days spent to inspect, check, write. All this
complicated by the presence aboard (exactly in that voyage!) of the Italian
Line General Chairman, a retired Admiral.
Another annoying fact was the journalist insistence, especially those of
main Italian Newspapers. They asked steady to speak with the Master at any
time, day and night, to address him foolish and trite questions. Master
Soletti, imperturbable, patient and kind did answer everyone.
We arrived in New York harbour on day 16th. Eight a.m. o-clock we were
already docked to West Side Pier 90. We were under attack by American and
world-wide journalists. Breaking news about the wonderful Italian ship
accident hit the public opinion. A big deal of right and stupid words were
written about Michelangelo unlucky adventure.
Still today I feel the harrowing looking of the ripped front bulkhead of the
most beautiful ship on which I had never sailed.
In conclusion, I wish to repeat once more
that exhortation I care: “please don’t call anomalous the wave that hit
Michelangelo at 10.20 on 12th april 1966. This because innumerable other
similar waves did run the oceans until today and so much people saw a lot of
similar breakers without calling it anomalous”. I would to “squawk” the U.S.
Weather Radio Station who reproached the Master of ship France: “No
hurricane, just storm, please!” Then let us repeat “No anomalous wave, just
a big wave please!”. This even if it caused the death of unlucky men like
the three victims aboard Michelangelo, the five seamen of “Chuscal” and the
poor Apprentice Officer of “Indian Trader.
Notice about S/s Michelangelo – Italian Line:
Overall length: 902 ft
Passengers aboard in that voyage: 775
Maximum Passenger number: 1’771 (561 -1st Class, 550 -2nd Class, 690
Crew member: 720
Max. Speed: 31 Kts, Cruise speed 26.5 kts
Officers on duty (12th april 1966):
2nd Master Claudio Cosulich
1st Officer Corrado Badessi
Written and signed by Claudio Suttora, Chiavari (Italy, Genoa) March 1991
(The author’s gratitude to Master Giovanni Belfiore - Genoa, Italy Genoa,
re-writer of whole evidence from paper to a digital support.)
English translation by Paolo Serravalle, written in Pietranera (Italy,
Genoa), July 30th, 2013.
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