The Sinking of the Bianca C


She lies on the bottom in relatively shallow water. She's the former luxury liner Bianca C, the largest and, perhaps, most interesting submerged wreck in the Caribbean. Her 600-foot length nestles the sea bed close to Grenada's south-western coast and there's a fascinating story as to how this once-beautiful ship got there.

It began some thirty years ago when, on a quiet Sunday morning the mournful wail of a ship's fog horn shattered the calm. Bianca C then lay quietly at anchor in the outer harbour and everything about the ship seemed normal.

Very elegant-looking, this cruise liner was a familiar sight to Grenadians, and her persistent, complaining fog horn was totally out of keeping with the peaceful picture she presented.

At the Grenada Yacht Club on the eastern side of the town, yachtsmen were gathered for a morning of dinghy racing. Attracted by the wail of the fog horn, they noticed something else. An unfamiliar flag signal was flying from the cruise-liner's yard arm. Quickly deciphered, it conveyed an alarming message. Bianca C was on fire and required assistance immediately.

Reaction was prompt as members hurried to mobilise the Club's resources. The Harbour Authorities were informed and every available boat was manned. An urgent call for help was relayed to all vessels in the harbour, and so was launched a unique community effort which saved many lives.

The date was October 22nd 1961 and, that morning, the 18,000 ton Bianca C, a frequent caller at the island, had completed a visit with nearly 400 passengers and a crew of some 300. She had taken on also a small contingent of Grenadian immigrants bound for the United Kingdom.

Owned by the Italian Costa Line of Steamships, Bianca C was under the command of Captain Francisco Crevaco, a short, stocky sea-dog with 40 years experience. Captain Crevaco was on the bridge that morning and had given orders for Bianca C to prepare to sail. This ship, however, was destined never to go to sea again.

Before the anchor could be lifted and the ship put under way, a terrific explosion destroyed the engine room. That started a raging fire. The ship's fire fighting equipment was unable to cope with it, and spreading flames were soon to engulf the entire ship.

Sabotage was not suspected. Speculations are that explosives had been smuggled on board and these had been accidentally ignited. Another theory is that one of the ship's engines blew up when an attempt was made to start it.

Whatever the cause, the explosion killed one crew member on the spot. Suffering from severe burns, the Second Mate died at Grenada's General Hospital two days later. A third badly burned crew member, flown to Caracas for urgent medical attention, also died.

Rallied by Yacht Club personnel, a Dunkirk-type flotilla hastened to assist the stricken ship. Included were classy ocean-going yachts, smaller day-sailers and rough-and-ready fishing boats of all sizes. There were power boats, sailing boats, tiny dinghys and 50-ton inter-island trading schooners. Even rowing boats were there.

In a heroic and determined effort to rescue the passengers and crew of the stricken ship before the fire consumed them, this motley armada, ignoring the considerable danger of the moment, moved quickly to the outer harbour. And none too soon.

By the time the first rescue craft got to Bianca C, the fire had spread and intensified. Rumbling explosions echoed from the bowels of the ship, hurling burning debris into the air. And, thick, black smoke billowed from the forward end of the liner.

There was no time to lose. Frightened passengers had been herded by the ship's crew to the relative safety of the stern and, from that point, an orderly evacuation took place. There was no panic. Women and children first, followed by the men, scrambled down perilously swaying rope ladders and huddled in the few lifeboats the crew had been able to launch.

The flotilla of assorted Grenadian craft joined the rescue effort immediately and the skipper of one of these boats remembers the pathetic state of the distressed passengers.

"They were in various stages of dress and undress", he says. "Most were scantily clad, some had on no more than a pair of pyjamas, and they were all obviously in shock."

The rescue boats moved promptly alongside Bianca C and began to accept the scared passengers as they nervously descended the swinging rope ladders. The ship's lifeboats were taken in tow by the larger power boats, and all rescue craft, loaded to capacity, quickly ferried their human cargo to the shore before hustling back for another pitiful load.

Throughout the operation, loud explosions continued to tear through the hull of the burning ship and were constant reminders of the need for haste. There was no time to lose as, at any time, Bianca C might be blown apart, enveloping all around her in flames.

Eventually, all passengers were evacuated safely with no more than a few minor injuries. And, with the exception of Captain Crevaco and a few of his officers, all the crew had also been taken off. The Captain and his officers had been on the bridge of Bianca C, but the spreading fire forced them to retreat towards the bow.

This almost resulted in disaster as, when the time came for them to be taken off, fire had cut off their route to the evacuation point at the stern. Fortunately, a rope ladder was found and they, too, scrambled down to safety.

This heroic rescue operation took some two hours to complete and, according to the skipper of another rescue boat, had it taken longer, there certainly would have been great loss of life.

"After everyone had been evacuated", he said, "we cruised around for a while, at a safe distance, listening to rumbling explosions from inside the ship. We watched as her plates began to glow a bright cherry red, paint pealed off her sides in great chunks, and anyone on board at that time could not have lived."

On the waterfront in the inner harbour, an impromptu but efficient organisation had been hastily thrown together to deal with the crisis. Ambulances took the injured to the General Hospital. And a corps of volunteers, manning a fleet of taxis and private cars, took passengers and crew to a special camp set up by the Government.

With more than 600 people to cater for, accommodation was at a premium and, when the camp overflowed, the community came to the rescue. All doors were open to the unfortunates. Wherever beds were available, the survivors were shuttled by the volunteers to accommodation at hotels, guest houses and private homes.

Other sections of the community then got into the act. Free of cost, grocers supplied meat and canned goods. Farmers sent in truck-load after truck-load of fresh fruit and vegetables. Local cooks manned the camp kitchen until the ship's cooks could take over and, through the Red Cross, merchants donated clothing, toilet items and other necessary personal effects to each of the survivors.

On the following day, Bianca C, was still burning. Also, she was obviously settling deeper in the water. Fearful the ship would sink and block the harbour channel, the Administrator, Mr James Lloyd, was anxious to have her moved. But this raised controversy.

Captain Crevaco absolutely refused to give permission to allow his ship to be towed away. He wanted the fire damage verified first, he said. Manning one of the Bianca C lifeboats, he sat, with some of his officers, in the outer harbour, hour after hour, a sad and dejected figure, keeping faithful watch over his beloved ship and determined no one was going to move her.

At the Administrator's request, a British warship, the frigate H.M.S, Londonderry arrived, discussions were held and, eventually, a compromise was reached.

It was agreed the burnt-out vessel would be inspected. Following that, the Londonderry would get Bianca C out of the shipping channel as soon as possible and beach her on a reef near the southern tip of the island.

It was dangerous to board the ship but, as far as was possible, an inspection was carried out and, before dawn on Tuesday, sailors from the British warship were on the job.

At this time, the ship was still smoking but there were no leaping flames. However, sections of her hull glowed a dull red, they seemed translucent and, in some areas, the water boiled around her.

At first, all went well and according to plan. Demolition experts from the frigate blasted off the ship's anchor chains and she was taken in tow. The ship swung into line and, wallowing sluggishly in the wake of the "Londonderry", Bianca C was on the way to her final resting place. But, she never got there.

Soon after the Londonderry began to tow, it was clear this was not going to be an easy task. A strong cross wind played across the outer harbour and, to make matters worse, the rudder of the burning ship was jamed.

In these circumstances, navigation was tricky and, as if with a will of her own, Bianca C seemed bent on heading for Grand Anse beach.

With difficulty, the Londonderry got the hulk of Bianca C heading in the right direction again. Then, it happened. Within a few hundred yards of the designated reef, a strong gust of wind swung the ship around and the towing cable broke. She lost momentum, drifting off course, and that marked the beginning of the end.

Before the Londonderry could run another cable, Bianca C was seen to hesitate momentarily. Then amid shooting gusts of hissing steam, she slipped under the surface, stern-first, into some 20 fathoms of water. The time was noon, exactly.

Unfortunately, that isn't the end of the story. And what followed is out of keeping with the spirit of friendly brotherhood which the incident had generated before. This aftermath left a bitter taste. The passage of time has removed the sting and the hurt does not remain but, let me tell you about it, anyway.

After the loss of his ship, Captain Crevaco, with his passengers and crew, spent about a week as guests of the people of Grenada. Two ships arrived to take them away and a central player in organizing their safe repatriation was a Grenadian, Mr W. E. Julien.

He was Managing Director of the company which represents the Costa Line, and the Italian Government, recognizing services he had rendered in the disaster, conferred on him the honour of Cavaler of the Order of Merit.

At the same time, the Costa Steamship Line presented a token of their appreciation to the people of Grenada. It was a life-size bronze replica of the statue, Christ of the Deep, the original of which was said to have been sunk in the Bay of Naples as a symbol of God's care for all who sail the high seas.

Statue of Christ of the Deep

Statue of Christ of the Deep, now sited on the waterfront
of the Carenage---the former site at the Harbour entrance is
indicated by the arrow.

The statue was sent to the Administrator and he asked the City Council to choose a site for it. He asked the Council also to have it erected and submit a bill. That seemed simple enough but it brought an unhappy quarrel between the City Council and the ship's Agents.

The Council decided the statue should be erected at the water's edge on the eastern arm of St Georges harbour mouth. The Agents didn't like it there. They wanted it placed on the western seafront of the town. Since the Council had been charged with the job, however, their choice prevailed, but the Agents had the last word.

After the statue had been erected at some considerable cost, the Council sent the bill to the Administrator. He forwarded it to the Costa Steamship Line in Genoa, Italy, for payment, and they sent it to their Agents in Grenada for verification. And that's where the bitterness started.

The Agents said emphatically the bill should not be paid. The City Council had to shoulder the cost and the Mayor, Aldermen and Councilors were not amused. There were heated words on both sides and, for a while, the statue became a sore point of dissatisfaction.

But, passage of years has blunted that. Today, this replica of Christ of the Deep, has been moved from its original location at the harbour entrance and now stands on the esplanade at the head of the harbour.

With arms outstretched, it represents the gratitude of the Costa Steamship Line. And it is a reminder of Grenadians' generous response to needs of the distressed passengers and crew of the ill-fated Bianca C.

Today, the wreck has shifted a little and lies in about 170 feet of water. It is said to be slowly sliding into a deep trough. The top decks are some 100 feet below the surface, which makes the ship relatively easy to reach, and she has become a valuable addition to Grenada's many attractions.

The island's Tourist Authorities have announced the wreck is to be declared a marine national park. This will preserve it and guard against vandalism. Bianca C will remain an interesting and exhilarating challenge for the experienced diver, but, be warned, this dive is dangerous.

The area is swept by strong, unpredictable currents. If you want to experience this thrill, don't try it on your own. Get in touch with one of Grenada's scuba dive organizations.

Whether or not you are a dive enthusiast, you should visit the statue on the Carenage in St George's. As you contemplate the arms of "Christ of the Deep" outstretched in blessing over the calm waters of the harbour, you'll certainly be touched by the disastrous tragedy this monument commemorates.

You'll thrill to the memory of the dangerous rescue mission which saved so many lives. And you'll have a true sense of the torrent of hospitality which flowed so generously from the Grenadian people to the distressed passengers and crew of the Bianca C.

Alister Hughes