Monday, 23 December 2013

Lakonia victims resting in Madeira, 50 years on

This morning as I depart from Madeira, exactly 50 years ago rescuers were bringing ashore here the bodies of British people lost after a terrible night of fire on the stricken Lakonia.
The disaster, bigger than the Costa Concordia, was to become one of the key symbols of the dangers of sailing on floating rust buckets operated by Greek cowboys. Finally eight officers were found guilty of negligence.
Those on board had set off for a an eleven-day Christmas cruise from Southampton, back in those days when affordable cruises were only just coming into existence. The brochure had promised them ‘absolute freedom from worry and responsibility.’
This terrible pre-Xmas event in 1963 has poignancy for me because only the other day I happened to be wandering round the British cemetery in Madeira in search of biographical fragments.
Of course the graveyard, in the Rua da Carreira, is full of memorials to distinguished ex-pat citizens such as the Blandys and Leacocks, as well as to visitors who tragically expired on holidays,and to seafarers in the Merchant and Royal Navies, some of whom died here in wartime.

THAT TERRIBLE CLUSTER
But there’s a cluster of five graves that are narratively notable and united. They’re the only ones in this cemetery of maybe a thousand souls to focus, quietly, on just one common cause of death – the Lakonia disaster.
Of the 128 who died, some perished in the shipboard inferno. Most were killed by the cold water – they’d been unable to get into viable lifeboats. At least one person in this Funchal graveyard died afterwards of the delayed affects.
Of the 646 passengers and 376 crew a total of 894 people were saved. The city’s Savoy Hotel helped some people continue with their holiday, and they stayed until in mid-January 1964, sailing home on the Stirling Castle.

A very few lie here. They include James Scrimgeour (see pic above), Helen Scott and WR Hills (see pics below) and the Bells.

Others (initially 58, now thirteen after repatriation ) were taken to Gibraltar where the autopsies were held, or to Casablanca.
In fact on December 6 this year a TSMS Lakonia disaster plaque was unveiled in Gibraltar’s North Front Cemetery. Lakonia mourners flew from all over the world to be there at the anniversary.

In Madeira’s cemetery Hilda and Kenneth Bell (see pic, above)are under a memorial erected on behalf of the passengers with whom they’d embarked so happily.
I’d like to report that their graves are now nestled by picturesque bougainvillea, and that they lie in the shade of very lush camellias or angel trumpet trees.
But this is relatively austere cemetery for such a verdant semi-tropical climate. Stone is the principal ingredient.
Almost no graves at all have vases of flowers, not even plastic ones, because any mourners live thousands of miles away. The least I could do was borrow some hibiscus from a nearby bush and lay it on the gravel bed above them.

ON-BOARD HAIRDRESSING SALON BLAMED

There’s another story, too, that connects me to the Lakonia.
The fire that caused people to abandon ship was first noticed because smoke was blowing under the hairdressing salon door.
Earlier this year, when writing a chapter on hairdressing at sea for my forthcoming book, I read G-Strings and Curls, by Tony Kaye and Richard Seamon (Arima, London, 2007). Tony Kaye was the hairdresser who owned the salon on board the Lakonia.
He wrote bitterly about the initial accusation that some fault in his rented premises had caused the fire. This was a personal disaster to Kaye, who had just started up as a shipboard hairdresser. Presenting himself grandly as ‘Coiffeur Transocean’ earlier that year he’d asked the General Steam Navigation Company of Greece for the concessionary rights on their ‘new’ cruise ship. They agreed.
That summer fifty years ago this new boy invested all he had in fancifying the rather basic salon that then existed.
So the idea that he was responsible for the fire was a disaster on top of the disaster at this very onset of his career.
Tony Kaye was part of a new wave of shipboard hairdressing. Just as Vidal Sassoon was so hairstyles and Biba was to fashion, so Kaye was the entrepreneur who would build a shipboard empire that for decades rivalled Steiner’s stately dominance of blue-rinsing procedures aboard almost all of Britain’s iconic ocean queens.
In fact an official inquiry found faulty electrical wiring was at fault, not hairdryers. It also criticised the poor maintenance of equipment (some davits rusted), the poor boat drills, and the poor supervision.
That took two years. In the meantime Kaye was struggling to get other shipping companies to take him on despite his reputation.
I found while surfing the website for the disaster, http://www.andalucia.com/forums/viewtopic.php, that the 21-year-old manager of Kaye's Lakonia salon, Joe Benveniste, is still alive and well. He was in the water for five hours but saved by an unknown man called Tony and taken onto the Montcalm.

POIGNANT CONTRASTS
I’m leaving Madeira today, the day before Xmas Eve, a relatively happy holidaymaker on a plane that I assume will safely bring me home.
Before our plane has taken off another cruise ship will have already arrived – as one or two do every day – and moored just a quarter of a mile from the cemetery.
Down by the bus station near the dock women will be laying out their usual pavement displays of fir boughs, Spanish-mossed branches, and buckets of proteas. Fake Santas will continue plodding their beat in tourist boulevards and cobbled lanes decked with strings of lights and OTT nativity scenes.
CDs of heavily-orchestrated English carols will, for yet another day, be thundering out in every hotel tannoy shopping mall.
Happy Christmas, Madame. Weihachtsgrusse. Come back next year.
It’s a striking contrast to the Lakonia passengers who were so cruelly cut short in their enjoyment of the anticipated festivities, perhaps some of them sporting their new Xmas perms and trims created by Joe, in the new Coiffeur Transocean salon.
I’m pleased that the Lakonia inquiry did finally bring tighter regulation go shipyard safety. But in these penny-pinching days I wonder how much operators of ships are ensuring every voyage is a safe one.

1 comment:

uk012429 said...

Hallo Jo

No - of course they're not! Mike's working 8 on, 8 off because his ship has 2 ABs and was designed for at least three. But passengers can also be to blame - they think boat drills are there to bother them.

All the best
Rose