This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Andrea Doria. The following story chronicles one man’s gallant effort to resurrect the lost ship.
On the eastern edge of Gravesend Bay, just at the mouth of the Coney Island Creek in Brooklyn, there lies a makeshift graveyard for old barges, scows, pleasure boats and other decrepit vessels. Occasionally, at low tide, an unusual shape can be seen protruding from the water near the wrecks. It is that of a submarine’s conning tower. Locals say the sub, swept by storms and high tides, has been popping up at various sights in the area for more than 20 years. The faded yellow paint that still clings to some of the metal identifies the vessel as the once dream-laden Yellow Submarine.
Back in 1963, Jerry Bianco, a ship fitter who had worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at other marine construction sights for over 25 years, had a brainstorm. He thought of a way that he could salvage the Andrea Doria, a luxury liner that went down off Nantucket after colliding with the Swedish ship Stockholm, July 25, 1956.
The Andrea Doria was known to be bountifully loaded with such diverse items as a $250,000 solid silver statue of a mermaid; thousands of cases of liquor; tons of provolone cheese; 200,000 pieces of mail that the federal government would pay 26 cents a piece for; the ship’s bronze propellers, worth $30,000 each, paintings locked in air-tight vaults; industrial diamonds; the ship’s $6 million metal scrap value; passengers’ personal property left in several vaults and more.
According to Bianco, “Up to that time, no ship of comparable size had ever been reclaimed from the sea.” The result of previous efforts made by several well funded organizations to raise the Andrea Doria were one diver dead and several divers stricken with carbon dioxide poisoning.
Undaunted by these failures, Bianco dreamed of building a submarine strong enough to withstand the pressures under the 240 feet of water where the crippled ship had come to rest. With the use of a cannon-like hydraulic tube extending from his sub, Bianco would penetrate the sunken vessel and fire inflatable dunnage bags into the ship’s hull. The bags would disconnect when filled. When enough bags had been shot into the Andrea Doria, she would begin to rise.
Of course there were some wrinkles to be ironed out. Skeptics wrote the idea off as a pipe dream. After all, if large organizations weren’t successful, how could one man with little experience and less money be successful? Bianco thought that the simplicity of his approach was the key to success. “Those previous attempts were over engineered,” he said with eyes dancing in a weathered face.
He began work in 1966 raising money for the expensive equipment and materials needed by forming a corporation, Deep Sea Techniques, and selling stock over the counter at a dollar a share. “Friends, neighbors, local police and firemen all bought into my dream of raising treasure from the ocean.” A dollar bought a piece of the submarine and a share of whatever she salvaged.
Bianco did the designing and most of the welding himself but also employed workers as need arose and money allowed.
His two sons also contributed their efforts. Raising money was always a problem. One had to be a dreamer to put faith in a captain who had never even piloted a sub before. Bianco’s simple mousetrap approach, “My sub wasn’t made for speed or beauty,” attracted small waves of stock investors.
After four years of hard work, a 40-foot, 83 ton Yellow Submarine squatted beneath The Burns Bros. Coal silos on the shores of the Coney Island Creek ready to be launched.
“I painted it yellow because the yellow zinc chromate paint was the cheapest I could find,” says Bianco.
“The name Yellow Submarine really caught on but it had nothing to do with the Beatles.”
Continued next week...