It was about 3 a.m. July 25, 1956 when the phone rang at my bedside. It was Bill Corley on the network news desk.
“Gabe, the Andrea Doria has been in a collision with a Swedish ship, the Stockholm, off Nantucket," he told me. "Get down to Coast Guard headquarters at the Battery as fast as you can. They’re coordinating search and rescue operations from there.”
Both Corley and I were well aware that maritime disasters were built into the history of NBC and RCA. David Sarnoff, the immigrant who built RCA into a powerhouse, started as an office boy for the Marconi Telegraph Company. He taught himself the Morse Code and, on April 14, 1912, he was working at his desk when he picked up a signal: “S.S.Titanic ran into iceberg. Sinking fast.” For 72 hours, he stayed at his post, giving the news to the world. He took in the names of those on the passenger list -- as families waited for news of who had survived and who had died.
On this morning just 55 years ago, I raced down to Coast Guard headquarters and fed voice reports by telephone every half hour on the efforts by the Coast Guard and other ships to find survivors. In those days, NBC had a radio network.
At about 7 a.m. I got word from Coast Guard officers that they were flying a special plane to the scene -- for a press pool. I would represent broadcasters. Ed McCarthy of United Press would represent wire services. Several cameramen would represent newspapers, wire services and newsreels.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on what looked like a sightseeing expedition. I was enjoying getting on the air frequently from the command center for the Coast Guard. But a wise old bird in the NBC newsroom, Joe Meyers, said: “Gabe, you’d better go. We’ll send someone else down to Coast Guard headquarters.”
So I boarded the two-engine plane with the others at Floyd Bennett Field. About 90 minutes later, we were flying over the Andrea Doria. The sleek, beautiful ship was listing heavily to the right side. None of us expected it would sink.
But as we circled overhead, the list became greater. It suddenly became clear that the ship was actually sinking before our eyes.
The sky was clear. The sun shone brightly on a calm sea. We found out later that, by this time, the survivors had been taken off the ship. There was no one alive aboard.
Then, as we watched in amazement and horror, the ship suddenly went from a 50 degree list to a 60 degree list to starboard and, within a few minutes, it fell beneath the Atlantic waters. I saw huge bubbles rise to the surface.
I had a primitive tape recorder and spoke into it. “I am looking at the death throes of the Andrea Doria, pride of the Italian Line. It’s turning over, like a toy in a bathtub. And now it’s sinking. It’s a horrible sight. The water is bubbling as the ship goes down in the waters here off Nantucket. “
Meanwhile, Gene Broda, a gifted photographer was filming it all for United Press. His footage would go out to everybody.
An hour and a half later, we landed at Floyd Bennett, and I rushed to a phone booth. We had no cell phones in those days. The program director at WRCA Radio was not a newsman but, when he asked me: “Is this story important?” I replied: “You’d better believe it and it’s exclusive!”
The program director, Steve White, was a music man, not a newsman, and you have to remember this was in the primitive, early days of broadcast news. White told me that, at the moment, Al Jazzbo Collins, the disk jockey, was doing his show but, since I said this was important he’d have him put it on right away.
"Record a three-minute spot describing what you saw and he’ll put it right on the air.” So I did and the story went out to the jazz junkies who happened to be listening.
Later in the day, a solid newsman and producer, Joe Dembo, took my rather excited sounding tape and Broda’s dramatic film, edited it all down and it was carried on the network news that night. Fifty-one passengers aboard the two ships had died. More than 1600 passengers and crew survived.
hose were the challenging old days. We weren’t sure we knew what we were doing. But it was a time when the goal for all of us was gathering news for television -- and broadcasting it to the greatest audience in history.
We were caught up in this new kind of journalism and determined to do the best job we could.