BEACH HAVEN – Referred to as the Mount Everest of diving, the Andrea Doria has taken the lives of 15 divers. Reaching parts of the wreckage requires a plunge of more than 250 feet. Two divers who made it out of the wreck several times spoke and showed an underwater video of their experiences Friday night at the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History.
Steve Gatto and Tom Packer have been exploring and photographing offshore shipwrecks together for almost 30 years, including 19 consecutive years on the Italian ocean liner the Andrea Doria. Other underwater wrecks they have explored include the USS Monitor, Nantucket Lightship, submarines, tankers, freighters, steamers, paddle wheelersand schooners. Gatto and Packer last dove to the Andrea Doria in 2006 for the 50th anniversary of its sinking.
The Andrea Doria was an oceangoing gallery of Italy’s finest works of art, but the upscale vessel sank July 25, 1956, after colliding with the MS Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket Island, Mass. Forty-six people died in the collision. The oceanliner sunk the following morning.
The video Packer and Gatto showed to a crowded room Friday night was of a dive to the Andrea Doria – what they consider the ultimate dive. They begin their dive on the promenade deck of the Andrea Doria in about 170 feet of water. Gatto said the promenade deck no longer exists, having been corroded away by saltwater.
Through cloudy, dark, debris-infested water, pipes could be seen fastened to the inside of the engine room casing. Sea anemones attached themselves to all portions of the wreckage.
Gatto and Packer swam deeper, to 230-feet, toward the runway. At one point in the video, Packer wipes debris from the port to expose Italian writing beneath. In another scene, a cooking pot and skillet rest in debris, while nearby dishes rest on a piece of steel. Gatto and Packer’s dive on the Andrea Doria in 1996 was about a 25-minute trip. The pair had to decompress for about an hour.
“Places we brought dishes out of are totally gone,” said Gatto, a resident of Winslow Township, Camden County.
Dishes were not the only things Packer, of Berlin, Camden County, brought up from the wreck. The Museum of New Jersey Maritime History is now the home to the signal bell that was on the stern of the ship, which Packer brought up after a trip in 1985.
Gatto and Packer called the early nineties the dark years because there were so many diver fatalities while exploring the wreck. The pair said for about ten years nothing happened at the site of the Andrea Doria, and then there was a string of deaths.
“There were times when we would go out there, get to the site and look around, wondering who’s not going to make it back,” Packer said.