The Bianca C: into the deep

One Sunday fifty-five years ago, residents of St George’s, Grenada, woke up to a disaster unfolding in their harbour. More than six hundred people on board the liner Bianca C were in grave danger — so dozens of Grenadians leaped into action. James Ferguson remembers the story

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

It’s fair to say the passenger liner MV Bianca C had its share of bad luck. It sank not once, but twice, and now lies in about 150 feet of water about a mile out from Grand Anse beach on Grenada’s south-west coast. Yet, despite this sad fate, and the loss of three lives in its second sinking, the story of the Bianca C represents something altogether more positive than a sorry shipwreck. Not only could the incident in question have been far worse — the vast majority of passengers and crew escaped unhurt — but it also highlighted the bravery and generosity of the people of Grenada.

The Bianca C underwent several incarnations in its twenty-two-year existence, according to the website cruiselinehistory.com. Construction began in 1939 in the southern French shipyard of La Ciotat of a vessel intended to ply routes from Europe to East Asia on behalf of the Messageries Maritimes group. The outbreak of war halted construction, and the unfinished hull of what was named the Maréchal Pétain was towed to Port-de-Bouc to wait for an end to hostilities. The retreating Germans had other ideas, and in August 1944 they torpedoed the ship to create a blockade against Allied shipping. Two years later, the salvageable hull was raised and taken back to La Ciotat, where the ship was patched up and completed. It was renamed La Marseillaise (Pétain was now considered a traitor for his collaboration with the Nazis).

After this inauspicious start, La Marseillaise was reborn as the Messageries Maritimes’s flagship, its sleek exterior matched by its Asian-themed veranda café and luxury cabins. But only eight years after its maiden voyage in August 1949, the situation in French Indochina was deteriorating, and the shipping firm sold the vessel to the Panama-based Arosa Line, which rebranded it the Arosa Star. It was to be another false dawn. The Arosa Line went bust, and so the ship was purchased by the Italian Costa Line. A fourth name, Bianca C, was bestowed on it, in honour of the daughter of Costa’s managing director. An extensive refit ensued, before the liner started its regular service between Naples, Genoa, and La Guaira, Venezuela’s main port.

The Bianca C also made stops at Caribbean ports on outward and return journeys, and the port of St George’s in Grenada was the final stop before the transatlantic crossing to Italy. The liner was thus a familiar sight in the island’s picturesque harbour, as it took on its last passengers and prepared for the open sea. But on 22 October, 1961, fifty-five years ago, something happened that was far from familiar.

 

It was early on a Sunday morning that residents of St George’s were abruptly woken by the plaintive wail of a foghorn. Members of the Grenada Yacht Club, up early for a dinghy racing competition, scanned the vessel across the harbour’s water and immediately noticed it was flying a distress flag. The ship was on fire, with 673 people aboard. Those on shore did not know that a massive explosion had ripped through the engine room just as Captain Francisco Crevaco was about to order the anchors raised. One crewmember was killed at once, two more fatally injured. The fire was uncontrollable and spreading rapidly.

As they realised the extent of the danger, the local yachtsmen went into action, alerting the harbourmaster and radioing all nearby shipping. Alister Hughes, the legendary Grenadian journalist, described what happened next:

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 dinghies, and fifty-ton interisland trading schooners. Even rowing boats were there . . . 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.

By now the lives of passengers and crew were in jeopardy. As the ship’s lifeboats were lowered, so were rope ladders from the stern, allowing first women and children, and then men, to climb nervously down to the boats and to the Grenadian vessels waiting alongside. Terrified, the passengers were mostly in their nightwear, forced to abandon their possessions. As soon as a boat was filled, it hurried back to dry land, and then set out again.

In all, the operation took about two hours. Throughout, explosions could be heard inside Bianca C, whose metal plates began to glow with the heat inside, while paint melted and peeled off the ship’s sides. Only when all others had been evacuated did Captain Crevaco and his officers abandon ship, but their access to the stern was blocked by flames. They eventually located a rope ladder towards the bow and escaped.

On shore, the authorities had mobilised help of all sorts. The injured were taken to hospital, while volunteers drove the others in cars and taxis to a temporary camp set up by the government. When this was filled, passengers were invited to hotels and private homes, welcomed by the people of St George’s. Meanwhile, as news of the incident spread inland, farmers brought in supplies of fruit and vegetables for the camp, where volunteers staffed an improvised kitchen. Local traders and ordinary people donated food, clothing, and toiletries to the rescued passengers.

The Bianca C, meanwhile, continued to smoulder, raising the risk of the ship sinking and blocking the harbour entrance. The authorities wanted to have the stricken vessel towed clear, and a British Navy frigate, the Londonderry, was summoned from Puerto Rico. After an inspection of the liner, tow cables were attached, and the frigate began to pull the Bianca C out to sea. The plan was to beach the ship on a reef, to await salvage, but events were to conspire against this. With a jammed rudder and buffeted by strong winds, the liner was listing dangerously. Suddenly the towing cable snapped. Alister Hughes wrote: “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 twenty fathoms of water. The time was noon, exactly.”

 

With the end of the ship came the realisation that the rescue of the crew and passengers had been almost miraculous. If the explosion had occurred out at sea, the outcome could have been very different. After another week as guests in Grenada, the 670 passengers and crew were picked up and transported safely to Italy. As a token of its gratitude to the island, the Costa Line presented Grenada with a life-size replica of the Christ of the Deep, the submerged Italian statue that is supposed to protect all mariners. It now stands proudly on the Carenage in St George’s, a powerful symbol of human solidarity.

As for the unfortunate Bianca C, it is now one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated dive sites, the rusting wreck home to a plethora of tropical fish species and coral. Fifty-five years on, the “Titanic of the Caribbean” continues to exert a melancholic fascination.