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.”
Bianco says the vessel passed coast guard inspection with flying colors and a $5,000 examination by the Navy rated the sub as capable of withstanding pressures at depths of 600 feet. When the boat was completed, the stock soared to $4.75 a share. At the time of launching, Deep Sea Techniques had $300,000 invested in the 5/8-inch steel-alloy plated Yellow Submarine. Another $600,000 would be needed for a mother ship to which the sub would be tethered for air, electricity, communications and supplies.
“For the sake of simplicity, my sub was like a stripped down economy car with no extras.” Also, flotation, the thousands of dunnage bags that were designed to cushion shifting freight on ships and trains, would be a major expense.
Finally, on October 19, 1970, the sub was ready to be launched. Bianco’s daughter, Patricia, broke a bottle of champagne across the bow before a giant crane lowered the craft into the creek.
The launching expense was calculated by the pound, so to save money, Bianco, with the aid of friends and stockholders, had removed, by the pail full, the ballast, which was made up of slug-like steel punch outs, from one side of the boat. Even then the cost of launching would be $3,800. A large crowd of supporters, skeptics and the media were on hand to witness the event.
Bianco had instructed the crane engineer not to lower the sub completely into the water because he knew that with the ballast removed from only one side, the boat would list severely. For some reason the engineer let the vessel down too low and she rolled onto her starboard side as cameras clicked and people laughed and jeered from the shore.
Bianco was devastated. “I felt like throwing that crane operator into the creek,” he says. “The sub couldn’t be raised again to correct the tilt because it had turned in the sling and would be held in that position when lifted.”
From that point on, the value of the stock and hopes to continue the project seemed to sink like a lead banana. “Even after we put the ballast back and the sub sat steady as could be, people didn’t show the same confidence as they did before.” To regain credibility, Bianco raised a sunken 44-foot yacht to demonstrate his method.
He says that the second issue of stock that was floated around the time of the launching to raise more funds didn’t sell well and the money had to be returned. He attributes part of the loss of confidence in the venture to the poor condition of the stock market. “It had been in bad shape since 1968.”
The sub remained docked in the creek as bills for rent and corporate maintenance and taxes piled up. Bianco launched a couple of campaigns to rekindle enthusiasm for his salvage operation, but investor pessimism seemed to override his efforts. After five years, the corporation had to be dissolved for non-payment of taxes. “We had tried to keep things simple, but the need for funds made us become over incorporated with lawyers, accountants, prospectuses and the like.”
The submarine remained at its mooring for several years even though the rent wasn’t being paid. Bianco, who had to go back to making a living as a junk man, did what he could to watch over and maintain the vessel, but once when he went down to the creek he found that a hatch and some interior gauges and other hardware had been stolen.
Then, in 1981, the sub broke away in a storm and he thought it was lost until a low tide revealed that it had drifted out towards Norton’s Point, off of Sea Gate.
“Building that boat was one of the happiest times in my life,” said Bianco, as he momentarily looked towards the sub’s old launching site. “I still think my idea would’ve worked. I could’ve been on easy street. I think it would work even today.” The Andria Doria still rests on the ocean floor.
Now, the once hope-laden Yellow Submarine springs to the surface from time to time – like an eternal dream.