Ships 2

Bianca C

Ships 3

Bianca C

Hard Luck Liner Bianca C

By James Donahue

Those who remember Costa Armatori’s fine liner the Bianca C knew her as one of the more graceful vessels to have ever sailed the waters of the world. But she came into existence in the midst of World War II, was sunk by a German submarine before ever going into service, had several owners and bore several names, and then sank after an explosion and fire occurred off Granada in 1961.

The one highlight to the story: The wreck rests upright in about 165 feet of warm, tropical water and consequently has become one of the favorite sites for scuba divers to visit. Diving magazines and experts list the Bianca C as one of the top ten wreck dive sites in the world. Thus the Bianca C continues to provide a service to a specialty clientele.

The 600-foot liner was built during World War II at Construction Navales La Ciotat, a shipyard on the southern coast of France. It was launched in June, 1944, as the Marechal Petain. The hull was towed to Port de Bouc for completion. But before the work could be done the hull was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.

After the war the hull was raised, the ship was repaired and fitted out as a cruise ship, and renamed La Marseillaise. It went into service in July, 1949. In 1957 the ship was sold to the Arosa Line of Panama. The new owners refitted the vessel as the company flagship and gave it a new name, Arosa Sky.

The venture was not successful and within two years the Arosa Line was forced to sell the liner to the Costa Line in Italy. It was refurbished again and given its final name, the Bianca C and put on a route from Italy to Venezuela, which included stops in the Caribbean.

The liner’s career came to a sudden and unexpected end on Sunday, October 22, 1961, while  anchored off Grenada. The vessel, under the command of Captain Francisco Crevaco, was preparing to raise anchors and start the final leg of a trip across the Atlantic for Naples. On board were about 400 passengers and 300 crew members.

Captain Crevaco was on the bridge that morning and had just given orders to start the engines and prepare to set sail. Even before the anchors could be raised, however, the ship was rattled by a violent explosion in the engine room, followed by a raging fire.

One crew member was killed in the blast. The Second Mate was so badly burned he died at Grenada’s General Hospital two days later. A third badly burned crew member died in Caracas where he was flown for special medical attention.

The cause of the blast was never determined. Some speculated that either the engines blew up as crew members were attempting to start them, or that explosives had been smuggled on board.

Whatever happened, the fire that broke out was quickly out of control and it spread throughout the ship.

Members of the Grenada Yacht Club were gathered that morning for planned racing when they heard the strange wail of the Bianca C’s fog horn and noticed a distress flag flying on the yard arm. They realized the liner was on fire and brought their boats to the liner’s side to rescue passengers and crew members.

The harbor authorities were notified and soon Grenadian fishing boats and private yachts were rushing to the scene to assist.

As flames broke out near the bow of the ship, the armada of small boats was taking passengers off at the stern, where they were climbing down rope ladders. Some of the ship’s life boats also were launched. Except for the three who perished, everybody else escaped the burning ship.

The operator of one of the rescue boats told of constant explosions occurring within the ship during the rescue operations, and how everyone worked feverishly to make sure everyone escaped before they thought the entire liner was going to explode.

“After everyone had been evacuated, we cruised around for a while, at a safe distance, listening to rumbling explosions from inside the ship,” he said. “We watched as her plates began to glow a bright cherry red, paint pealed off her sides in great chunks, and anyone on board at that time could not have lived.”

There was another problem looming. The Bianca C was still anchored at the main entrance to the harbor and it was feared that if it sank there, it would be a hazard to navigation. Also, there were no tugs or vessels with equipment large enough to fight the fire or tow the liner away from that location.

A call went out to the British frigate HMS Londonderry, then at Puerto Rico, which arrived at the scene two days later. By then the Bianca C was still burning and beginning to sink. A boarding party managed to attach a tow line and managed to move the wreck about three miles before the vessel foundered in about 165 feet of water.

Salvagers have since removed the ship’s propellers and sold them for scrap, and some sport divers have removed parts of the vessel for souvenirs. In 1992 a storm left a rear portion of the hull town away Nevertheless, the wreck remains one of the largest, most intact, and most popular dive sites.