Friday, 22 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Witness (Part 2 of 3)

The Río de la Plata (The River Plate)
– a brief story of a neglected river
III -  Death by Misadventure

The Ciudad de Asunción

In Uruguay schools break up for a fortnight’s winter break at the end of June, and in Argentina the national day, 9th July, marks the start of winter holidays for schoolchildren.  So on Tuesday 10th July 1963 the ferry Ciudad de Asunción travelling between Montevideo and Buenos Aires was full of noisy families in carefree mood. 

The Ciudad de Asunción
It was a foggy and still evening and all flights between the two capitals had been cancelled so the ferry was carrying more people than usual.  There weren’t enough cabins for everybody so some people were sleeping on armchairs or the floor.  There was a total of 444 passengers and crew aboard.  Although the fog persisted, Captain Avito Fernández did not delay departure, and they weighed anchor promptly at 21:00.  After dinner, the passengers settled down to sleep wherever they could for a few hours.

Dining-room, Ciudad de Asunción

The Ciudad de Asunción and its twin, the Ciudad de Corrientes, had been built in Glasgow in 1929 and travelled to their next home in Argentina that same year.  They were ideal for the routine shuttle across the River Plate, having ample space for passengers and storage alike, and a cruising speed of 14 knots.

That night progress was slow because the captain could not see the buoys clearly due to the fog, and apart from radar, in those days there was no other means to guide him around the treacherous sandbanks and sunken wrecks.  He plied the same navigation channel daily but this time there was an added problem.  The radar had not been working properly and had not yet been repaired.

Despite his caution, at 03:40 he guided the Ciudad de Asunción the wrong way round a buoy, and collided with a submerged wreck, the remains of an old Greek cargo ship, the Marionga J Cairis.  He gave the order to stop the engines, then almost immediately to go full speed ahead.  The engine room flooded rapidly and he gave a further order, hard to starboard, north, in an attempt to get free and into deeper water.

At 03:44 the engines stopped for good and the power was shut down.  The alarms were sounded and the order given to wake the passengers and prepare the lifeboats.   He told the shivering and frightened assembled people that it would not be possible to continue their journey but that they would be rescued by other boats as soon as it became light.

At 04:00 the boat settled gently on the river bottom.  It was a calm night and it remained level, with the main and upper decks above water.  There was chaos while people milled about, some in pyjamas despite the low temperatures – it was mid winter – and members of the crew were seen heading for the lifeboats and stashing contraband aboard.  Some calmer ones guided people up the steep ladders to the upper deck, where they felt they would be safer.

Things started to calm down.  People felt reasonably safe and they prepared to sit it out until help came.  Then someone saw a thin column of smoke snaking out of the stern funnel.  It was 04:15.  Everybody watched it uneasily and presently realised that it was growing thicker, and that there were sparks coming out with the smoke.  The passengers started to move away from the source but it soon became obvious that there was a very serious fire in the engine room, and there were now flames emanating from the funnel.

A Uruguayan photographer by the name of Francisco Tastás Moreno was on the Ciudad de Asunción that night.  He was a man in his early 50’s at the time and during the Battle of the River Plate 24 years earlier he had been one of the few cameramen who had filmed the Graf Spee from the air as she was being scuttled.   Now he described vividly what happened on the night of the 10/11 July 1963 as he tried to figure out the best course of action.

“I learned first of all that when there’s a serious fire you have to check which way the wind is blowing and walk in the opposite direction” he said.  “Secondly, a boat sinking at sea is not the same as in a river.  At sea you can throw wooden objects into the water and they will remain floating in the vicinity of the boat, but in a river, whatever you throw in the water just disappears.”

Investigations later revealed that the last safety drill had taken place more than a year earlier and the crew had had no training at action stations.  Only two of the six lifeboats could be launched, two were stuck fast due to lack of maintenance and two had been lowered inexpertly by passengers because there was no crew on hand to help.  They fell into the water upside down and could not be used.  Their capacity was a maximum of thirty five people each.

Panic took over when it became evident that there would not be enough boats to save everybody, the flames were getting higher and the crew was split between the well-meaning ones who didn’t know what to do, and the rest who were intent on saving themselves. 

It was 04:30.  Many people did the very worst thing they could have done, which was to jump into the freezing waters of the River Plate.  There were horrifying reports by the surviving passengers of men in one lifeboat where there were children struggling to get aboard having their fingers prised off the edge where they were holding on, and having to let go… of an adult yanking the lifebelt off a six year old child to save himself… of crew vainly attempting to be heard above the screaming of the frightened passengers. 

Captain Avito Fernández held on to a small group of people huddled together on the bridge.  In the event they were the best off.  The fire did not reach them and he kept them together and reassured them.  One survivor said later that what kept the group from panicking was the knowledge that they had a leader. 

The son of two survivors, his parents, told of a priest and a young girl who survived thanks to his father’s strong leadership, by talking to them and comforting them constantly, and keeping them moving their limbs in the water to stop hypothermia settling in.

Francisco Tastás Moreno, the photographer, had been one of those who had jumped, but he had managed to grab hold of a wooden box and clung to it for many hours until they were rescued by the Granville, a tugboat, nine hours later, just in time for him, as he was at the end of his strength.

The Ciudad de Asunción half submerged & still smouldering
By the time they were rescued the ferry had sunk further.  The remaining deck was almost totally destroyed by fire.  Of the total of 444 people on board, 58 perished due to hypothermia followed by drowning, 364 were picked out of the sea alive and 22 from the stern bridge, which included the captain and 2 of his senior crew.  To his credit Captain Fernández was the last to leave his ship.

It was discovered during the enquiry and trial that the captain had not in fact used the navigation channel which was clearly marked with buoys on either side, but had opted for another channel which shortened the journey and therefore meant that less fuel would be used, but which involved negotiating a sandbank.  In normal conditions he would have known his way.  He stated that he frequently took this route, and the authorities knew about it and had never taken any action.

The captain and one of his senior crew were sentenced to 5 years imprisonment apiece for bad navigation and negligence in relation to the saving of lives once the accident had occurred.  It was judged that there had been sufficient lifebelts and lifeboats, but that due to clumsiness and lack of training too many of them had not been used.  Although passengers had been told to don their lifebelts there was no further control of the critical situation which had worsened minute by minute.

Captain Avito Fernández died in jail without knowing of the development of satellite Global Positioning Systems which started in the late sixties.


The Corps de Ballet of the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires

There are too many distressing stories of accidents involving light aircraft in Argentina, and it is not my intention to debate here how they happened or how they could have been avoided.  However there are two involving the River Plate which do belong in this chronicle, the second of which I shall relate at the end.

On the evening of Sunday 10th October 1971 a small Beechcraft Queen Air plane took off from Aeroparque, the smaller city airport of Buenos Aires next to the river, bound for Trelew 1440 km/900 miles due south on the Atlantic coast.  It crashed into the river several minutes later.

It was established subsequently that it was carrying too much weight, so when one of the engines failed as it climbed, the pilot attempted to return to the airport but without success.  As Sunday strollers watched in horror, it plunged nose first into the river.  There were no survivors.

Recovery of the plane from the River Plate
As rescue teams and journalists converged on the scene, the news spread that the passengers were professional ballet dancers and their staff, and by the following day it emerged that all nine dancers, the entire corps de ballet of principal dancers at the renowned Colón Theatre at that time, had perished along with the crew and staff accompanying them.  They had been travelling to Trelew to give a special show at the Teatro Español, where the anticipation and excitement at the visit of such famous stars had been growing for days.

The nine who perished,
taken very shortly before they left on their fateful journey.

In addition to being a horrifying tragedy on a personal level for their relatives, friends and fans, it was a disaster for the ballet world in Argentina, from which it would take fifteen years to recover.  These nine dancers had done much to popularise the art and were admired as stars in their own right, particularly the leaders, Norma Fontenla and José Neglia.

Norma Fontenla & José Neglia

Norma Fontenla had reached the peak of her fame in 1967 when she appeared in Giselle with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and in 1971 Nureyev selected her for one of the main roles in the Nutcracker Suite when he appeared in Buenos Aires, and together with Neglia the three of them completed a very successful television series.

Images of Norma Fontenla

José Neglia had also won many awards, the most famous of which was the Nijinsky prize in Paris.

Images of José Neglia

What was little understood then was that the families of the dancers also formed part of the backup team that drove the resurgence of ballet as a popular art in Argentina at that time, and the loss of these artists meant that all the backup disappeared along with them.  A whole generation was lost.

Images of the Teatro Colón (Google images)

The wake was held at the Teatro Colón and  there were 3,500 visitors.  A year later a Dancers Fountain was unveiled, the two characters being Norma Fontenla and José Neglia, and the 10th October was declared the national Day of Dance.

The memorial to the corps de ballet who lost their lives

Next time – Darkness, then hope


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archives



(Digital from here on)
Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society: 
The Pirates of Penzance

Mother of the bride

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society:  The Mikado

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society: The Mikado


References - in addition to Wikipedia

Shipwreck of the Ciudad de Asunción:
Aircraft accident - principal ballet dancers of the Teatro Colón:



Joyful said...

It's a very tragic story. It's sad that people would actually fight with women and children to save their own lives but I guess the instinct to survive is strong. The more I hear about boat accidents and failures, the less I am inclined to go on one. Especially in another country where standards and maintenance may be more lax then where I live. Even here there can problems.

Lynette Killam said...

Of dourse, your tale of the shipwreck reminds me of the Titanic, which sailed from my birth city of Belfast.When I visited there in 2007, it was interesting to note that the dock from which the Titanic was launched had been left to emptiness and ruin, though plans were in the works to build a memorial there.

And how poignant about the ballet dancers!. So much more was lost than just the lives of those talented young very sad that is.

Lonicera said...

Joyful - as usual you went straight to the part I found the most painful... that people should clamber over children because they're frightened for their lives.

Lonicera said...

Thank you Lynette - I was still at school in Argentina when the ballet dancers were killed, and it made a great impression on me because I had been to see them at the Colón the year before.

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