A snap decision results in a Pulitzer

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I can remember my grandfather’s voice. Confident, soft, and unquestionably Bostonian. His voice, coupled with his ability to deliver a story like no other, made you feel like you were there.

One of his best stories was about his time as a greenhorn reporter covering the sinking of the Andrea Doria for the Boston Traveller newspaper in the 1950s. 

The Andrea Doria, a luxurious 697-foot ocean liner carrying 1,134 passengers, Italian immigrants, vacationers, and business travelers, departed from Italy for New York City on July 17 for its 101st transatlantic voyage. The Doria was known as one of the most beautiful — and safest — ocean liners of its time. The ship had three deck pools, a wide array of art, and possessed two radar screens, a new technology at the time.

Eight days later — and 63 years ago today — the Doria entered the sea-lanes off the Northeast coast of the U.S., according to accounts in Richard Goldstein’s book “Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria.” Earlier that day, the 524-foot Swedish ocean liner Stockholm departed from New York City, heading for its homeport of Gothenburg.

By 10:30 pm, on a foggy night, the two ships were on a collision course 45 miles off Nantucket. The ships were coming from opposite directions at a steady speed, both hoping to shave time off their journeys. It wasn’t until 25 minutes later the two ships realized they were headed straight for each other. The crash ended with the Stockholm sailing back to New York Harbor for repairs and, 11 hours later, the Doria resting in 240 feet of water in the North Atlantic.

The collision, which is still disputed, but which many believe was a radar-misreading error on the part of the Stockholm’s captain, killed five people on the Stockholm and 46 on the Doria. 

Today, the Doria’s tragic end is known as one of the largest civilian maritime rescues in history.

As the Doria slowly descended into the water, the media descended onto the scene. Several reporters took to the skies to take pictures and capture in so many words the fate of the Italian ship. Harry Trask, a 28-year-old photographer working for the Boston Traveller newspaper, was late.

Trask’s editors sent him and reporter John Dowd — my grandfather — to catch a flight from the Revere airport to Nantucket. From there, the duo, who were good friends, were supposed to catch another flight out to the water to get a photo of the Doria, but there were no planes available. Meanwhile, several photographers from other outlets were returning on a rented DC-3 with their pictures of the sinking ship, while Trask shook with fear that he might lose his job because he arrived too late. An editor at the Traveller had given my grandfather phone numbers of local pilots. After several frantic phone calls, the two secured Martha’s Vineyard pilot Bob Walker, a friend of my grandfather, and his Beechcraft Bonanza to fly from the Vineyard to Nantucket, pick them up, and take them out to fly over the Doria.

While he was the Traveller’s designated airplane photographer, Trask was prone to airsickness, and did not have his supply of Dramamine with him. Despite this, Trask and my grandfather piled into the small plane and set off. In “Desperate Hours,” Goldstein said Trask made a “tactical error by sitting up front with the pilot and placing his reporter in the back.” 

My grandfather was a man who had a presence. He studied theater and voice and was an avid stage actor. He was intelligent, but not pretentious; he was a man who said it was a gift of the Irish that allowed him to command a room with a story.

In the front of the plane, Trask snapped a few photos, but had a tough time focusing his Speed Graphic camera, a large press camera with 4-by-5-inch-cut film. The constant rocking of the plane wasn’t doing his airsickness any favors either. In an effort to help his friend and get the job done, my grandfather — according to his version of the story — grabbed the camera and began snapping shots as the plane circled the wreck. (One of my favorite parts of this story is the uncanny parallels. I’m the same age my grandfather was when he set off with Trask. I’m good friends with Times photographer Gabrielle Mannino, whom I’ve teamed up with for countless assignments. She often has to take Dramamine for our adventures on the water, but so far I haven’t had to take over camera duties.)

When Trask and my grandfather returned to land and developed the photos, neither of them knew who took which picture. As many people know, the photo was published, and eventually went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the photo of the smoking and sinking Doria minutes before it sank.

My grandfather and Trask remained friends for a long time, and often joked about that moment at parties for many years after. The picture of the sinking Andrea Doria sat in a frame in my grandfather’s office for many years.

Looking back on this 63rd anniversary of the sinking of the Andrea Doria, my mind wanders to my grandfather, and I wonder what’s ahead for me.