On 19 December 1963, the Greek-owned cruise-liner Lakonia departed Southampton for an eleven-day Christmas cruise to the Canary Islands. She was carrying 646 passengers - all of whom were British apart from 21, and a crew of 376 who were a mixture of Greeks and Germans. At 2300 hrs 22 December, they were about 200 miles north of Madeira when a fire was discovered in the hairdressing salon. Fire alarms and other warning systems, however, were so ‘quiet’ they were not heard by either the passengers or those who were required to respond! At that time, most of the passengers were partying in the main ballroom and dismissed the first suggestions of smoke as probably being from cigars. Captain Zarbis attempted to use the ships public address system only to discover it was already out of action. Still nobody warned the passengers and it was only when smoke began to fill the ballroom that the band stopped playing. What then followed included considerable confusion, allegations of looting by crew members and instructions which were either unclear or impossible to follow. Many of those who had already retired, were to die in their cabins.
Even the first distress call made by the chief radio officer was broadcast long after it might have been sent. Within an hour of that call, however, he had no option but to leave his post because the fire was spreading so rapidly. As it did so, boilers began to explode and a number of lifeboats were also lost.
Curiously it was the ship's purser who gave the order to abandon ship and this was done shortly before 0100 hrs. This was just under 3 hours since the fire was first seen but already too late for many of those on board with more fatalities to come. The ship itself held all the appropriate documents and licenses required by the Greek system for registering passenger-carrying vessels. In addition, she had also been inspected and passed ‘fit for purpose’ by the proper British authorities immediately before sailing. Nevertheless, several of those boats which were not burned had unserviceable fittings, rusting chains and other problems which caused two to capsize during launching with loss of life. Eventually only half of the ship’s lifeboats were safely launched - and many of those were less than half full. Now where have we heard that one before!
Altogether, 128 persons lost their lives in this almost-forgotten tragedy from 1963. When things go wrong at sea, fire and water can become two of the greatest killers and here they had combined to create yet another disaster at sea. Such calamities on passenger-ships and cruise-liners were all too frequent in the 20th Century and, judging by much more recent events, it is something which does not appear likely to change anytime soon!