Steamship Sunday – The Tragic Achille Lauro

Steamship Sunday


One of the most tragic ships ever built was the Achille Lauro. Ironically, she began life with the reputation of being a very lucky ship, when she was known as Royal Rotterdam Lloyd’s Willem Ruys.

Her story begins in 1935 when she was ordered. Her keel was laid down in Rotterdam in January, 1939. Her construction began just as Hitler unleashed war on Europe. The Nazis bombed Rotterdam on 14 May 1940. The massive bombing attack hit all the neighboring yards around the uncompleted Willem Ruys, which at this time was just known as “Yard 214.” Yard 214 was untouched and the Willem Ruys remained on the slipway throughout the war.


The keel of Willem Ruys

The Dutch Resistance fiercely protected her during the war, and despite several Nazi attempts at sabotaging her, Willem Runs came through the war intact.

The ship was named for the great-grandson of the founder of the Royal Rotterdam Lloyd line. He was not as lucky as the ship: Willem Ruys was executed by the Nazis together with two other prominent citizens of Rotterdam in retaliation for an attack that had taken place on a German troop train near Rotterdam by the Dutch Resistance.

The ship was launched in 1946, fitted out, and entered service in 1947.


AboveWillem Ruys in the fitting out yard. Below, Willem Ruys on a postcard from 1947.


Her luck began to change shortly after entering service. In 1949 she struck the “Meandes Shoals” just out of Singapore, damaging her propellers. This required some time in dry-dock for repairs but soon she was underway again.

On 6 January 1953 Willem Ruys sustained damage in a collision with her archrival, the Nederlands Lines’ Oranje just off Port Sudan in the Red Sea. Although both ships managed to continue their scheduled voyages, with the Oranje bound for Indonesia, but now sailing non-stop, missing the ports of call at Colombo and Singapore with passengers being flown from Djakarta to the ports that had to be bypassed. Willem Ruys headed home to Rotterdam having had six days of repairs at Port Said. While in Said, she had three holes repaired above the waterline. Some cargo in the forward holds had been damaged by seawater.

In 1958-1959, Willem Ruys was modernized. The aft hold was removed and 100 additional cabins were added. Her squat funnels got additional height, making her more graceful in appearance, though her later refitting would see the funnels completely replaced and reconfigured. In her 1958-1959 refitting, the entire ship was air conditioned whereas in her 1947 configuration, only First Class had refrigerated air. Stabilizers were added for smoother sailing and the crew cabins were updated.

Royal Rotterdam Lloyd depended on traffic to the Dutch East Indies for much of its revenue. With the Dutch giving up control of Indonesia and with airline traffic hurting the passenger ship business, Royal Rotterdam Lloyd sold Willem Ruys to the Italian Flotta Lauro company. She officially became part of the Flotta Lauro line on 6 January 1965.


Flotta Lauro renamed her Achille Lauro after the Managing Director of the Lauro line.

She departed Rotterdam and headed for Palermo, Italy where she would be extensively be rebuilt into an ultramodern Liner and Cruise Ship at the Cantieri Navali Riuniti at their Palermo shipyards.

As reconstruction was close to completion, and they were ready to fit her newly reshaped aft funnel, on 29 August 1965 Achille Lauro was rocked by an explosion and a raging fire swept through the ship. Finally, when the fire was extinguished and the ship was declared safe, work continued and the fire-damaged sections of the ship were repaired.


Above: Jinxed – Achille Lauro burning after an explosion during her refit in 1965. Below: new funnels were fitted during her 1965 refurbishing.


Externally some significant changes made to this already attractive ship. Her bow was reconfigured by a graceful twelve foot addition. Although her funnels had been extended in the 1958-1959 refit, two brand-new taller slim-line funnels which were topped by upward-sloping twin smoke dispersers replaced the previous funnels. The funnels were painted blue, the smoke dispersers were black and the Flotta Lauro white star was added to the sides.


New tall, slim funnels with upward angled smoke deflectors were fitted when Willem Ruys was transformed into the ill-fated Achille Lauro.

Apart from her new tall modern funnels with twin bladed smoke deflectors, her promenade deck was extended far forward with glazing, and her upper deck was glazed aft in order to protect the First Class swimming pool from the wind. Her hull was repainted blue with  some white on the forward top of the bow section; her boot was painted red . The previous forward and aft main masts were removed and a new shapely Signal and Radar mast was fitted just behind the Bridge. She now looked to be a completely contemporary ship.

When completed, Achille Lauro sailed for Rotterdam, being her original home port. It had been decided to commence her duties there in honor of her Dutch heritage. From there she would begin her official maiden voyage as the Achille Lauro, departing Rotterdam on 7 April 1966, sailing across the North Sea to Southampton, arriving on 8 April.

From Southampton she headed for Genoa, arriving on 13 April, and continued via the Suez Canal to Fremantle (Perth) Western Australia where she arrived on 4 May. She then sailed to Melbourne arriving on 8 May and she arrived in Sydney on 10 May 1966, where she was welcomed by a great crowd of people, including many Dutch and Italians.

From Sydney, she then made a return voyage to Wellington, New Zealand, arriving on 14 May, being her final destination of her maiden voyage to Australia and New Zealand. Returning to Sydney, she headed back to Rotterdam via the same ports, with additional port of call, Singapore.

The Achille Lauro even played a special role in evacuating the families of British servicemen who were caught up in the unrest in Aden, Yemen and she made one of the very last northbound transits through the Suez Canal before it was closed during June 1967’s Six Day War between Egypt and Israel. The Suez Canal was shut down by the Egyptian government and blocked on either side by mines and scuttled ships. The canal did not reopen until 5 June 1975.

Due to the closure of the Canal, the Achille Lauro continued Australia liner service into the 1970s, but like all other ships on the Australian service, she now had to sail via South Africa, returning via the Panama Canal, thus operating a around the world service. She would make five return voyages to Australia and New Zealand each year.

In 1972 Flotta Lauro decided to give the Achille Lauro an overhaul and she headed for Genoa that May. It seems that whenever she was in a shipyard, she was a plagued ship. While work was underway, her forward superstructure, right up to the bridge was swept by fire on 19 May 19. She suffered considerable damage. It took five months before she able return to her duties again.

Flotta Lauro decided that due to low passenger loadings, Achille Lauro would be withdrawn from her Australian Passenger Liner service. Thus when her overhaul was completed, she again headed for Rotterdam and departed on 13 October 1972 and sailed via her usual ports of call to Sydney, from where she operated a summer season of short cruises, which proved to be very popular.

Having cruised from Australia and New Zealand waters for almost four months she departed Sydney in February 1973, for her voyage home to Genoa, sailing via the Suez, Rotterdam, and Southampton.

Achille Lauro now became a full time cruise ship based in Genoa. She operated 14 night Eastern Mediterranean cruises, always departing on a Saturday, with ports as follows; Genoa, Naples, Alexandra, Port Said, Beirut, Haifa, Istanbul, Piraeus, Capri, Genoa. At the end of the year she operated a special Christmas cruise. On 18 January 1976 she commenced a 65 day Grand Voyage to the Far East with a fascinating list of ports of call.

On the 65 day cruise, Achille Lauro was sailing through the Dardanelles she collided with a 497-ton Lebanese Cattle Carrier, the MS Youssef, which rapidly sank. The crew of Youssef was rescued, but one of the crewmembers died. Achille Lauro sustained no damage of significance and was able to continue her cruise.

Achille Lauro, being a modern looking ship both externally and internally, was popular with the European traveller and German Tourist companies who found her to be the ideal cruise ship and chartered her for several years. Then South African cruise companies chartered her for five months from November 1979 to March 1980 and they repeated this charter for another two seasons.

When Achille Lauro was on a cruise from South Africa in November 1981, a blaze broke out in the bar. During an evacuation three passengers were killed although the fire was apparently rapidly extinguished. According to reports, a female passenger in utter fear jumped overboard and drowned. Her husband, upon hearing the news, had a heart attack and died onboard. No details are known regarding the third death.

There was no doubt Achille Lauro’s bad luck seemed to keep up with her from the day she was taken over by Flotta Lauro Lines. Originally, when she was the Willem Ruys she had the nickname of being the “Lucky Ship” because she sat unscathed throughout World War II in her dock partially built, despite all the bombing and the attempts to destroy her, yet the ship that should have been destroyed became a great Dutch Liner. Then while she was being rebuilt into the Achille Lauro she was wildly ablaze and her bad luck some how followed repeatedly and, sadly, this would continue to her very last day.

Towards the end of 1981, Flotta Lauro was in severe financial difficulty. Some of their cargo fleet had been impounded for non-payment of fees.

When Achille Lauro had been repaired from damage caused by the most recent fire, she returned to Genoa from South Africa, making a stop at Tenerife on 23 January, 1982. Upon berthing, she was boarded by the authorities and she was impounded in Tenerife for a full year. Finally on 22 January 1983 Achille Lauro was permitted to depart thanks to Italian Government intervention. She headed to her homeport Genoa, but upon arrival she was once again laid up on 28 January 1983.

It must have been all too much for the company founder, Achille Lauro himself, who died on 15 November 1983. He had built a fine shipping company but with the downturn of traffic in the 1960s and 70s and the ongoing disasters his flagship suffered, his company was close to ruins.

Achille Lauro once again returned to her cruise duties in July 1984, making five of her regular 14-night Eastern Mediterranean cruises but at the end of these cruises, she was laid up again.

The Greek shipping giant, Chandris Lines, came to the party in 1985, making an charter agreement with Flotta Lauro to operate the Achille Lauro from Genoa some 20 cruises each year for the next three years, commencing on 5 March 1985. Little did anyone know that it would be in 1985 that the name of the Achille Lauro would become etched into people’s memories forever that very same year. Chandris had picked up the Matson Lines’ Lurline and had extended her life by a number of years with their successful marketing.

She departed on her first cruise on 5 March 1985. Having been well-marketed by Chandris, British, and American Companies, her cruises gained more and more popularity.

As the first Chandris charter season was coming towards the end of what had been an excellent first season, Achille Lauro departed Genoa on 3 October 1985 for a 11-day cruise, visiting Naples, Alexandria, Port Said, Ashdod, Limassol, Rhodes, Piraeus, Capri and then back to Genoa.

Onboard were 755 passengers who had settled into a happy routine of shipboard life. There were all the usual sports tournaments – quoits, shuffleboard, and pool games; enjoying reading a book in one of the ships several lounges, or having a lazy afternoon around the pool with a cool drink. In the evening there was fine dinning, followed by entertainment and dancing and of course, the famed midnight buffets. Thus there was much to keep passengers busy onboard. At the first port of call, Naples, many undertook a tour to Pompeii.


Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer before his strokes and her colon cancer.

Onboard was 69 year-old Leon Klinghoffer and his 58 year-old wife of 36 years, Marilyn. They had decided to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary by taking a cruise aboard Achille Lauro. Mr. Klinghoffer was disabled and partially paralyzed, having had two strokes. He was in a wheelchair. Marilyn Klinghoffer was in remission from colon cancer. The couple decided to take a vacation, knowing from experience that a vacation would do them great deal of good.

Achille Lauro arrived at Alexandria on 7 October. She dropped anchor and tenders soon transported 666 passengers who left the ship in order to undertake an exciting full day excursion to Cairo, visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx as well as shopping, but the Klinghoffers remained aboard. Besides the Klinghoffers, there were only 87 other passengers still onboard. However, there were four others on the ship that had been noticed, but somehow been left to their own devices. Several passengers had noticed four Palestinians who had boarded the ship at Genoa as passengers, yet they kept completely to themselves and did not take part in any of the shipboard activities. One of the Achille Lauro hostesses later recalled asking the young men regarding their nationality and receiving the improbable and barely intelligible reply of “Norwegian.” No one will ever understand why nothing was ever reported to the Captain and this was a major failure of the crew.

Once passengers had disembarked at Alexandria to head off for their tours, Captain Gerardo De Rosa ordered the anchor to be raised, and Achille Lauro headed for Port Said, the northern approach to the Suez Canal, under a brilliant blue sky. Late that evening she was scheduled to collect her tour passengers and then proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Four hours after Achille Lauro had left Alexandria, the four Palestinians, who were members of the murderous PLO Terrorist Group, armed with Soviet-made submachine guns, hand grenades, and explosives, seized the ship. Firing their weapons wildly, the terrorists used the ship’s loudspeaker system to summon all passengers to the dining room. “We were getting ready for dessert,” one of the American passengers, Viola Meskin of Union, New Jersey later recalled, “when suddenly we heard gunshots, and someone yelled, “Get down on the floor!” We heard moaning and groaning. The terrorists had struck men in the kitchen, we were told. Then they started to threaten us and show their power. They had hand grenades in their hands, and they would remove the pins and play with them. They constantly had their guns ready for shooting. We were all on the floor.” Later on, the gunmen separated the Americans and British from the others and placed gasoline cans close to them.

On the bridge, one of the gunmen fired more shots and then ordered De Rosa to sail in a North Easterly direction toward the Syrian port of Tartus. A hijacker brandishing a submachine gun kept De Rosa under constant guard.


That night, as the ship was cruising about 30 miles north of Port Said, De Rosa made contact with Egyptian port authorities by radio and told them what had happened. The hijackers, who had identified themselves as members of the P.L.O., demanded the release of the 50 prisoners being held in Israel. Among these was Sami Kuntar a well-known terrorist, who in 1979 with three others, had staged an attack on the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, killing three people. If their demands were not met, the hijackers of the Achille Lauro warned, they would blow up the ship.


Stroke victim and wheelchair bound Leon Klinghoffer was shot in the head and thrown overboard in his wheelchair by a Palestinian terrorist.


At exactly what point these sadistic threats became reality is not known. But in a now familiar ritual of terrorism, the hijackers had decided to underscore their seriousness by taking an innocent life. First they separated Leon Klinghoffer from his wife. “No,” said one gunman to the wheelchair-bound passenger. “You stay. She goes.” Marilyn Klinghoffer never saw her husband again. For the next 24 hours she and her friends were consumed by anxiety. When the hijacking was finally over, they looked all through the ship for him, though they expected the worst. Some passengers had noted that the trousers and shoes of one of the hijackers had been covered with blood. And besides as one recalled, “We had heard gunshots and a splash.” Giovanni Migliuolo the Italian Ambassador to Egypt, later chillingly reconstructed the event: “The hijackers pushed (Klinghoffer) in his chair and dragged him to the side of the ship, where, in cold blood, they fired a shot to the forehead. Then they dumped the body into the sea, together with the wheelchair.”

Mr. Leon Klinghoffer was the only passenger murdered aboard Achille Lauro. It is believed that he was singled out by the animals who had taken control of the ship because he was Jewish. Leon Klinghoffer’s body was brought back onboard the ship and he was sent home to be given a proper Jewish burial. Sadly, Marilyn passed away just four months later on 9 February 1986 from a reoccurrence of cancer.

After various demands, the Egyptian authorities gave the hijackers permission to leave the ship without punishment. As they left the ship, they made a victorious lap around the harbour, soon after they departed by plane. However, under orders from President Ronald Reagan, the American military forced them down over Sicily. In the meantime, the Egyptian government retained the Achille Lauro in retaliation. Eight days later, Achille Lauro returned to her home port.

n 1986 the four hijackers – Youssef Magied al-Molqui, age 23; Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi, 23; Ibrahim Fatayer Abdelatif, 20; and Bassam al-Askar, 17 – were tried in Italy along with 11 accomplices. Nine, including mastermind Zaidan, were tried in absentia. The three eldest hijackers received sentences ranging from 30 to 15 years in prison; al-Askar was convicted in a separate trial. Zaidan, who after his escape had admitted his role in the hijacking, was located in Iraq during the 2003 invasion of the country; he died in custody the next year.

Berkeley, California composer John Adams wrote an opera about the event, “Death of Klinghoffer.” Adams’ work has been roundly condemned as being anti-Semetic.

This terrible event had a massive impact on the cruise industry in the region. It effectively destroyed Eastern Mediterranean cruises operated by so many cruise companies! American simply refused to cruise the region for a good number of years.

After the horrific cruise in October, 1985, Achille Lauro cancelled the rest of few cruises for the season and remained in Genoa. Resuming her cruises in the Spring of 1986, on 6 April, she ran aground off Alexandria, but she was re-floated seven hours later without any damage suffered. Her troubled times just seemed to follow her and it seemed that a change was needed, and that would come with a takeover of the Flotta Lauro.

Achille Lauro was reflagged early in 1987 when the Flotta Lauro Line was taken over by Mediterranean Shipping Company, also known as MSC Cruises, though the new company advertised itself as “StarLauro.”

Under her new owner’s flag, Achille Lauro was sent to Australia.
she had been operating in South African waters during the latter months of 1986 and departed from there with 600 passengers aboard of whom 382 were migrants to Australia. She arrived in Fremantle on 14 January 1987.


Achille Lauro arrives in Sydney, Australia

While in Fremantle, she had been chartered by Motive Travel for a month to be used as an accommodation ship in Fremantle during the “America’s Cup” races. She would make trips out just to watch the day’s races. The news got around that she was an amazing ship and the food and service were wonderful. All this ensured her future return to Australia. Even prior to her arrival to Fremantle, a brochure had been released for her return line voyage to the Britain and Genoa, sailing via South Africa, offering attractive fares.

She departed Fremantle on 16 February 1987, sailing to South Africa, Southampton and to Genoa where she resumed her regular summer Eastern Mediterranean cruise duties mid March until late October. Achille Lauro next sailed for Australia again, arriving first in Fremantle and then in Melbourne in January 1990. She arrived in Sydney on Sunday 28 January.

She then made an 11 night South Pacific Cruise returning to Sydney on 8 February. That evening she departed for a line voyage to Southampton sailing via Melbourne, Fremantle, Port Louis (Mauritius), Durban (South Africa), Cape Town (South Africa), Jamestown (St Helena), Funchal (Madeira), and finally Southampton.

Achille Lauro returned to Australia in 1991 and, having arrived in Sydney, she commenced operating 7 cruises of the Pacific as well as cruises around New Zealand and shorter specialty cruises. Cruises started from 3 to 19 nights and the season concluded in April of 1991.

She departed Sydney on 26 April 1991 for a 46-night line voyage to the United Kingdom sailing from Sydney via Melbourne, Fremantle, Bali, Singapore, Port Louis, Durban, Cape Town, Jamestown, Georgetown (Ascension Island) and Funchal, arriving in Southampton on Tuesday 11 June 1991.

She operated a number of cruises out of the United Kingdom then departed Southampton again in November for Australia, arriving in Sydney on Sunday 15 December 1991. This would be her most extensive season of cruises as she would operate 13 South Pacific and New Zealand cruises, including several shorter specialty cruises.

At the conclusion of this cruise season, she returned to Southampton in June, 1991. She continued this pattern of cruises in the Pacific and returning to Southampton and Genoa until 1994.

Achille Lauro departed Genoa on 19 November 1994 for a 21-day voyage visiting the ports of Haifa, Israel, Port Said and Suez in Egypt. She was headed to Mahe in the Seychelles when early at 1:30 AM tragedy struck. Onboard were 979 passengers.

The fire started in the engine room while many passengers would have been asleep but some were still up dancing the night away in the club. When Achille Lauro’s master, Captain Giuseppe Orsi was advised of the fire, he believed that his crew would be able to contain it and soon extinguish it, and therefore he did not make a distress call. However as the night went on, it became obvious that the fire was out of control and his crew was insufficiently trained for such a blaze.


Funeral pyre: the jinxed Achille Lauro aflame for the last time.

At 5:54 AM when Captain Orsi sent out the very first SOS, four and half hours after the blaze began.

By now, many passengers had realized that there was a problem onboard and they were told by stewards to take their lifejackets and go to the promenade deck and there they waited for the Captain to give the order. At 8 AM, Captain Orsi advised passengers that the crew could not contain the fire and that he would have to give the order to “evacuate the ship.” Lifeboats were lowered and passengers, be it in their pajamas or still dressed in their evening gowns and formal suits, made a strange sight in the boats.


Above: a dramatic photo of the lifeboats being lowered. The ship is listing to her port side. Below: the list increasing as a lifeboat pulls away from the doomed ship.


At 9:20 AM the first rescue ship, the oil tanker Hawaiian King, reached the Achille Lauro. The problem was however, being an oil tanker; the ship had no space for the survivors below deck, only on the deck in the open air.


The fire rages uncontrolled through the doomed ship.


Passengers in lifeboats were rescued by the Hawaiian King. Two passengers drowned during the rescue in the shark-infested waters. One of them was a German, Gerhard Szimke, age 68. Mr. Szimke fell overboard during the rescue and drowned. And a British person died during transferring from a lifeboat to the tanker. Eight were others were injured.

After the evacuation of the survivors, the nightmare continued. Nnce rescued passengers were aboard the tanker they once again had to wait out on deck in the blistering sun, without much food, water or medical treatment.

That night, United States Navy helicopters lowered food, water and medical supplies to the oil tanker giving passengers some much need relief. With the heat being quite severe during the day, survivors were in great need of shelter from the elements that was not available on the tanker, and more ships came to their aid. The tanker Lima arrived and Captain John Brand was requested to coordinate the surface search for survivors. He said that passengers on the tanker, “many of them elderly, had broken bones and other injuries as they fled the sinking ship.” The Greek tanker Treasure Island under the command of Captain Dimitrios Skapinakis was also on the scene providing assistance. The Liberian bulk carrier Bardu, as well as the Bahamas-flagged Leira came to offer assistance. These ships did what they could while awaiting naval ships to transfer the passengers and give them medical assistance.

Finally two United States Navy warships arrived on the scene, the cruiser Gettysburg and the frigate Haliburton. Both headed towards the tanker Hawaiian King and transferred all survivors aboard. Two helicopters dropped further medicine and supplies to the Hawaiian King. The other tankers managed to offer assistance to passengers who were still in lifeboats bobbing in the ocean.

The fire had raged for three days. Captain Dimitrios Skapinakis of the Greek tanker Treasure Island radioed “The Achille Lauro is listing by at least 40 degrees to her port side. You can still see smoke and flames, the passenger decks on the stern are burning. Flames are licking halfway up the vessel.” The tragic Achille Lauro continued listing to her port side she plunged under the ocean on 2 December 1994, the end of a great ship that was conceived in the Netherlands 59 year earlier.



Add yours →

  1. Jack Darnell 25/10/2016 — 20:27

    WOW what a story MOST, 99% I did not know. Most I remember is the Klinghoffer event. Thanks for the detail and history of a ship with some great history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting factual story, The only link i have with it was 3 brothers my sister and her husband left Southampton in the 60s on the £10 assisted passage to Austraia,
    They are all alive and kicking and still in that country but with many more now with children and grand children.
    One queery i have is that i thought i saw this ship in an episode of Haweii 50,could any one confirm that.
    Ray Ball from Bristol in the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Ray – Thank you for visiting my blog on the anniversary of the sinking of Achille Lauro.
      You ask if the ship had appeared in “Hawaii 5-0”. If my memory is correct from my research when I originally wrote that post, I think I read that she did indeed see service in that series.


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