Controversies

The Wreck Site

The versions on where the ship went down are many. We had discussions with one party that thought that it might be in over 300 metres of depth. Amongst the positions we had heard were: 17 degrees 44' latitude south and 37 degrees 38' longitude west or 17 degrees 48' latitude south and 37 degrees 41' longitude west. However, in a small article that we discovered in the library of La Prensa, we have discovered the definitive sighting of the wreck.

In the copy of La Prensa (of Bs As) for the date 11 Nov 1927, it was reported that the captain of the Saint Anthony had discovered part of the bridge (a big piece 50ft by 25 ft) of the Mafalda floating in the ocean on the 3rd of November. He then claimed that because the water was clear, he could see the hull of the ship at a depth of no more than 18 to 20 fathoms (40 meters). This would imply that the ship (if on its side) was at a place where the sea bottom was around 75 metres.

The place where he made this discovery was 17 degrees 45' South and 38 degrees 11' West.

The sharks

Many were the terrifying stories of sharks that were related by passengers. However, all the seaman of the rescue ships denied having seen any sign of these creatures. One passenger admitted that he had seen something like a very large fish dash by the side of the lifeboat in which he sat, and that it may not have been a shark. Santororo, the Argentine hero of the day, was fished from the water with his clothes all blood stained. This was claimed to be the result of rescuing bodies from the mouths of the creatures. It may have been that there were several sharks in the area, but the theory that there were a vast number may have been a fancy of the panicked passengers. Indeed, the extent of this panic may actually have hindered more people being rescued or those still on the Mafalda leaving earlier and taking their chances with the flotsam as support rather than staying on the doomed ship.

The role of the crew

First stories talked of the heroism of the crew. Later versions were not so charitable. One Arab passenger reported being on the first boat away from the ship. Of the forty two on board only two were passengers. This appears to be the boat led "heroically" by the purser, Carlo Longobardi. His version had the boat swamped when the rescued clambered onto the Alhena. Thus it was unserviceable to go back. Others less kind suggested that the boats were abandoned at the rescue vessels and the crew would not go back to fetch more people. One maritime observer made the comment that of course boats took water on the high seas and that you bailed them out if you really wanted to use them. Some of the passengers on the Alhena reported that whilst they were tossing ropes to the people flaling in the water and hauling them up, the rescued crew members of the Mafalda cowered some distance away watching the proceedings. This story was repeated by several that were scandalised by the disinterest of the Italian crew.

One third class passenger justified the rush of people to the boats saying that as the third class had spent more time speaking to the crew during the voyage they had a better appreciation of the poor state of the ship and its survival prospects.

Back on the Mafalda, the remaining passengers were reputedly less than happy. The Italian newspaper, La Vanguarda, reported a story that four officers were shot by passengers when they donned lifebelts with intention of abandoning the passengers to their fate. The chief engineer Scarabicchi reportedly committed suicide with a gun.

When most reports of the event were in it was clear that an element of the crew had made good their escape at the very start and had then been detached from the rest of the rescue process. Some officers and crew had stayed to help but had been largely ineffectual in expediting the salvation of anybody else. A strikingly high proportion of the crew seem to have survived. That the second and third engineers were among the rescued possibly implies that they were not as involved in the efforts to staunch the flows into the engine rooms. The later boiler explosion also implies that the engine room was abandoned and little effort was made to let off steam and cool the boilers against the risk of explosion.

The Captain

Simon Gulli went down with his ship, which is always comforting for those distressed in the aftermath of the event. To survive would be reprehensible and against the codes of the times. It is certain that no-one faulted Gulli’s behaviour on the night of the disaster. However, some hard questions need to be asked. The ship was clearly in poor condition. Why did he not refuse to sail from the Cape Verde Islands until adequate repairs had been made? The lifeboats were said to be in poor condition. This is the captain’s responsibility. The ship was reported to have a slight list all the day of the accident as it was speeding along to Rio. Why was the ship not going slower in view of this obvious portent of problems?

Why was such a prolonged sinking also so rich in casualties? Six hours should have been enough to get everyone off the ship. The list developed slowly so the boats on the starboard side should have been usable as well. It was not good enough that Gulli was calming people, where were the other officers? Why were the women and children not prioritised in the loading of the boats?
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