On November 30, 1994, the Achille Lauro caught fire 150 miles off the coast of Somalia, and then over the next few days, slowly sank into the sea.
Two passengers drown during the rescue, in shark infested waters. One of them was German Gerhard Szimke, age 68. Szimke fell overboard during the rescue and drown.
The Achille Lauro, on a 21-day voyage, had left Genoa on November 19th and had called at the ports of Haifa, Israel, and at Port Said and Suez in Egypt She was headed to Mahe, in the Seychelles when tragedy struck. Of the 979 aboard, two people died, a Briton and 68-year-old German Gerhard Szimke.
After the evacuation of the survivors, the nightmare continued. The first ship to respond was the Panamanian-registered Hawaiian King, an oil tanker that had no room below deck for the 1,000 victims they rescued.
The fire began in the engine room around 0130 hours as some passengers slept and others danced it the club, and the captain, thinking they could contain it and put it out, did not immediately call out in distress. Those not in their pajamas, were in evening gowns and formal suits.
According to the Italian Coast Guard, it was only at 0554 hours when Achille Lauro Captain Giuseppe Orsi sent out the SOS, four and half hours after the blaze began.
At 0800 hours, Orsi told the passengers on deck, the fire was too strong, they were going to evacuate the ship.
From the time of the fire on, passengers waiting on deck to evacuate, a period of seven hours. At 0920 hours the first rescue vessel, the Panamanian-registered Hawaiian King, reached the Achille Lauro. The Hawaiian King was an oil tanker, and had no room for the survivors below her deck.
The 572 passengers, according to the owners, included 214 South Africans, 150 Germans, 92 Britons, 90 Dutch, 12 Italians, 8 Swiss, 2 Israelis, 2 French and 2 Belgians.
Once aboard the tanker, passengers again had to wait on deck, in the blistering sun, without ample food, water, or medical treatment. They quickly found out, that while the tanker was better than the shark infested waters, the ordeal was far from over.
United States Navy helicopters lowered food, water and medical supplies to the oil tanker late that night.
Passengers were in need of better refuge from the elements, and more vessels came to their aid. Captain John Brand of the tanker Lima joined the rescue. He said that passengers, many of them elderly, had broken bones and other injuries as they fled the sinking ship.
Another tanker came to the rescue as well. Dimitrios Skapinakis, the Greek captain of the tanker Treasure Island was on the scene providing assistance. In all the tankers did what they could, as they awaited military ships to transfer the passengers and give them medical assistance.
Other ships came when the urgent call went out as well, the Liberian bulk carrier Bardu and the Bahamas-flagged Leira came to offer assistance to the passengers then in the lifeboats bobbing in the ocean.