LAKONIA SURVIVORs STories
"I thought we wouldn't have to leave the ship, which is why I had a few drinks in the bar."
Phillip McGovern, Irish, aged 34 at the time, was a vet travelling with two fellow Irishmen, one of whom, Enda McGuire, sadly perished, and whose grave is in the Gibraltar cemetery. The third of the group is Owen Burke, now aged 92.
Phillip and his friends struck up a friendship with the ship's doctor, Irishman James Riordan (his daughter is an active member of the Andalucia.com Forum thread, where the idea for a memorial in Gibraltar Cemetery originated). The doctor died in the disaster, after helping many passengers.
"Enda especially wanted to go on a cruise, because the previous year his flight to Spain had been delayed - the planes were grounded - so he said he would never travel by plane again. He even travelled by boat from Ireland to the UK to start the cruise, although it took much longer than going by plane.
I remember it was very cold on the Lakonia. This was the first sailing of the season, and she had had a major overhaul [the cruise ship was originally built in Holland in 1930, used as a troop ship during World War Two, then reverted to being a passenger ship].
When the fire broke out, I was confident it would be brought under control. Some people panicked early on and jumped overboard, perishing needlessly. I thought we wouldn't have to leave the ship, which is why I had a few drinks in the bar.
All the crew were fighting the fire, which spread across the whole ship, rather than looking after passengers. They had the wrong fittings for the hoses, but I thought that once that was sorted out it would be OK. The organisation for evacuation was poor, except for the Entertainments Director - he organised us well.
Eventually we put on our lifejackets and went to the lifeboat station. The lifeboats hadn't been lowered for years - their cables had an inch of rust, which we had to break through; eight of them [out of a total of 28] couldn't be used. The first two or three couldn't be lowered properly, as their cables got stuck at one end, so the passengers were tipped into the sea; on others, their cables broke.
I remember helping the priest, who was a 78-year-old Jesuit from Galway - I tied his shoes for him and put him aboard a lifeboat. He was back home on Christmas day. I was one of the last to leave the boat."
Phillip stayed in the water for five hours before being rescued.