The T.S.M.S. Lakonia was a 20,000 ton vessel, which had originally started life as the M.S. Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt of the Netherland Line, sailing between Amsterdam and the East Indies. She was later chartered by the Holland American Line and used as a troopship during the war, reverting to her peace-time service as a passenger ship. On 19 December 1963, now belonging to the General Steam Navigation Company of Greece, she sailed from Southampton for an 11-day Christmas cruise, carrying a total of 646 passengers and 376 crew.
At around 11.00 pm on 22 December, a fire broke out in the ship's hairdressing saloon and quickly spread to other areas, making it difficult to fight the blaze. At the time, most of the passengers were in the ship's ballroom, but they and the rest of those in their cabins, were not immediately made aware of the fire, due to the public address system having been disabled by the blaze and also because the fire alarm was not loud enough. The pressure boilers began to explode, filling the saloons and hallways with thick black smoke, suffocating passengers who had fled from their cabins.
Order to abandon the ship was given by the Purser just before 1.00 am, with dazed passengers trying to make their way to the lifeboat stations, some in evening wear and others in pyjamas and nightgowns. Evacuation of the ship became extremely difficult as some of the lifeboats had been burnt, others had their davits completely rusted and other boats were swamped when being lowered. Only half the life boats were able to be launched, some of them only half full, and there were still many people adrift in the sea, with over 100 persons on board the Lakonia, which continued to burn fiercely and was rocked by violent explosions.
The last distress call sent at midnight, and received by nearby ships and also at Cable & Wireless in Gibraltar, read: " This is my last message. I cannot stay any more in the wireless room and we are now leaving the ship. Please rush immediate assistance". The first to arrive on the scene, between 3.30 am and 4.00 am, were the Argentinian passenger ship, Salta, and the British tanker, Montcalm, with other vessels joining them some hours later. United States Ari Force c-54 planes were sent from their base in the Azores and two RAF Avro Shackletons flew in from Gibraltar, dropping survival equipment, pinpointing survivors in the sea and guiding the rescue with flares. Survivors were transported to Madeira and some others, including the ship's captain, were taken to Casablanca.
Crewmen from the Aircraft Carrier HMS Centaur were able to board the Lakonia the following day, once the fires had died down and recovered a total of 22 bodies from the ship, which by then was a charred and smoking hulk. Soon after the first reports of the disaster reached Gibraltar, the Norwegian salvage tug, Herkules, set out to cover the some 500 miles to where the Lakonia lay. It managed to attach a towline to the Lakonia and with the assistance of a Portuguese tugboat, Praia da Adraga, set off for the Rock with the Lakonia on tow. However, every day, the ship's list began to become more severe and on 29 December, at 2.00 pm, just 250 miles from Gibraltar, she rolled over her starboard side and sank stern-first in only 3 minutes.
In all, a total of 128 persons died in the Lakonia disaster, 95 of whom were passengers and 33 crew members. With 53 persons killed by the fire and the others succumbing to exposure, drowning and from injuries sustained whilst jumping into the sea.
HMS Centaur arrived in Gibraltar on Christmas afternoon and unloaded the bodies recovered in the Lakonia, with three more bodies, recovered by another ship, brought over from Ceuta by an RAF launch, making a total of 58 victims landed. The bodies of the deceased were transported to the REME Chambers where an autopsy was carried out, with five of these victims not being able to be identified.
The mass funeral took place on Boxing Day in the evening, after memorial services had taken place in both Cathedrals and in the synagogues, with the participation of clergy of all denominations. This was the largest mass funeral held in Gibraltar since 1891, when 130 bodies were buried following the sinking of the liner Utopia; the previous largest funeral had been in 1937 when 24 German sailors from the battleship Deutschland were buried, following the bombardment of their ship during the Spanish Civil War.
An inquest was held at the Magistrates Court on 30 January 1964, with the Coroner, Mr J.E. Alcántara, recording an open verdict, with the cause of death in the majority of cases being exposure and drowning, in some instances preceded by knock-out blows, caused by the victims' lifebelts. The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry Launched a two year investigation, which attributed the fire on board the Lakonia to a short circuit in faulty electric wiring. The Board of Enquiry charged that the order to abandon ship was given too late, that the operation of evacuation on deck was not properly supervised by responsible officers and that, in most cases, the crew failed to rescue the sleeping passengers from their cabins below decks. It also resulted in eight of the Lakonia's officers being charged with negligence and the Captain, the First Officer and the Security Officer being charged with gross negligence.