The Greek cruise ship TSMS Lakonia left Southampton on 19 December 1963 for an 11-day Christmas cruise of the Canary Islands. She carried 646 passengers and 376 crew: a total of 1,022 people.
The ship’s first scheduled stop was to be the island of Madeira.
A fire broke out onboard at around 11.00 pm on 22 December when the ship was about 180 miles north of Madeira. Most of the passengers were in the ship’s ballroom and as the fire spread, alarms sounded too softly to be heard by most people aboard.
As smoke began to fill the ballroom at about 11.30 pm, the band stopped playing and the frightened passengers were ushered to the boat deck. The upper deck was ablaze within 10 minutes.
Passengers who had been asleep in their cabins found themselves unable to escape the fire, while some passengers were told to go to the main dining room to await instructions. Most ignored this order, since the dining room lay directly in the path of the fire.
The direction to abandon ship was given shortly before 1.00 am but the evacuation was hampered by the overcrowding of lifeboats and the loss of several boats to fire.
Just over half of the lifeboats made it safely away from Lakonia, and some of them less than half full.
128 people were killed in the disaster. Some deaths were caused by the fire itself, others by accidents when abandoning ship, and others by exposure or drowning in the sea. Several people who dived overboard struck the side of the ship on the way down, killing them before they hit the water.
On 24 December ocean tugs took Lakonia in tow and tried to tow her to Gibraltar. But the ship had developed a list and on 29 December, she sank in the Atlantic, 230 nautical miles southwest of Lisbon, Portugal.
A board of inquiry traced the fire to faulty electrical wiring but strongly criticised the maintenance of equipment, thoroughness of lifeboat drills, and the standard of supervision. The board of inquiry ruled that the order to abandon ship was given too late, operations on deck were not supervised by responsible officers, and the crew – except for a few acts of self-sacrifice – failed to rescue sleeping passengers from their cabins below decks.
Eight of the ship’s officers were charged with negligence.
The Lakonia was originally launched in 1929 for Netherland Line as the ocean liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. She served in the Second World War as an Allied troopship. She was refitted several times and in 1962 she became the Greek Line cruise ship TSMS Lakonia, operating cruises out of Southampton.