BOSTON -- Beatrice Bucci LeClair and her date were relaxing in a darkened dining room, engrossed in the movie 'Fox Fire' when people started screaming as ashtrays and chairs flew around the room.
'I remember it was near the end of the movie starring Jeff Chandler and Jane Russell,' the Beverly, Mass., woman said. 'I was sitting on an end seat and I grabbed hold of a table that was bolted to the floor. I thought 'This is it.''
The Andrea Doria had been hit. July 25, 1956. 11:10 p.m.
The magnificent luxury liner, the 700-foot pride of the Italian merchant marine, was rammed by the Swedish liner Stockholm in treacherous fog off the island of Nantucket 25 years ago this week.
More than 1,700 passengers and crew members, including 27-year-old Beatrice Bucci, were aboard the Andrea Doria when the Stockholm sliced through cabins on five passenger decks, killing 51 people.
Water rushed in, filling cabins, decks and empty fuel tanks as the great ship turned on its side.
Twelve hours later -- after one of the greatest rescue efforts in history -- the mortally wounded Andrea Doria sank, its wreckage lying like a mountain 40 fathoms (240 feet) below the ocean's surface some 42 miles southeast of Nantucket.
The wreck -- and an estimated $2 million in currency, jewelry and other artifacts -- have had the allure of a siren for fortune-seeking divers hoping to find riches inside the mammoth hull. None is known to have been successful.
Martin German, an electrical engineer from Middletown, R.I., made a dive earlier this week to look at the wreck. He landed in a hospital suffering from decompression sickness.
'The ship was awesome, lying there on its side like a sleeping giant,' he said.
Mrs. LeClair, who still lives in Beverly where she married and raised 10 children, was returning to the United States from Naples, Italy, where she had been visiting her brother on a U.S. Navy base.
A registered nurse by profession, Mrs. LeClair said the filmgoers were jolted as the ship listed suddenly at the time of the crash. The room filled with smoke. Chaos erupted.
'People were screaming and ashtrays were flying,' she said. 'My first impression was that we were on fire.'
Although Mrs. LeClair's date tried to pry her from the table she was clinging to, she said 'panic' prevented her from moving. 'He just ran,' she said of her companion whom she never saw again.
Hours later, bewildered adult passengers shinnied down ropes to the lifeboats. Mrs. LeClair helped toss babies and children off the boat into blankets held by lifeboat operators.
Darkness concealed the Stockholm and the gaping 65-foot gash on the other side of the Andrea Doria. Another liner, the Ile de France, sailed to the scene, shining spotlights to illuminate the rescue operation.
Some of the passengers were taken to the Stockholm where they were given food and coffee. Nearly 36 sleepless hours later, they arrived in New York.
The years have dulled Mrs. LeClair's memory of the accident, but she said it had a lasting effect on her life. 'It made me understand what happens in life -- God spared me for something.'