Thirty years ago today, on October 7, 1985, four terrorists belonging to the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian passenger ship MS Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast and held her passengers and crew hostage. The terrorists demanded the release of 50 Palestinians who were imprisoned in Israel. When Israel wouldn’t play ball, the terrorists murdered an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was not only innocent but in a wheelchair. Ultimately the Egyptian government got the terrorists to leave the ship in exchange for safe passage, but the airliner carrying them was intercepted by American warplanes and forced to land in Italy. This was one of the most high-profile acts of international terrorism in 1985, a year filled with violent terrorist incidents. Indeed over the next few years the words “Achille Lauro” became as synonymous with terrorism as the word “Entebbe.”
But the Achille Lauro was much more than just the stage of a terrorist incident and a brutal and cowardly murder. She was a workhorse of a passenger liner with a career that spanned almost 50 years and sailing under two countries’ flags, Holland and Italy. Ocean liners have fascinating lives, and none deserves to be celebrated less than the Achille Lauro‘s. Unfortunately her life as a ship was quite a sad and unlucky one. Being hijacked by terrorists would be bad luck enough for a ship’s legacy, but that was only one of the various disasters that befell Achille Lauro. The ship blew up or burned no less than four times in its career, collided once with her sister vessel, and ultimately came to rest in the lonely waters off Somalia, one of the world’s bleakest shores. Indeed, if one can have emotional feelings about ships, it’s hard not to pity the poor Achille Lauro.
The MS Achille Lauro burns while being refitted in Palermo in 1965. Unfortunately this wasn’t the first fire the ship suffered.
The ship that would eventually become the Achille Lauro was affected by the fortunes of war even before her first voyage. She was built for a Dutch line, Royal Rotterdam Lloyd, who needed a new ship to sail between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies colonies. The ship, called the Willem Ruys, started construction in 1939 but was barely started before World War II broke out. Amazingly the unfinished ship managed to survive the war and the German occupation which ended in 1945. Already years behind schedule, Willem Ruys was completed after the war and sailed on her maiden voyage in December 1947. Her heyday was very brief, only two years. In 1949 the Dutch East Indies became the independent nation of Indonesia, and a lot fewer Dutch passengers wanted or needed to go there. Already the market she was built for was drying up, though the ship continued to sail between Holland and Southeast Asia during the 1950s.
In 1953 Willem Ruys suffered a freak collision with her own sister ship, the Oranje, while traveling through the Red Sea. The incident was embarrassing, but Williem Ruys was less damaged than Oranje and was soon repaired and back at work. By the late 1950s the line’s ailing fortunes forced it to merge and reorganize its service. Willem Ruys was refitted to be more cruise-oriented, as opposed to a pure passenger hauler, and sent out for pleasure cruises on the Mediterranean and to Australia and the South Seas. This didn’t work so well. Losing passengers and hemorrhaging money, Willem Ruis was sold in 1965 to the Italian-owned Flotta Lauro line. Here is where she got her new name Achille Lauro, named after the president of the shipping company.
This is raw AP News footage of passengers being evacuated from the Achille Lauro during its final fire, November 30, 1994.
Disaster struck the “new” Achille Lauro almost at once. While being refitted in Palermo in 1965, an explosion and fire ripped through the half-finished ship. The line repaired the damage, ended up modernizing the ship and she reappeared for the second phase of her career in 1966. Cruising the Mediterranean and carrying Italians from their home country to places like Australia, the Achille Lauro put on a lot of miles. Unfortunately the 1965 fire was not her last. Another terrible fire swept the ship in 1972, and after being repaired yet again, Achille Lauro suffered another disaster when she collided with a cargo ship in 1975. Adding to this a third fire in 1981 and already the ship had suffered more than its share of misfortune. Then in 1985 came its brush with terrorism. The ship wasn’t physically damaged during the hijack incident, but another link had been added to its long chain of bad luck.
The hard-luck ship continued chugging along after the hijacking for another nine years, surviving yet another corporate reorganization when the Lauro Line merged with another company in 1987. On November 30, 1994, what little good luck Achille Lauro still had ran out for good. While the ship was in the Indian Ocean headed toward South Africa a fire broke out in one of the antiquated engines. The crew was lackluster and by the time they even knew the fire was going on it was too late. The passengers were put off in lifeboats and rescued by a tanker called the Hawaiian King, but two people died in the transfer from the boats to the tanker. The Lauro’s crew returned to fight the fire but it turned out to be hopeless. The fire burned for three days, and finally on December 2, 1994 the hulk of the star-crossed liner sank beneath the waves off the coast of Somalia.
The sad end of an unlucky ship. Achille Lauro, now abandoned, burns off Somalia on December 2, 1994. She sank shortly afterward.
Nautical history is filled with unlucky ships, from the Titanic to the Mary Celeste and the SS United States. But few ships have had quite such a long and unhappy life as the Achille Lauro. It’s sad she’ll be principally remembered for her accidental association with terrorism, but honestly the rest of her story isn’t much more cheerful.