SS Lakonia survivor visits Gibraltar plaque

Far left is Keith Farrell, director of Gibraltar Heritage with Joe Beneveniste and his family

December 1963 found the world a confused and worried place, President Kennedy had been assassinated the previous month and the world’s press were focused on the who, the why and the how’s of the murder.

A few nights before Christmas, Joe Beneveniste, a 21-year-old salon manager on board the cruise liner The Lakonia, had closed his salon for the night  and had gone to the on board cinema for some light entertainment. A Bob Hope comedy, ´Call Me Bwana´ was playing. The audience had barely settled when the film abruptly came to an end as the audience were asked to make their way to the lifeboats as the ship was on fire and orders had been given to abandon ship.  Joe made his way to his cabin to pack a case and fetch his lifejacket, only to find that his cabin had been looted by crew members.

He arrived at the muster station to find chaos. The Lakonia had passed safety certificates in both Greece, during its refit, and a few days earlier before it had left Southampton. As lifeboats were being lowered the davits supporting them collapsed and passengers fell into the sea. One thousand and twenty two passengers were on board the Lakonia. Only nine of the lifeboats were safely launched. Seeing there were rescue ships on the horizon, hundreds of people took the chance of surviving in the Atlantic waters and jumped. Joe Beneveniste, was one of them. Joe spent five hours in the water and was near the end when a passenger he knew only as Tony roused him from his tiredness and kept him alive until they were both rescued.

Joe has just returned from Gibraltar where a commemorative plaque was unveiled last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster, which claimed the lives of 128 passengers and crew. The organisers had failed to find Joe in time but have invited him back with his wife Vivian, his sons and six grandchildren.   

Joe flew back to London on Christmas day 1963, this was the last time he saw his rescuer Tony. With not a stitch to his name, Joe borrowed clothes from a cousin and started to rebuild his life. Eventually he owned hairdressing salons, sandwich bars and a printers before retiring to Guadalmina 12 years ago. Having survived the Lakonia disaster, Joe continues to go regularly on cruises, one observation he shared with Euro Weekly News, is that he believes the safety issue has barely been improved in the past 50 years as has been witnessed by the recent Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy.   

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