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Cruise ship TSMS Lakonia burst into flames in a tragic disaster that saw 128 people either burn or drown to death.

Joe Benveniste somehow survived the disaster aged 19 after leaping 30 feet from the flames engulfing the vessel, into Atlantic Ocean.

But surviving the fire was only half the battle as the Londoner spent the next five hours vomiting, drifting in and out of consciousness and desperately trying to stay afloat.

Joe was eventually rescued from the 1963 Lakonia disaster near the Portuguese island of Madeira and spent the next several decades hoping to thank the man who saved him.

After returning to Britain the barber tied the knot with wife Vivian who following Joe's death two years ago aged 78, told the Daily Star of her late husband's horrifying escape.

Speaking on the 59th anniversary of the disaster, Vivian who with Joe has several grandchildren said: "He was watching a film called Call Me Bwana with Bob Hope and he saw people running around.

"Eventually they screamed abandon ship. If he had stayed on he might have been saved but he went down to his cabin which had been ransacked, to get a few things."

An investigation found the fire broke out due to faulty electric wiring on the 34-year-old ship which had been left to rust so badly that eight of the ship's officers were charged with negligence.

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Vivian explained she never thought she would see Joe again when he set off from Southampton as the manager of the ship's hair dressing shop, but a disaster was the last thing on her mind.

Vivian said: "The ship was painted over and made to look okay but it wasn't. Everything was rusty, it was in a terrible, terrible state. Everything was painted over there upon the life boats that wouldn't lower down."

Unbelievably the life jackets made out of cork were in such short supply that Vivian claims the ship's captain expected Joe to give his up.

She continued: "The Greek crew basically jumped and took a lot of the life boats and left people stranded, including the captain who asked Joe at the time if could he have Joe's life jacket which he obviously didn't give him.

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"And Joe started to climb down the rope ladder and consequently he could see that as people were walking down to the bottom. Because the boat was drifting he could see that they were being knocked to the side and perished."

Joe's options became so limited he was forced to risk drowning over becoming engulfed in the ship's roaring flames.

"He decided to jump" Vivian said. "So he jumped with this cork thing which was dangling anyway and he jumped probably about 30 feet. Eventually came up he was with an officer and they started swimming.

"He was 19-years-old and thought he was a really good swimming but he realised after probably an hour or so that he was going to die because he couldn't stay afloat, he was being sick. The officer just swam on.

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"He carried on and spending five hours in the water left him very weak."

Long after all reasonable hope had been lost, a rescuer from British cargo ship the Montcalm came along, which had been deployed to scour the water for survivors.

Vivian added: "A man swam along and said: 'My name is Alan, what's yours?' As he was going in and out of consciousness he replied 'Joe' and that's the last thing he knew.

"This guy Alan who he never found since, saved his life."

Writer Paul Bridger is currently turning Joe's story into a book.

  • Family
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