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An Italian steamer Vittoria Claudia on her way from the Bulgarian port of Burgas in the Black Sea to Hamburg in West Germany, went down off the Kent coast after being hit by French motor vessel Perou.
The accident happened just before 0400 yesterday morning, about two-and-a-half miles (4km) from Dungeness. The Italian crew had no time to send out an SOS call.
The alarm was raised by the Perou which got in touch with the French coastguard, from where a message was sent to the English side of the Channel.
The Dungeness, Dover and Hastings lifeboats were all launched and the Trinity House pilot cutter Pelorus, which was not far from the collision, was also despatched to help the rescue effort.
The Vittoria Claudia carrying a cargo of mineral ore is reported to have sunk within five minutes of being hit. There were no casualties on the Perou, which was on the way from Antwerp in Belgium to Orleans in France.
Second officer Stolfa was one of the Italian survivors. He was on the bridge when the accident happened.
He said: "We were doing six knots. I saw a big ship coming in our direction at about 15 knots. It seemed that unless she altered course suddenly we must be struck.
"I sounded the ship's siren, but it was not until the last moment that the French ship swerved and she struck us in the stern.
"I was flung down and by the time I had picked myself up I could see that our ship was doomed. We had no time to launch boats. Those men below deck had not the slightest chance."
It was a dark night, but visibility was good and the sea was calm with practically no wind.
The coxswain of the Dungeness lifeboat described the rescue operation.
"We came across three bodies in the water which we got aboard and then searched around for other survivors, but we couldn't cover the area we'd have liked to on account of so much wreckage," he said.
"We had to go very slow. We searched around till daylight, then the planes came out and they assisted us all they could."
A flying-boat and helicopter from the USAF air base at Manston joined the search at dawn.
The five survivors were picked up by the Pelorus. They had been hanging onto wreckage for nearly two hours. They were landed at Dungeness and taken by ambulance to Folkestone hospital where they were treated for shock.
The stretch of water between Kent and the north French coast, the Dover Straits, is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
In 1977 a system of two-way traffic lanes was introduced to reduce the risk of collision.
In 2002 a freight tanker, the Tricolor sank off the Kent coast. At least two vessels subsequently hit the wreck despite radio warning signals.
In 2003 a new automated tracking system was introduced designed to provide exact information on the location of all the hundreds of ships which pass through the Straits every day.
The wreck of the Vittoria Claudia still lies on the bottom of the English Channel, about 26m (28.5 yards) down. It is a recognised site for divers.
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