This is the last of three excerpts from "Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats," released Friday by Camino Books (caminobooks.com). Today's excerpt is from Chapter 15, "Mayor Dilworth."

Late in June 1956, Dick and Ann Dilworth left on a European vacation. After a contentious first half year in office, he welcomed the time off. The Dilworths were away nearly a month, and concluded their holiday by boarding an Italian passenger liner, the Andrea Doria, in the French port of Cannes. The 30,000-ton vessel, with 1,200 passengers and 600 crew, had been built after World War II to compete with Britain and France in transatlantic service. With 10 decks, three swimming pools, and more than a million dollars in artwork, it was built for luxury.

The weather was fine on their crossing, and on July 25, the night before their scheduled arrival in New York, the Philadelphians hosted a small dinner party marking Ann's birthday. Just after 9 p.m., they took a stroll around the deck and found the Andrea Doria wrapped in heavy fog not far off Nantucket Island. "It was impossible to see beyond the rail," Dilworth later wrote. He was surprised, given the weather, that the ship seemed to be traveling at top speed. He spoke to a young officer who said that, thanks to radar, there was nothing to worry about. The Dilworths went to sleep.

At 10 minutes past 11, they were knocked to the floor of their cabin. Ann Dilworth, who had recently read A Night to Remember, Walter Lord's account of the sinking of the Titanic, exclaimed, "I think we've hit an iceberg."

In fact, the Andrea Doria had been struck by the ocean liner MS Stockholm of the Swedish-American Line, which had been sailing at high speed in the opposite direction. The collision crushed the bow of the Stockholm and tore a large, deep hole in the Andrea Doria's starboard side, about five cabins from the one occupied by the mayor and his wife.

Almost immediately, the Andrea Doria took a 20-degree list, which made it almost impossible to stand. The Dilworths pulled on some clothes and crawled on all fours up a passageway to the starboard side of the boat deck. Once on deck, they discovered that all the starboard-side lifeboats there had already been deployed. The mayor then joined a group of men who formed a human chain to assist passengers as they crawled through the main saloon to the port side. They reached that deck only to discover that the port-side lifeboats could not be lowered into the water.

With their backs to the wall of the saloon, the Dilworths sat on the slippery deck of the sinking ship. Shortly before 2 a.m., a rescue vessel arrived. It was the famous French passenger liner Ile de France, which quickly put out lifeboats. Dilworth later termed it "the most welcome sight in our lives."

Getting people into the lifeboats proved difficult. They had to slide down ropes or descend very wobbly rope ladders. When Dilworth sought to persuade Ann to go, she wouldn't leave him. By this time, the Andrea Doria was listing at about 30 degrees, and there was little time to off-load the passengers. Still, Mrs. Dilworth refused to be separated from her husband. Taking matters into his own hands, Dilworth began pulling Ann across the deck, but she slammed into a glass door, bruising her right eye. He finally bundled his wife into a waiting lifeboat just after 3 a.m. It pushed off toward the Ile de France with the mayor himself still on the deck of the doomed liner.

A young Italian immigrant named Chiaramonti Miriello described what happened next: "There was a lot of confusion, and most of the passengers had left the ship. I looked around, wondering what to do, and saw a tall man - a man in rumpled clothes, but I knew he was a sindaco - a man of authority. He was calm and confident, and he quieted some who seemed about to panic. He helped them to the lifeboats. Later I found out I was right; he was a sindaco - the mayor of Philadelphia."

By dawn, the fog had begun to lift. About 5:30 a.m., with the ship's list approaching 40 degrees, two lifeboats collected the last of the passengers, including Dilworth. His lifeboat circled the ship, looking for survivors, and picked up one man whose wife had died in the wreckage of their cabin. Suffering from shock, the grief-stricken husband was lowered to safety in a net.

Forty-six of the Andrea Doria's 1,134 passengers were lost, along with five from the Stockholm. When the Ile de France reached New York harbor about 4 p.m., all the ships in port blew their whistles and sounded their sirens in tribute to the rescue ship.

The Dilworths were met by Cliff Brenner, the mayor's press secretary, and other staffers, who also brought along the couple's two poodles. The Dilworths had lost all their luggage and returned home in borrowed shoes, having removed their own on the Andrea Doria's slippery deck. Ann had a black eye, and Dick was minus his socks, but neither seemed much troubled by the ordeal. In fact, Dilworth's brave performance after the collision at sea made Philadelphians proud of their mayor. The Inquirer wrote that his "great presence of mind" and "cool confidence" must have "helped enormously in the smoothness of the rescue operation."

The barefoot mayor was photographed at home, resting on a sofa with springs and stuffing sticking out. The newspaper pictures led to numerous phone calls and letters from citizens - offering to repair the Dilworths' couch or to buy them another one. By public demand, they invested in a new sofa. Nor was the stricken ship forgotten. When their female poodle produced twins, they named one Andrea and the other Doria.

Years later, writing about the experience in the Daily News, Dilworth recalled that when he and Ann arrived in Cannes and picked up their tickets for the crossing, they noted that the tickets were stamped "Andrea Doria, the unsinkable ship."

Peter Binzen was a reporter, editor, and columnist for more than 30 years at the Philadelphia Bulletin and for more than 20 years at The Inquirer.
Jonathan Binzen is a writer and photographer, and the senior editor at Fine Woodworking magazine.