This is the second book to be writen about the 1956 sinking of the magnificent Italian liner Andrea Doria, and if I had been a publisher I would have discouraged the project on the grounds that it could shed no new light on the controversial disaster, nor could it offer anything faintly resembling additional evidence.

Furthermore, that earlier work -- Alvin Moscow's "Collision Course" (1959) -- was an excellent and thorough job of reporting. However, it is fortunate that I am not a publisher, because turning down William Hoffer's book on the grounds that it had been done before would have been a mistake. "Saved!" is so superbly written, with such tautness, dramatic timing and calculated suspense, that it comes close to matching that classic of sea disaster stories -- Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember," about the Titanic. Hoffer manages to put the reader aboard the doomed liner and into the minds and hearts of its passengers and crew.

The Swedish liner Stockholm and the Andrea Doria collided at night off Nantucket Island. Once it was rammed, the Andrea Doria began to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Misread radar, excessive speed in fog, foolhardy assumptions and impulsive decisions made under stress: All these factors contributed to a catastrophe which took 51 lives. But to this day no definitive legal responsibility has been established.

As his title implies, Hoffer has concentrated more on the rescue of 1,660 human beings (from a ship with only half its lifeboats workable) than on establishing guilt. He does fix blame equally on the commander of both vessels. Moscow, whose earlier book devoted more space to the official hearings on the collision, tended toward the view, shared by other maritime experts, that puts the onus on the Italian ship. The Andrea Doria, after all, did violate a cardinal rule of the oceans: It attempted a starboard-to-starboard passing instead of a port-to-port, as required by maritime law.

Out of scores of seemingly inconsequential coincidences and minor incidents, Hoffer has formed a mosaic of tragedy and near-tragedy. He tells us, for example, of a wife whose insistence on finishing a cigarette kept her and her husband out of a stateroom that was pulverized by the Stockholm's prow.

"A reconstruction of the events . . . reveals a series of mainly minor actions, and inactions, that taken individually were not calamitous," Hoffer writes. "But collectively, they added up to a tragic sum. Had any one fact been altered, the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm might have passed easily in the fog and continued uneventfully to their destinations. But it was not to be. The two ships seemed drawn together by a magnet of fate."

That is a verdict that can be applied to virtually every catastrophe involving machines built by humans and guided by humans.