Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shipboard Fire, September 1949

S.S. Noronic at Toronto ca. 1930 City of Toron...Image via Wikipedia
For National Fire Prevention Week:

My grandfather was a little older than the "Greatest Generation." He was an engineer, and so worked steadily and hard through the Depression. During World War II, likewise, he was involved in the industrial might of the War Effort, and worked long hours. In the meantime, my grandmother--a notable clubwoman and mother--ran the household.

By 1949, they decided the children were old enough to stay with  family for a week. They booked passage on a cruise, drove to Cleveland, Ohio, and boarded "The Queen of the Lakes" on September 15, 1949.  The ship, built in 1916, was a gorgeous luxury packet, with wood wainscoting and all the amenities. It could hold as many as 600 passengers. For this cruise, 524 had signed up.

The S.S. Noronic would usually cruise Lake Ontario, spend a couple of nights in Toronto's harbor (as shown above). The ship was grand, with a band and 171 crew--fabulous! From there, people would enjoy the night life and (package theatre or nightclub deal, for instance) included with the trip. My grandparents went out drinking and dancing, returning quite well-lit I'm sure from the evening of September 17th. Unlike many of the shipboard passengers, they did not bring guests back with them. But a great many passengers did.

Despite the late hour and possible Scotch-and-water overload, my grandfather, for some reason, could not sleep. He heard a clunk, the word 'fire' and got up to investigate.

One Bad Move, or Two, or Three
Apparently another passenger beat him to the concern. Don Church, a passenger on D deck, noted a smell of smoke about 2:30 a.m., when almost everyone was sleeping off their martinis. He followed it upstairs and then located a steward.

My grandmother said they could never figure out what caused the fire. They thought it was oily rags, piled sloppily together from polishing the fancy woodwork, that had warmed themselves to ignition: a kind of spontaneous combustion. The oxygen was all that was required to make a disaster. I sometimes wonder if a cigarette or cigar had a part in it.

Don Church, the steward, and another crewman attempted to fight the fire. According to the Walkerville Times:
The first person [Church] encountered was a bellboy named Earnest O’Neil, and they rushed to the linen closet. They both heard the crackling sound of fire from behind the door. Finding that he did not have the right keys for the closest, O’Neil ran to the steward’s office on D Deck to get the correct keys.
He returned with a fire extinguisher, and prepped himself for fighting the fire, and opened the door to the closet. Two others appeared to aid in the fight, including a passenger across from the closet.
Freed of the linen closet and with a fresh source of oxygen, the flames backdrafted down the hall in both directions, gaining fuel from the walls. Still with the hope of containing the fire, one of the courageous three went to get a fire hose, but as they opened the valve, only a trickle of water came out.
Church ran to D deck and got his family out. That might have been who my grandfather heard, slamming out of their cabin and running to evacuate. He stopped to notify:
[Church] soon encountered the wheelman on duty, Windsor’s Jim Donaldson, and explained the severity of the situation. Running up to A Deck, Donaldson advised Capt. Taylor and the First Mate, Gerry Wood. The Captain had returned from an evening ashore only 20 minutes earlier.
Having determined that the fire was serious, Donaldson ran to the wheelhouse to throw the ship’s whistle for the fire signal, but tragically, the whistle seized. Instead of sounding one long blast, three short blasts and another long blast – the signal for fire on board – the horn emitted a bone-chilling shriek that pierced the air without a pause.
At 2:38 a.m., eight minutes after the first passenger realized there was a problem, the ship was already 50% on fire. The harbor security called the fire service. Those responders could see the glow before they had even reached Pier 9. They called for reinforcements at 2:41.

Picture Montage: The Walkerville Times.

My grandfather pulled my grandmother to the deck, which was already starting to crowd. At this point I should tell you that none of the decks had direct access to the dock. Therefore people were trying to get out by jumping overboard. Once my folks determined the lay of the ship, they also were going to jump. The problem was, of course, all the other people who were each trying to see what they could do.  And that problem was complicated in that a great many of the crew (all but sixteen, including the Captain) had been given the night off.

Evacuation: Not for the Squeamish
So, the fire-fighting equipment did not work. There was no exit, no organization, a huge fire out of nowhere in one of the worst possible sites for a fire: a ship. The fire fighters could see people silhouetted on B deck and surrounded by fire--no way out. They tried making a ladder bridge for those who could evacuate, a heroic effort in itself:
It was clear to all that the most daunting task was how to get people off the ship. Setting up fire department Aerial Number 5, an 85-foot long wooden ladder built in 1931, at the base of Noronic’s bow, the fire fighters aligned it with B Deck at an angle of 26 degrees. It barely made contact when a woman immediately jumped upon it, as did many other passengers.Almost in frenzy, the fast-clambering passengers and the natural movement of the ship made it very difficult for the fire fighters to keep the ladder aligned on the tip of the bow. Panicked, a female passenger stumbled on the ladder and the following passengers fell into her, their combined weight focused on a small point on the ladder. With a terrifying crack, the ladder snapped in two and sent the frightened passengers into the cold water.
The Fire Department tried again:
At this time, Aerial Number 1 arrived, but could not get to the ship because of parked cars. After clearing these obstructions, Aerial Number 1 neared the ship to a distance of 90 feet and extended its 100-foot ladder to C Deck. Having been made aware of the failure of ladder 5, they braced ladder 1 with hand-ladders underneath it at 15-foot intervals.
They were also lifting people out of the water who could cling to shorter ladders--backbreaking work.
Valiant efforts were made to extinguish the flames by fire fighters, but the heat was so intense that the water vaporized before it reached the hull of the ship! The metal structure was visibly white from the intense heat. By 2:46 a.m., the fireboat tied up to the Noronic’s bow and began to pour water in via two smaller hoses and the turret nozzle.
The stories my grandmother told about the evacuation were horrible. One man thought he could get out by sliding down a wire cable. My grandmother watched as he slid down, losing all his fingers before he dropped into the water. Another man, an Olympic grade swimmer, deserted his wife and children on board ship in a neat dive. He was never seen again. Lake Ontario is deep, wide, with temperature differentials that cause turbulence. My grandmother always said that he drowned, but there was only one drowning death reported: perhaps that was the one.

Somewhere in all this my grandmother suffered severe burns to her hands. Then my grandparents got their opportunity to get off the ship. They jumped together and started swimming. Unfortunately, my grandmother got stuck in a rain of suitcases over the side. Those that were evacuating planned to do it with their luggage. My grandfather lost her as she was buffeted, and taken under, by several direct hits. Plus, with her hands injured, and less fit overall, she was not doing so well.

The Fog of Disaster
My grandfather was swimming to the dock, turning around and seeing a dark-haired woman behind him in a blue gown. It was the wrong dark-haired woman in the wrong gown. He managed to save himself, and the strange woman. My grandmother was picked up by a skiff on the third gulp down after the third or fifth suitcase. They were re-united in the hospital. My grandmother wore bandages and later had plastic surgery to repair the defacement of her hands. They were always fragile after that--not for everything, but some minor impairment.

What use is this family legend? Well, it gave my family examples of human selfishness and selflessness, life and death. We learned disaster potentially hits anyone. Beyond that, we did not think about evacuation any better than to know not to take our suitcase on the way out.

Wreck of the S.S. Noronic after the fire.Image via Wikipedia

In truth though, this story could have taught us many lessons:
1. To know our terrain well enough to be able to leave it.
2. To believe in safety measures and safety standards and to ask about them.
3. Pack light or do not pack at all. Possessions are a hindrance in an emergency.
4. Be a leader, even if it is only to be the first to follow instructions.
5. Keep a clear head.
6. Don't park in a fire lane.

These are pictures from before, in 1930, during, and immediately after the fire. Nobody knows how many passengers died, somewhere between 104 to 139 of the 524 on board the ship, plus an unknown number of guests--as many as 300 total. The inquiry afterward was long and pointed. No crew member died. This was thought to be significant, but I don't think it is as important as the rags, the wood polish, the possible cigar, the time-off schedule, or the fire hoses and whistle out of commission. In other words, the best way to forestall disaster is to prepare for it.
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Bob G. said...

A fantastic story on so many levels...
And terrifying to say the least!

Those six points make as much sense no matter what the situation.

One can NEVER be "too" prepared.

Excellent post.

Bob G. said...

SO what's up?
You're NOT allowing commenting?

Sorry to hear that.
You have such a LARGE following.

Slamdunk said...

Amazing story Ann T. I can see where the crew may have felt so indestructable with such a large ship on shore.

I find it interesting reading stories of how folks react under panic conditions. The true selfless folks are quickly separated from those who simply act the role.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G..
It does seem like good advice! The thing is, I learned it from my blog friends. I'm pretty sure my family still hasn't figured it out!

Still, they'll get their chance when I see them next--

Thanks for the comment!
And thanks for the patience! I am back.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Like you, I don't think the crew was at fault for relaxing at the dock. They were at fault for the emergency systems.

I too am always interested in panic conditions. I flatter myself that I do okay at the time, then fall apart afterward. I don't know what I would have done about falling suitcases though.

Ann T.