Nothing can beat the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in terms of flame propagation speed, but the cataclysmic fire that destroyed the SS Noronic in 1949 as she sat beside the docks of Toronto’s Pier 9 was impressively rapid nonetheless. The focus of investigations into the Noronic fire was not the point of origin--that was fairly obvious from eyewitness accounts--or the actual source of ignition: it was the rather horrifyingly laissez-faire attitude of the crew members regarding what to do in the case of a fire in dock.
The official "Report of Court of Investigation into the Circumstances Attending the Loss of the S.S. Noronic" contains quite a lot of direct quotes from examination of the various officers, included into the narrative to make the point abundantly clear: there was no official instruction given to crew members regarding their duties in case of fire in dock, and no attempts made to develop or distribute same, because “the ship had been running from 1913 without mishap.”
The Noronic, built (as mentioned) in 1913, was a cruise and package freight ship plying the Great Lakes. She had two sister ships, the Huronic and the Hamonic; this last, suffering under an even sillier name than Noronic, burned out in 1945. No apparent lessons were learned from the loss of the Hamonic, as demonstrated very clearly in the behaviour of the Noronic’s crew prior to and during the disaster.
She was vast for the time, capable of carrying six hundred passengers and two hundred crew on her five decks, and considered one of the most beautiful and luxurious cruise liners in Canada. Part of her luxury came from the fact that her interior walls were paneled in beautifully polished wood, into which thirty years of lovingly applied lemon-oil varnish had soaked. Some of the wood (the passenger accommodations on D deck) was painted rather than varnished, but the majority of the walls in the upper decks and communal areas were treated with this highly flammable oil.
She was also, being built prior to regulations passed in 1939, lacking the requisite fire-resistant bulkheads the regulations called for. The Chairman of the Board of Steamship Inspection was allowed to exempt existing ships from compliance with the regulations where it was “impracticable or unreasonable” to retrofit the ship to comply. In this case it was rather obviously “expensive” to do so, and Noronic remained a totally period-accurate vessel.
The series of legal loopholes through which the Noronic sailed to escape the installation of vital safety systems is impressive. Not only was she allowed to go around without fire-resistant bulkheads, she also did not have to comply with Regulation 3 of section 405 (1) c of the Canada Shipping Act, requiring “every ship…which is engaged on an international voyage, [to be provided with] an approved fire alarm or fire-detecting system which will automatically register at one or more points or stations in the ship, where it can be most quickly observed by officers and crew, the presence or indication of fire in any part of the ship…not accessible to a fire patrol system.”
Fire patrol meant that the crew was detailed to regularly make exhaustive rounds of the ship throughout the day and night to catch any hint of fire on board; the regulations stated that “all spaces in a passenger ship, except such spaces as cargo spaces, baggage and store rooms, may as a general rule be regarded as accessible to the patrol,” thereby exempting them from the requirement that an automatic alarm or detection system be fitted. Noronic was not considered international, as she only puttered around on the Great Lakes—an “inland voyage.” Even had she been considered “international” due to her route between Canada and the States and thus required to comply with Regulation 3, the Board of Steamship Inspection ruled in 1938 that Regulation 3 only applied to ships making international voyages on the ocean. Either it didn’t apply, or it didn’t apply.
Noronic did in fact have a manual fire alarm system that ran off batteries, of the in-case-of-fire-break-glass type. This alarm rang bells located a) in the officers’ quarters, b) on the port side of D deck, and c) in the engine room on E deck, registering the location of the pulled alarm. It did not activate the klaxons located around the ship which would alert passengers and crew to an emergency: in order to sound those someone would have to go up to the pilot house above A deck to manually flip the klaxon switch. The first and second officers informed investigators that it was “the duty of the officer on watch, upon hearing the bell alarm, to proceed to the locality from which the alarm had been given for the purpose of investigating whether the fire was serious enough to require the sounding of the klaxon alarm and, if he so concluded, then to return to the pilot hours above A deck where he would throw the switch which sounded the klaxon horns. If the officer on duty was away from the pilot house, the wheelsman who should be there was expected to find the officer on duty and report to him as to the locality at which the alarm had been sounded. To obtain this information he would first have to go to the bath-room in the mates’ quarters where the indicator was located.”
I quote the report again directly: It is, of course, obvious from the above that considerable time might be lost between the giving of the alarm at the point where the fire was first discovered and the giving of the klaxon alarm which could only be sounded from the pilot house.
It goes on like that. There were supposed to be hydrants located all around the ship so that “at least two powerful jets of water can be rapidly and simultaneously brought to bear upon any part of each deck or space occupied by passengers or crew,” but the inspectors thought, eh, it’d be good enough if you could just run a hose down from the deck above if there weren’t enough hydrants on any given deck (even though the actual wording of the regulations states that “the hydrant shall be so placed on each deck that the fire hoses may be easily coupled to them").
It's apparent that nobody in a position to enforce safety regulations ever actually thought a fire could break out on the Noronic. Certainly they made every effort to weasel out of providing even the most basic of safety systems, taking advantage of the fact that as Noronic was merely sailing on a lake and not the ocean she did not strictly fall under the regulations requiring fire patrol. Whether this is due to some unknown dangerous quality in salt water as opposed to fresh is not explained. The report mentions tartly that in the judge’s opinion the regulations requiring ships to be equipped with working hydrants and extinguishers imply that there also should be crew members provided by the ship’s owner to use the aforementioned apparatus. Without an automatic fire detection system or a sprinkler system on board, Noronic really could’ve used a fire patrol. What they got was this:
Two crew members designated “Special Officers” switched off at 6-hour intervals to walk around the ship with a time clock and punch a series of keys located at various points on board “on the hour.”
Yeah. In 1942 Canada Steamship Lines issued a list of duties to be completed by the Special Officers, including:
“Each night from 9:00 PM until 6:00 AM the watchman clock shall be punched punctually on the hour. The dials are carefully checked by the Purser and the reason for not punching or the dials not being marked must be explained satisfactorily by the officer. During the round of punching, it is your duty to stop any excessive noise by passengers that are boisterous…Upon completion of your round and all passengers are quiet [sic], return to the rotunda where you are easily found should you be needed…”
The round of time-clock punching took about 15 minutes, which meant that for 45 minutes out of every hour there was pretty much zero fire patrol going on. One of Noronic’s Special Officers said that he thought he wasn’t supposed to do the patrol at all when the ship was in port, but remain instead at the gangplank; the other one understood his duty to be completing the rounds each hour and then returning to the gangplank. In fact neither of them were on board the night of the fire: both Special Officers’ rounds were conducted by a pair of wheelsmen who took the shortest possible routes between the time clocks.
This lack of clarity amongst officers and crew comes up over and over again throughout the investigation. This officer understood that this other officer was supposed to do something, but didn't check with anyone to see if this was in fact the case; that officer thought he was supposed to do this other thing but in point of fact was supposed to be somewhere else entirely and had no idea what to do in case of emergency. The card in the passengers' accommodations regarding fire stated confidently that the ship was equipped with "modern fire prevention apparatus" and patrolled "day and night by experienced watchmen." Or inexperienced wheelsmen doing the watchmen's jobs for them, either way.
Fire and lifeboat drills were regularly held on board the Noronic when she was moored in Duluth. Every Tuesday at ten in the morning, the signal was given for fire drill and the crew members assigned to "fire stations" (hydrants) gathered at their posts. The objective of the drill was to get to the hydrant, get the hose down from its rack, and couple the hose to the hydrant. Sometimes on the outside fire stations they'd squirt the hoses overboard, but obviously not indoors. A few crew members were expected to get the extinguishers down and wave them about, maybe discharge one or two. That was it for fire training of the crew.
In 1945, the General Manager at Canada Steamship Lines was apparently made aware of the fact that his ships were practicing a thoroughly useless excuse for a fire drill, and sent out a memo with an updated list of rules. The memo stated that the enclosed Lifeboat and Fire Drill Regulations were (I quote) serious business, and that masters of all passenger steamers must study them carefully and instruct all crew members accordingly. Let's see how the Norons did:
1) MUSTER STATIONS: The Master will designate locations of muster stations throughout the ship to which members of the crew will report for lifeboat and fire drills (and make sure all crew members know where these stations are and which signals call for them to muster).
1) a ALARM SIGNALS: General or Fire Alarm is indicated by one long, three short, one long blasts on whistle or alarm. Proceed at once to fire drill assigned station. Man Boats Alarm is indicated by General Alarm followed by two short blasts on whistle or alarm. Proceed at once to boat drill assigned station.
The Noronic's crew members each carried a blue card on which was printed his crew number, his fire station number, and his boat number. It clearly states the types of alarm and what one should do upon hearing them. However, in practice, the fire drill signal was a continuous blast on the klaxon horns, while the lifeboat drill signal was identical to the official "general or fire alarm" signal. Crew members had to learn to ignore the info on the blue card.
Passengers did not take part in either drill. The only information they received on what to do in case of fire was on the instruction cards in their rooms. The crew were the only ones who had any idea of emergency procedures, and their grasp on same was tenuous at best.
2) MUSTER LISTS: The Master will have a muster list prepared including the information of all crew members and their muster stations, as well as "full particulars" of the signals required to call members of the crew to muster. This list shall be posted in conspicuous places throughout the ship including the crew's quarters and every officer's room.
There was no such thing as a "muster list" on board the Noronic, nothing signed by the Master, and nothing hung in any officer's room. A "chart" of crew members apparently hung in the maids' quarters, in the crew's stairway aft, on either B or C decks, and in the crew's rec room. The first officer, Gerald Wood, used this chart to prepare a list of crew members and their blue card numbers, boat numbers, and hydrant numbers, and gave a copy to the chief steward. The captain was completely ignorant of all of this and only knew about the typed list because he looked over Wood's shoulder as he was filling it out. Who's on board? Whose job is it to do what? Who knows?
3) MUSTER CARDS: A card indicating the muster station for each crew member must be placed in his berth in such position that it cannot be obscured by baggage or clothing.
The only thing remotely similar to this in use on the Noronic was the blue card, which was kept wherever the crew felt like keeping it.
There was also a rule stating that the Master had to appoint Senior Officers to various parts of the ship in order to help direct passengers to their muster stations if necessary. Here is where the testimony really gets interesting: Captain Taylor said that he'd allocated the first officer to C deck, second officer to A deck, third officer to B deck, and chief steward and purser to D deck. Wood, the first officer, denies any allocation was made, and then proceeds to flip-flop like a gaffed pike (unsurprisingly, he stated that he had never seen or heard of the Serious Business memo):
Q: Was there any allocation that you know of of senior officers allocated to certain locations for the purpose of mustering passengers?
A: No there was not.
Q: Did you make any allocation?
Q: Did anyone else to your knowledge?
A: Not that I know of.
Q (really trying here): Now I want to be fair with you. I thought the Captain did say to us that he had allocated certain senior officers in accordance with this and he said the allocation was the chief officer to C deck....do you know anything about that?
A: Well yes, I would be in charge of C deck.
Q: (wondering what he's smoking): Well that is what he told us, that you were in charge of C deck--then must that not mean that you were allocated in some way to C deck?
A: Yes, I would be allocated.
Q: How would you be allocated and what instructions did you have with regard to C deck?
A: I think by this chart [which indicated his duty was free to move about the ship].
(some back and forth about whether or not this allocation is the same as on other ships)
Q: Now what do you say as to whether or not any station was allocated to you as the first officer under this regulation?
A: Well he may have told me to go to my allocation on C deck.
Q: (between clenched teeth) Well he may and then I suppose he may not, but I am trying to get from you whether he did.
A: Well I have been there a number of years.
Q: Then is your statement to me that you do not know whether the Captain in the case of fire had told you that you were to go to C deck?
A: I am pretty sure--I might say that the captain did not tell me this year. He could have back in 1944 or 1945.
Q: Did you always go to C deck on fire drill?
A: No, I go all over the ship.
Q: Then you were really not allocated to C deck?
A: Not to stay there.
Q: Well was anybody allocated to C deck?
A: Well I think the officers were free--wherever we could be the most help.
This confusion is heightened by "the chart," which states that Wood was in fact in charge of deck A. Balancing out various testimonies against one another it becomes abundantly clear that this "chart" had become so obsolete by 1949 that it had nothing to do with any organization or lack thereof on board the ship and in fact the captain had no idea it existed at all. We are dealing with governmental levels of confusion here. The captain and first officer, when asked about duties to be performed by the officers and men at the fire hydrant stations, contradicted one another and made up answers to explain what the rest of the crew not assigned to hydrants would be doing (running away, is my guess).
The slipperiness of officials when faced with questions about the Noronic extends way up the ladder. General Manager of the line Captain Reoch had to admit under examination that in fact when he wrote the Serious Business memo he did not take into consideration the fact that, if a fire occurred while the ship was tied up to a dock, directing all the passengers to the muster stations on C deck would not do them a blind bit of good as the only gangplanks to the dock were on E deck three floors below. "Was it your intention under these rules when you drew them up, that in the event of a fire at a dock, the passengers from D deck would go up or be directed to C deck and then go back down to D [and then E] deck to get off onto the dock?" he was asked. After some squirming and repeated requests to answer the question, Reoch finally admitted that he didn't think that the rules he'd indicated would be followed in case of a dockside fire--or, more accurately, he'd not bothered to consider the possibility.
The really damning bit is when they are asked why they didn't increase the number of crewmen on fire patrol while the ship was tied up. "If there had of [sic] been any signs of an emergency, yes, but there was no reason why they would have. I can't see any reason why they would."
Maybe because you're in a floating firetrap lacking rudimentary safety systems, steeped in decades' worth of flammable varnish, and inhabited by people who are coming back from Toronto bars drunk off their tits and probably waving around lit cigars?
There was no way of knowing which crew members were on or off the ship while she was in port, as they were free to go ashore at any time they were not on duty. If there had been any organization amongst the crew for dealing with emergencies, it went directly out of the porthole as soon as crew members began to go ashore unremarked.
So we have the perfect setup for disaster. On the night of September 17, 1949, something in a linen closet on C deck aft caught fire. The closet contained bed linen, towels, and cleaning materials, as well as a box for rubbish and wastepaper collected from the cabins, and a switchbox controlling some of the stateroom lights. The presence of the box is controversial: a maid stated that the rubbish box was never placed in the linen closet; the chief steward said it might have been there, and an eyewitness stated that it was there. If the fire was due to a smouldering cigarette butt, this box would have represented a perfect point of origin. Passengers mentioned seeing maids smoking cigarettes in the linen closet during the voyage; in the absence of a major electrical fault it seems likely although not certain that a carelessly discarded butt was responsible for killing somewhere between 118 and 139 people.
A passenger, Don Church, noticed a haze in the starboard corridor around 2:30 a.m. and followed it to the linen closet, where he saw smoke coming from the sides and top of the locked closet door. He heard a faint crackling, rustling noise, and assumed someone was inside; this would have been the fire talking to itself. Church, unable to open the door, ran forward yelling that the boat was on fire and encountered the head bellboy, Earnest O'Neill. O'Neill ran back with him to the locker, whereupon their stories diverge: O'Neill stated that he ran back to the steward's officers to fetch the closet key, then went to fetch a fire extinguisher before unlocking the door. Church stated that he just unlocked the door as they arrived.
They opened the door and saw that the wall was in flames and a hanging sheet was beginning to burn. The extinguisher barely slowed it down: almost as soon as the door was opened, flames poured out along the ceiling, feeding on the beautifully polished wooden paneling. Church and O'Neill went for a fire hose, but when Church opened the valve nothing came out. At this point he thought sod this for a game of soldiers and went off to fetch his family and got the hell out of it.
O'Neill only now broke the glass on the fire alarm and ran down to E deck to find a wheelsman and inform him of the fire. It's uncertain how much time really elapsed between the discovery of the fire and the sounding of the alarm, but time was definitely lost in trying to put out the fire with ineffective means. If O'Neill had sounded the alarm at once instead of messing about with extinguishers, several senior officers could have responded at once and taken charge of the fire equipment: C deck was the most well-staffed in terms of hydrant stations. He didn't. The fire raged out of control.
The wheelman O'Neill had woken in turn woke Wood, who quickly sounded the klaxon alarm and pulled the whistle, which stuck open and drowned out the klaxons. By now the starboard side of the boat was "full of fire," and he could not go aft farther than the first three cabins on the port side, where he "banged on the windows" and shouted.
Just before Wood sounded the whistle, a night watchman on the pier was appalled to see flames breaking through a window on the ship's starboard side. He ran inside and called the fire department and gave the alarm, then called the police; someone else standing at the door told him to call for ambulances as well. After he'd told the police to send all the doctors and ambulances they could, the watchman--a Mr. Harper--went back outside to find a mass of flame engulfing the starboard side of the ship. Now the whistle was blowing--Wood had sounded the alarm--and the fire department was arriving. By now it was 2:41 a.m., eleven minutes since Church first saw the smoke, and half the ship's decks were on fire.
The man who had told Harper to call for ambulances was one of the first to escape the burning ship. He had seen people badly burned--a woman with her hair burned away, people with faces and arms scorched and bubbling. It was still only minutes after the fire had begun, and already it was lethal.
The captain was informed of the fire some time between 2:30 and 2:35, according to his testimony, but the times don't match up; he claims to have gone out to yell for help from the outside deck and observed people on the pier, but Harper the watchman had seen the fire begin to erupt and made the alarm call when there had been no other people on the dock.
There is considerable flip-flopping from Wood regarding the instructions he had given to the crew members as to what they ought to do in case of fire: should they notify the officer on watch or just any officer, should they use a hose or an extinguisher first, did he actually tell them anything at all. "Would this be fair," he was asked, "and now correct me if I do not say it correctly--that so far as the education of the crew in the event of fire was concerned, all they had was what they saw on the printed chart in the crew's quarters, which took them to their various stations in the event of hearing the alarm--is that all they had--apart from what you have just said as to what you might have told any particular member of the crew--does that cover the whole field?"
"Yes, that covers it."
There was no organization, and therefore there was no clear and evident list of duties for each member of the crew to perform. Some of the fifteen men on duty tried harder than others to waken passengers and shepherd them over the side on ropes and Jacob's-ladders; by now the fire department was there en masse and trying to reach the ship with aerial ladders, but so many people leapt on the first of these--Aerial No. 5--that it snapped and spilled the lot of them into the harbour. Other passengers leapt straight into the water, some of them screaming as they burned, some of them in eerie silence. Many people were asleep when the fire broke out, and woke only to find their cabins ablaze and the only way out blocked by a window-screen they could not break; some were pulled from burning cabins from the outside by crew members or fellow passengers who had broken the screens away.
GenDisasters offers a collection of quotes from eyewitnesses. Mildred Briggs of Detroit, one of the survivors, said the flames spread as if in a matchbox. "The fire just welled up along the corridors and spread faster than any fire I've ever seen," she said.
"There was a mob of men and women surging back and forth," said another survivor, Alberta Agia of Detroit. "Men were pushing women around, and many were knocked to the floor. The screaming filled the air. There was so much panic that I don't know how these people found anyway to safety. I slid down a rope."
Men rushed out in their nightclothes. One man got ashore naked.
Henry Maurer and his wife were sound asleep when someone pounded the door. When they reached the outside rail, his wife started down a rope ladder, "but it became horribly twisted from so many trying to get on it. She got tangled and trapped. I swung down on a rope to her side and got her free, and we both managed to get to the dock."
Sylvia Carpenter of Detroit said she screamed and headed for the outside rail when she saw smoke and flame billowing along the passageways.
"A rope was tossed over the rail and I put a hitch knot on it to hold it to a stanchion," she said. "As I did so, three men pushed in front of me and shoved some screaming women out of the way. They went down the rope."
The fire burned intensely enough to heat the steel hull white-hot. Glass melted from portholes; metal slumped and warped. Enough water was poured in by the firefighting equipment to list the burning ship toward the dock; operations had to be halted until the list righted itself, as the Noronic settled to the bottom of the harbour with only her top decks above the surface. By five in the morning the fire was out, but they had to let the hull cool before venturing inside to find the bodies.
Everything that could be consumed inside the hull was consumed. Luxurious fittings were reduced to ash, ceilings and columns melted and warped. All the stairways in the boat save one were utterly destroyed.
The fire stripped away identities, turning human bodies to calcined bone fragments; some victims were nothing but a skull or spine. There are touchingly gruesome tales of searchers entering the ship to find embracing skeletons in the hallways and the remains of the cabins. The remains had to be removed by shoveling them onto tarpaulins, as they crumbled when picked up. New advances in forensic odontology (including the use of X-rays) had to be made to identify Noronic victims; articles on the techniques developed as a result of this disaster are still being published today in forensic journals.
Newspaper articles covering the disaster began, as newspaper articles of this sort tend to do, with horrified pronoun-deficient headlines: 200 DIE ON FIERY SHIP. GREAT LAKES QUEEN BURNS. HOLOCAUST SINKS PLEASURE CRUISER AT TORONTO DOCK. 400 HOLIDAYERS ESCAPE FLAMING DEATH AMID SCENES OF HORROR.
The final conclusion of the Court report into the disaster placed the blame on the failure of the owners and captain in:
a) Holding a continuous fire patrol of the ship, instead of a cursory time-clock round every 45 minutes
b) Maintaining any organized system while the ship was in dock with passengers aboard by which “information as to the outbreak of fire could be promptly dispatched to some point from which men trained in the methods of dealing with fire could be immediately dispatched to the locality,” or “effective fire alarm and fire procedure”
c) Taking the threat of fire at a dock seriously and allowing all but fifteen of the crew to go play on shore and be potentially unavailable in the case of emergency
d) Developing and practicing any plan for waking and evacuating passengers in the case of a fire while in dock
e) Training the crew on what to do in case of fire or how to operate the extinguishers and hoses.
Or, to put it more baldly, being about as prepared for a dockside fire as a jumbo prawn would be to handle a credit-default swap. The scope of the failure to prepare for or anticipate anything of the sort is breathtaking. The owners knew perfectly well that there was no functional plan in place for dealing with this kind of disaster, and so did the captain–and there was nothing stopping him from taking any steps to remedy the situation. It’s the equivalent of driving a car with half the lug nuts loose and just sort of hoping the damn wheels won’t come off.
The Noronic fire may not have been preventable, but the loss of life associated with it was. Nobody ever did determine what started it, but my money’s on an indifferently butted cigarette tossed into the refuse box in the linen closet, which then spread rapidly throughout a ship lacking in regulation fire-resistant bulkheads, a ship lined with highly inflammable varnished wood, a ship without automatic fire-detection or sprinkler systems, a ship whose fire alarm system was Goldbergian in its unnecessary complexity and multiple stages, and a ship manned by a totally insufficient and untrained skeleton staff. The bellboy O’Neill could possibly have saved the ship had he sounded the alarm before attempting to put the fire out himself–but he didn’t. The story of the Noronic is a litany of “I didn’t,” “I don’t know,” “I cannot say that I have,” and “I can’t see any reason why they would.”
Captain Taylor lost his license for a year; an unknown number of people lost their lives. The steamship company paid out something like $3 million to the families of the victims. Rather horribly, another Canadian passenger ship, the SS Quebec, experienced a similar fire a year later: the Quebec fire was ultimately determined to be the result of arson and started in a linen locker. None of the safety regulations written after Noronic were put in place aboard Quebec, and the crew were just about as useless in trying to fight the fire and evacuate passengers. That was it for Canada Steamship Lines’ passenger cruises on the Great Lakes.
It’s too easy to make fun of the Noronic’s name, which I will now reveal is most likely in reference to Lake Noron, Quebec. It’s too easy to point out that “no we didn’t” and “moronic” overlap quite efficiently, so I will just leave you with First Officer Wood’s deathless turn of phrase:
“I think in cases of emergency, the officer goes where he can be the best help.”
In this case, over the side.
Information in this article is taken from the following sources:
www.centrenaufrages.ca, Courage Tales 5, accessed June 16, 2009
Report of Court of Investigation into the Circumstances Attending the Loss of the S.S. "Noronic" (1949), located at Tales of Tragedy and Triumph: Canadian Shipwrecks, a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada
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