Maritime disasters are, by their nature, overwhelming. The number of people involved is usually great, and the sense of being trapped between human disaster and the cruel sea is a horror nobody would want to face.
The idea that you are far from rescue and doomed to die looms large in such tragedies, but those that occur within sight of land and rescue are perhaps the most tragic of all. One such catastrophe occurred with the SS Noronic, gutted by fire in Toronto’s busy harbor.
People who witnessed the event say that the fire breakout was so enormous and deadly that the ship seemed like a big chimney throwing fire at the heavens like there was no stopping it.
This disaster killed 119 passengers, while numerous more were injured. Today, the incident stands as a record for the single greatest life loss in Toronto’s history, and one of Canada’s worst disasters ever.
But how could this have happened literally within sight of rescue? Was this incident avoidable?
The Last Word in Luxury
People from around the world come to see Toronto’s ferry docks and the picturesque grassy parkland surrounding it. The scenic beauty with the bobbing boats and light winds has broad appeal.
But, when the realization hits, people recall the incident that shocked the world in 1949. In the early hours of September 17 of that year the SS Noronic went up in flames. Today’s ferry docks at Pier 9 was where SS Noronic was tied up.
Smoke rising high in the sky, screams that could be heard from a far distance, and the ground crew running like hell to manage the fire were a visual that was hard for witnesses to forget.
When the fire hit SS Noronic, it spread out so fast that by the time the ground team could respond, five decks were already under the grasp of flames. The only exit from the ship was located on the base deck, and only two of the gangplanks were working at the time of this horrifying incident.
- The Other Titanic? SS Waratah, the Lost Ship Of South Africa
- The Le Joola Disaster: Africa’s Worst Maritime Catastrophe?
With the technical faults and the fire burning all the possible entry points, it was difficult for the ground team to enter the ship and conduct a rescue operation. Ultimately, one hundred and nineteen passengers lost their lives on the cruise ship that was supposed to give them the luxury escape from their life’s busy schedule.
There was an eyewitness named James Hunt, who was waiting for a water taxi nearby. He reported to the media and officials of the Toronto Daily Star that he saw hundreds of people gripping the ropes of the ship that was set on a blazing fire.
Following that, he also said that some people were diving into the water from the side of the ship, and some appeared to have been burned very badly and were screaming out in pain. Anything was preferable to the fate that awaited those that remained trapped on the ship.
The mere fact of reading these painful recollections of a witness gives chills. Imagining the pain of those people devastates the minds of those alive after the incident.
What Caused the Fire?
As per the reports, a passenger discovered the fire when he noticed smoke from a linen closet on the C deck of SS Noronic. It was at 2:30 am, early hours of 17th September 1949.
Eight minutes later, while the bellboys were trying to extinguish the fire, one of them informed the wheelsman in charge that the fire was spreading rapidly out of control and was a severe outbreak. The fire control and police departments were informed about it, but could not get there quickly enough.
The wheelsman informed the ship’s captain, Capt. Taylor, with a series of increasingly desperate messages about the blaze. Capt. Taylor tried to contain the fire but soon realized that the efforts were going to be in vain.
He then ran across the ship, from bow to stern, to wake people from their sleep and ask them to escape from the boat as soon as possible. He tried picking up a water hose with the most pressure and went out to the corridor to make a failed attempt to extinguish the fire.
- The Lusitania and the Blame Game: A Legitimate Target?
- Deathtrap on the Mississippi: What Caused the Explosion on the Sultana?
The captain did escape to the pier safely but wanted to save a few more people along with him. So, he decided to go inside the freight door and walk through the engine room but was cornered by the fire while with a passenger in that area. Two firemen quickly swung to that part of the ship through an extension ladder to pull them out, or else they would have burned to ashes.
It is said that the water thrown by the hoses was vaporizing even before they hit the hull. By 3:00 am, after only 30 minutes, it was all done. 119 people had lost their lives.
Why Could No-one Save the Passengers?
Thirty minutes is all it took to kill 119 passengers on board. Luckily, all 170 crew members were saved from the incident, probably because some weren’t even on the ship at the time of this incident.
By the time the authorities could have responded, and the actions could have been taken to rescue the passengers, the fire had already done the maximum damage. Nobody was prepared for the rate at which the fire spread.
It proved that the safety features and the build of this luxury cruise ship were not made to sustain fire damage. This aggravated face of fire wasn’t controllable even with numerous hoses fired at once. The fire fighting boats were constantly throwing water pressure toward the supposed origin area of the fire, but it was useless.
Even in just 30 minutes, there were numerous failed attempts to control the fire, but everything failed. In the end, the ship surrendered itself to the fire, and so did the lives of 119 people.
The desperate attempts of people who jumped from the ship, through ropes or dived into the water weren’t brilliant with their ideas. Some of the survivors were heavily injured, while some drowned and died in the water.
This was the incident that devastated Toronto but raised the alarm for the authorities to raise questions on the safety features and build quality of this ship. Considering this fact, many old cruise ships were forced to stop commercial operations to prevent the risk of more life loss.
Top Image: 119 souls: the wreck of the SS Noronic after the fire. Source: Andrew Merrilees / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri