September of 1949, another fire on the water would change the course
of the shipping industry once again. On that night of September 17,
the SS Noronic, the "Queen of the Great Lakes" would burn
and sink with 122 victims, in Toronto's harbour. Many people were
the victims of fire on the water, but this time, the ship was tied
up in the harbour, in a safe haven, or so it was believed. LostLiners
wishes to share this disaster to show that fate can come for you no
matter where you are. Let us not forget that. The disaster would have
a profound effect on how ships would be built and sailed on the Great
Lakes, for decades to come.
SS Noronic was first launched in 1913 at Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada,
weighing in at a Gross Tonnage of 6, 095 tons. She was initially commissioned
by the Northern Navigation Company, but was sold to the Canadian Steamship
Lines to join in its fleet of Great Lakes passenger ships. When bought,
three extra decks were added and the lower four were fully renovated.
In total, the "New" Noronic had five decks, from freight
to the primary passenger decks. At 362 feet in length and a draft
28 feet, 9 inches, she was of considerable size for the Great Lakes
duty. She had an impressive pose when docked as she towered over the
land with her 5 decks above. The main passenger decks were identified
with letters: A; B; C; D. None of which had access to the dock, only
via E Deck could someone embark or disembark the ship through two
gangplanks, one on either side of the ship.
Since she sailed
across the border between Canada and the US, she was certified as
an Inland Steamship Class 1 ship by the Canadian Department of Transportation,
with a maximum passenger limit of 600, and a crew of 200. This certification
was issued on April 23, 1949 and was to be in effect until April
of 1950. Due to International agreements, "the US recognized
the provisions of the Canadian regulations as approximating those
of the US". Since this was the case, the US Coast Guard issued
a certificate of examination based on the Canadian requirements,
on April 28, 1949, allowing her free travel across the Great Lakes
in the US and Canada.
The SS Noronic had two sister ships, the SS Huronic and the SS Harmonic.
(Although White Star Line was famous for using the "ic"
at the end of the names of their ships, so did many Great Lakes
steamers, but they were of no relation to the White Star Line.)
Ironically, her sister-ship, the Harmonic herself, burned in 1945,
when she was berthed at a dock in Point Edward, Ontario. The dock
itself was on fire and the crew were unable to build up enough steam
to get her out of harm's way before the ship itself caught fire.
Fortunately, due to the fact that the dock was on fire, passengers
and crew had fair warning of the fire and were able to escape. Only
one fatality was suffered in that event. No such luck for the passengers
of the SS Noronic. She was considered to be the most luxurious on
the Lakes' run, known on both shores as "The Queen of the Lakes".
As was the custom of her time of building, she had the most luxurious
of woods and fabrics built into her, her walls and ceiling built
of Teak, and Cherry and Oak, she was a fine and reliable 'old girl'.
By 1949, she was already 36 years old, and still considered to be
the finest and largest ship of her kind afloat on the Great Lakes.
In September of 1949, she was on a 7-day cruise that began in Detroit
en-route to Thousand Islands and Prescott, Ontario and back to Detroit.
Her 522 passengers consisted mostly of Americans, enjoying the excursion
to Canada and the layover in Toronto.
14, she weighed anchor and set sail from Detroit, Michigan, at 11AM
with her first stop set to be Cleveland, to pick up her final embarkation,
before setting sail for Canada. By Friday, September 16, she slid
into her berth in Toronto, at Pier 9. Pier 9 was owned by Canadian
Steamship Lines and was in downtown Toronto. With her bow facing
North, and her starboard side secured along the dock, passengers
and some crew set out to venture amid downtown Toronto. An unknown
quantity of passengers disembarked for the pleasure of frolickingabout
Toronto. Of the171 crew, only 16 were to be on duty that night.
Included among those who went ashore, was the captain of the ship,
Captain William Taylor, who returned to his ship by 2 AM. By this
hour, most of the passengers had also returned, but there were an
unknown amount of people who accompanied these passengers to the
ship as well.
Sometime around 2:30AM passenger, named Church was travelling aboard
the Noronic with his family, was walking from the stern of the ship,
where the lounge is located and noticed what he described as a haze
in the aft pat of the starboard corridor on C Deck. Mr, Church was
a fire-insurance appraiser and knew well the odours he noticed.
He followed the direction of what appear to be the source of the
smoke to a small room just forward of the women's washroom, which
opened into the Port corridor, just behind the aft stairway leading
to D Deck.
Mr. Church noticed the smoke coming from the door to a closed-in
walk-in closet, used to store linen. When he found the door to be
locked, he ran down the Port corridor to the social hall amidships.
The first person he encountered was a bellboy, with whom he returned
to the linen closet, to show the signs of fire, as they both heard
the crackling sound of fire from behind the door. Finding that he
did not have the right keys for the closest, the bellboy, a Mr.
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, as he opened the door to the closet. Two
others appeared to aid in the fight, including the passenger from
the room across from the closet. Since halls were made of cherry
and oak, and other fine woods, for over 36years they were maintained
and polished with lemon oil. Imagine the amount of oil that was
in that wood. Once freed of the confines of the linen closet and
with a fresh source of oxygen, the flames just roared down the hall,
fuelled by the oil in the walls. Still with the hope of stopping
the fire from spreading, one of the courageous three went to get
a fire hose, but as they opened the valve, there was nothing coming
from it. Very lax and poor maintenance practices had lead to blockages
and malfunctions in the fire fighting hose system.
the severity of the situation, Church ran down D Deck to awaken
his family. Quietly and without trying to awaken anyone else, he
and his family quietly and safely left the ship. They never attempted
to awaken the other passengers. At the same time, O'Neil gave up
on trying to fight a fire that was just gaining more and more strength
and ran down the hall to the social hall amidships to ring the fire
alarm. He encountered the wheelman on duty, Mr. Donaldson, where
he explained to Donaldson what was happening. Donaldson ran to the
officers' quarters on A Deck via D Deck, but when he encountered
heavy smoke, he mistakenly thought that the fire was on this deck.
Once on A Deck, Donaldson advised Capt. Taylor and the First Mate
Gerry Wood, the Captain having returned from an evening ashore only
20 minutes earlier. The First mate had been relieved only 2 hours
before and had noticed heavy smoke coming from the starboard side
of the ship, from B and C Decks. Having determined that the fire
was serious, he ran to the wheelhouse to throw the ship's whistle
for the fire signal of three-short one-long blast, the machinery
seized and the whistle screamed a "death-cry", not soon
to be forgotten by those who heard it.
At the same
time, just before the whistle blew, the watchman for Pier 9, Harper,
had his back to the ship, but noticed an orange glow on the walls
in front of him. As he turned to look at the ship, the whistle began
to blow. Harper was located on the Starboard side of the ship, and
it was evident that the fire had progressed to a state of massive
severity as the fire had originally begun on the Port side. At this
point, Harper called the operator to connect him with the fire department.
At 2:38am the first fire alarm was called and an assignment of a
pumper-truck, a hose wagon, a high-pressure truck, an aerial truck,
a rescue squad and the deputy chief were dispatched. One minute
after that, the Toronto fire department contacted their fire boat
to go at full throttle to Pier 9 to aid in the effort. After hanging
up with the fire department, watchman Harper then called the police
department to alert them of the situation. As he hung up, a passenger
from the ship ran into Harper's office saying they need an ambulance.
Harper was back on the phone with the police department asking them
to send all available ambulances and doctors. After hanging up,
Harper went outside and noticed the fire department already fast
approaching. As well, he noticed that already, half the ship's decks
were on fire.
Chief Jim Stevens saw an orange glow in the sky and the horror of
seeing a ship's silhouette inside flames. The driver beside Stevens,
Thomas Benson, noted, " as we went down Younge Street and coming
up on Queens Quay, we could see the boat was a mass of flames. Chief
Stevens radioed in the second alarm while were still driving to
the scene." It was 2:41am.
The first units
of the fire department to arrive, saw every fireman's worst nightmare,
for those who fight fires in the ports of the world: the top three
decks of the Noronic were fully ablaze and there were silhouettes
of those passengers awakened by the siren and the sounds of others
in the halls. Most were milling about desperately not knowing how
to get off the ship; some others were taking their chances at jumping
in the water below. The fire was of such force, that District Chief
Stevens called in a third alarm. At the same time, the fire fighters
began their operation of hooking up the hoses to the two fire hydrants
on Pier 9 and throwing some lines into the harbour water to use
as suction lines. The most daunting task was how to get people off
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 a simple angle of 26 degrees. It barely
made contact when a woman immediately jumped upon it as did 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, the female passenger stumbled on the ladder and the following
passengers stumbled into her, focusing their combined weight on
a small point on the ladder. With an expected but terrifying crack,
the ladder snapped in two and sent the frightened passengers into
the cold water. At this time, aerial number 1 but could not get
to the ship because of all the parked cars. Finally, aerial number
1 reached 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. Due to the odd design of the ship, that allowed access
to and from the ship, only from E Deck, many of those above could
not get off. They found their exits to below-decks blocked by fire
or smoke. Many died in the mad-dash around the upper decks looking
for a safe point to traverse to the pier. There was always the option
of jumping into the water, but fear of drowning was strong among
many. But drowning in shallow water with dozens of people and fire
fighters was minimal compared to suffocating or being burned alive,
and those who could not make it down to the ladders or the gangplank,
jumped over board.
From shore, the scene was of ambulances, fire fighters, passengers,
passers-by, and confusion. "It was chaotic, everything was
happening all at once," said firefighter Benson of Rescue number
1. The greatest challenge to the firefighters, was getting the passengers
out of the water, which was ten lower than the pier. "It was
tough getting them out. Hand ladders were pulled down by the weight
of the people trying to climb up, but ropes were very effective."
Once all survivors
in the water were recovered, all the fire fighters focused on fighting
the fire on the ship. Valiant efforts were made to extinguish the
flames by the fire fighters but the heat was so intense, that the
water was being vaporized before it reached the hull of the ship.
The metal structure was visibly white from the intense heat. By
2:46am, the fireboat tied up to the Noronic's bow and began to pour
water in via two smaller hoses and the turret nozzle. After about
an hour of the fireboat pouring water into the ship, the Noronic
began to list severely towards the pier that Deputy Chief Herd ordered
the fire fighters and the fireboat to pull back to a safe distance.
Soon the ship righted herself and began to settle on the bottom
of the slip all the while the ship was still burning above the waterline.
Since there was no threat of the ship rolling over, the fire fighters
returned to their original positions and the fireboat began spraying
water into the portholes alongside the Starboard side of the ship.
Fire fighter McElroy notes that the fire came under control before
daybreak and the crews were beginning the planning of body recovery.
"I left the scene to get the other driver early in the morning,
this was before they started taking the bodies off. I have no regrets
at having missed that duty." By 5am, the ship was still too
hot to board it for recovery of bodies. By approximately 7am, it
had cooled down enough to board. Tim Benson recalls, "We got
aboard at daylight and there were bodies everywhere. Some were cremated
with just a skull or backbone remaining." The intensity of
the heat was such that human bone was incinerated. All throughout
the day, bodies were carried off the ship, one by one, under tarps
on stretchers. A temporary morgue had been set up at the pier but
the bodies were so many that they had to eventually be transported
to a larger facility, so the Horticultural Building at the Toronto
Exhibition was used.
both the fire department and police were on-site for days after
the fire. Locating and identifying the remains of the passengers
and others was made difficult by the uncertainty of how many were
on-board at the time. After all, many had just come back from a
'night on the town' and were accompanied aboard with their companions.
By the time the fire department had prepared its preliminary report
six days later, 69 passengers were known dead and 53 were 'missing'.
When the official inquiry's report was released, 104 were dead and
14 missing. No crew were dead, a fact that caused strong emotions
of the damage to the victims was such, that new forensic identifications
processes had to be developed to identify the dead, and even so,
14 were unidentifiable. Even for the dentists involved, identification
was next to impossible in some instances because the skulls were
incinerated or had exploded, and the teeth were irreparably damaged.
This new identification process is still applied today.
A Federal inquiry
was formed by Canada's House of Commons to investigate the actual
cause of the fire and the possible circumstances leading up to the
fire. 11 days after the incident, the Court of Inquiry convened
for the first time. Captain Taylor was called to the stand. Since
the captain is responsible for the conduct of the crew beneath him,
the public was looking to lay blame somewhere and the captain fit
the profile. By November 21, 1949, the Court of Inquiry submitted
its 5 page report addressing the key issues believed to be at the
heart of what went wrong. They were able to identify the linen closet
as the physical source of the fire, although what actually started
the fire has never been determined.
were more interested in why no crew had lost their lives. It was
determined that since the crew became aware of the fire rather early
on, they were able to make their escape before the fire engulfed
the ship. It was found that the crew were disorganized and ineffectual
towards combating the fire, and some of the actions taken by crewmembers,
(ie: leaving without waking passengers), was under heavy scrutiny.
To quote the Inquiry, " no one in a responsible position in
connection to the ship, either on the ship or ashore, had applied
his mind in any serious way to the handling of a situation such
as arose on the outbreak of fire on the night in question, although
such an eventuality cannot be considered otherwise than one which
might occur at any time. Moreover, complete complacency had descended
upon both the ship's officers and the management."
The final conclusion
was that the loss of the SS Noronic and loss of life was due to
wrongful default of the owners and the master of the ship. The end-result
was that Captain Taylor's certificate was suspended for one year
and Canadian Steamship lines were ordered to pay all court costs
and close to $3 million dollars to the families of the victims.
Captain Taylor ended his days as a hotel night clerk until his death
protection regulations would have prevented this had they been made
retroactive when they were implemented in 1939, however since the
Noronic was built in 1913, she was naturally exempt since there
was instruction that ships built before 1939, be made accountable
to the regulations of the day. For the most part, the SS Noronic
burned as it did for many reasons. She had no compartmentation to
her structure. The were no fire bulkheads. Most of the walls that
separated sections of the ship were made of lemon-oil-heavy wood.
There was no centralized fire protection system. There was no means
greater than knocking on doors, to contact the passengers of the
danger. No fire drills had been conducted and the many water fixtures
for fire fighting had been painted over or otherwise neglected over
the years, thus rendering the machinery useless in the moments of
More than a
month later, work crews had cut away the Noronic's top decks and
she was refloated. On November 29, 1949, she was towed out of Toronto
Harbour on her way to a scrap yard in Hamilton Ontario.
SS Noronic in 1913
Noronic on fire
escapes the ship
Noronic's burned out hull the next day