Death of a Great Lakes Queen
The Tragic Demise of the S.S. Noronic
In 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.

On September 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.

Having understood 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.

Street District 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 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 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.

Personnel from 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 among many.

The severity 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.

However, people 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 in 1965.

Canadian fire 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 need.

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.

Images



SS Noronic in 1913



SS Noronic
circa 1924



Noronic brochure



Noronic on fire



A passenger
escapes the ship



Noronic's burned out hull the next day



Noronic Memorial

For Those in Peril on the Sea

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