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The Mayday Reports: S.S Noronic - Queen of the Lakes

By Edited May 28, 2015 0 0

Launched June 2 1913, the aptly nicknamed freight and passenger ship 'The Queen of the Lakes' offered no less than three hundred and sixty-two feet of length, had five decks and weighed six thousand and ninety-five tons.

At full capacity she held six hundred guests and two hundred caretakers. She was the luxury liner of the Great Lakes with a towering presence when at dock. Even at the age of thirty-six years, this ship was considered fine by many and still the largest of her kind.

And she burned in just over two hours. Sitting, tied to the Toronto Harbour in 1949.

The Great Lakes fleet of the Canadian Steamship Lines Company owned the Noronic and seen the ship upgraded with extra decks and the existing decks were completly overhauled. She now had five decks – A (the upper level), B, C, D and E (the lower level and only exit to the dock).

In September of 1949, the Noronic was running a route for a cruise beginning in the United States and involved looping round the Thousand Islands and stopping in Toronto before heading back stateside. Leaving United States on September 14th she arrived in Toronto on the 16th at her berth at Pier 9 in the heart of Torontos waterfront community.

The Noronic in 1930

Playing host to five hundred and twenty-two passengers of mainly United States citizens and carrying no less than one hundred and seventy-one crew members she opened her lowest deck, E and released the flood of passengers and crew on to Toronto. Only sixteen crew remained on duty that night, even the Captain went into Toronto.

The passengers and crew members enjoyed the entertainment and sites of Toronto with dinners, plays, some went partying at pubs and bars and yet others enjoyed quiet walks through the city or along the waterfront. By 2am in the morning it is assumed that most if not all passengers and crew had returned to the ship.

The Fire

Donald, who was travelling aboard the SS Noronic with his family was making his way back to his room when he smelled a distinct odour and seen a light haze in the air, being a fire insurance appraiser he know exactly what that smell and haze was and promptly followed it down to deck D, port side.

Following the smoke, he discovered a linen closet that had smoke emanating from it. He tried to open the door and finding it locked went to find someone to inform them. He ran into a bell-boy named Neil and showed him the linen closet. As they approached they could both hear the crackle and pop of a fire. Neil took off to find keys and an extinguisher fully believing this to be a small fire he could handle, at 2:30 in the morning he did not wish to disturb the captain. As he returned he found two others had appeared to help, one being the passenger whose room was across from the linen closet.

Fire on Noronic
Noronic was thirty six years old and was lovingly polished with oil for all those years, it should be no surprise that when they finally opened the door of the closet, the flames shot out of the closet and with a fresh source of oxygen to fed it, the fire travelled down the hall fuelled by the oils in the wood that lined the hallway, the door frames, the doors.

Shocked by what came out of the linen closet only one of the four gents jumped into action, grabbing the fire hoses and turned them on, rather heroically for a regular joe travelling on a ship, but nothing came out.

Donald understanding what was happening and what could happen ran to awaken his family. Without a word to anyone else, perhaps to ensure no panic, him and his family slipped off the ship to safety. At the same time the others decided it was time to stop fighting the fire and time to raise the alarm. As Neil ran through the ship corriders he encountered the wheelman passing the message the wheelman ran off to the officers quarters on deck A via deck D, and Neil went to wake those in the corridor.

The Damage to the Noronic

Once on deck A, he informed both the Captain and the First Mate, that there was smoke was on decks C and B and fire on D. The First Mate ran for the wheelhouse, looking over and up the ship as he went and seeing the bellowing smoke and flame, he threw the ships whistle to indicate fire.

Williamson a twenty-seven year old former lake freighter deckhand was at the Pier to view the Noronic in person and having arrived when the ships fire whistle blew he knew what it meant and ran to see what was going on. He was one of the first rescuers, even there before the authorities.

The Noronics whistle grabbed the attention of a Pier watchman, Harper who came out and looked, the starboard side of the ship resembled an inferno. The fire had started port side ... this means it had already burned from one side to the other ... the fire was massive already. Harper called the fire fighters and they sent a few different trucks, rescue squads and contacted their fire boat to move it to Pier 9.

When he went back outside, more than half of the ships decks were a flaming inferno.

Williamson upon arriving he could see the fire was growing fast and that people were already jumping from the ship into the oily cold waters below. Jumping into a nearby boat, he headed out into the waters to collect people, going to shore to drop them off before heading out again.

Firefirghting on the Noronic
Constables Ronald and Warren arrived on scene as the ship erupted into flames as high as the mast, watching the fire momentarily, they were surprised by survivors – many of whom were in shock, some still had clothes that was smoking. They ran into the crazed mix of people and burning ship, to help. Seeing Williamson and the amount of people in the water Ronald moved to help him collect bodies and people from the slick oily waters. While Warren performed medical aid. It wasn't too long before the firefighters joined the rescue with their boats.

When the firemen arrived, their worst nightmares were given material to pull from for years to follow. The towering presence of the Noronic stood before them with her top three decks flaming. Worse there were people who could be seen either milling about the decks confused, just coming out of rooms, or jumping into the water.

Meanwhile back on board the boat, the ships fire was steadily growing, and fast. The crew had not finished warning those on the deck they were on, never mind a sweep of the upper four decks. The few crew members on board and their Captain were having to smash the portholes open to drag passengers out of their cabins and according to a few passengers tossed right off the ship.

Escaping Passengers

The men fighting the blaze began to hook up and drop the hoses. The most overwhelming task of the moment though, was how to get these people off this enormous flaming ship when the only exits were two doors at the bottom of the ship.

One group of fire fighters set up an eighty-five foot ladder built nearly twenty years ago and rested it against deck B. As soon as it made contact with the ship and before any of them could climb it, some other passengers started coming down it in a panicked frenzy. Between the many people on the ladder and the sway of the ship, a loud crack noise followed by the screeches of those on the ladder now tumbling to the cold waters below.

A second group of fire fighters finally arrived and having seen what happened to the eight-five foot ladder, they braced their hundred foot ladder at fifteen foot intervals till it reached deck C - securely.

The people on Noronic meanwhile, where trying to get to the lower levels, but found the exits either burning or too smoke-filled to pass. Many people died running around the ships decks trying to find exits to the decks below. Many prefered their chances in the water rather than dying by fire or suffocation. Yet more were trampled or crushed.

Noronic Fire
While some rescuers were trying to get people off the ship, others were trying to get people out of the water, some officers were trying to direct the chaos, yet others were performing medical aid on survivors who could be treated at the scene and others were being sent off to hospitals. In all this confusion was the people who stopped by to watch, the rescued passengers and crew members.

Firefighter Benson said of the commotion outside the ship:

“It was chaotic, everything was happening all at once. The greatest challenge was getting the passengers out of the water, which was ten times 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."

Inside the Noronics Hull
With the survivors pulled from the waters, all eyes turned to the burning Queen of the Lakes.

She was still burning hot and the focus was extinguishing her flames. Attempts were made to douse the flames, but the heat was too intense, the water sizzled and vaporized before it ever reached the ship. The metal was white hot and starting to buckle under the intense heat.

It was now 2:46am.

The fire boat had been steadily pouring water into her hull and after an hour of this, the Noronic started to list towards the dock which sent the rescuers scattering but being that the ship was in berth there was no chance of her rolling over and despite the heat they continued to fight the fires that were above the water line.

The fire did not start to come under control till almost day break.

All in all nearly 2 million gallons of water from thirty-seven different hoses had been poured on the ship and they still had to retrieve the bodies.

Nornic side burnt hull

Retrieval and Investigations

The ship had not cooled down enough to enter till just past 7am that morning. Benson recalls the scene that greeted him when he boarded the burnt out vessel,

"We got aboard at daylight and there were bodies everywhere. Some were cremated with just a skull or backbone remaining. The stairs, the decks ... all littered with bodies"

Divers for Recovery
Benson was not the only one with scenes such as that. Searchers found piles of bones at doors, embracing skeletons, people dead in the closets and others burned in their beds, charred remains everywhere. The glass in the ship had melted and even the fittings of the ship had buckled from the intense heat. Every stairwell on the boat had been completely ruined with the exception to one.

As the bodies and charred remains were removed to a temporary morgue that was set up on the pier, it filled up quickly and they had to be moved to a larger building. The bodies were moved to the Toronto Exhibition's Horticultural Building. It took days to find and remove the bodies and even more days trying to find out who was on the boat at the time of the fire, as many had gone ashore into Toronto, and too, some may have brought back guests as well.

By the end of the week, the report was out: sixty-nine passengers were dead; fifty-three were missing. A few weeks later the tally changed to one hundred and four dead and fourteen missing. All passengers, not a single crew member was dead.

Identification Process
Constable Ronald, the one who had dived into the waters to help with rescue had volunteered to help with identification of bodies gathered in the Horticultural building of the CN Grounds is quoted as saying afterwards:
"the odour was quite overwhelming, Never again did I go to the Horticultural Building. It has bad memories for me."

The death toll from the Noronic was never precisely determined due to a number of things, but it ranges from anywhere between one hundred and eighteen to one hundred and thirty-nine people.

An inquiry was formed by Canada's House of Commons to investigate the fire. Just under two weeks later the Court convened for the first time and Captain Taylor, who is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the crew, was called to the stand. The public wanted justice, a scape goat even and the Captain fit the bill. During the fire, the Captain was heroic in his efforts to get people off the ship and was among the last of the crew to leave the Noronic. Despite his courage and bravery, dedication to his job his license was suspended for a year. He died a night clerk at a hotel.

A sombre moment

The Court submitted its report of the investigation and what they found to be the issues at the heart of this disaster. They confirmed the linen closet as the source of the fire, but not what started the fire. Though some reports blame laundry staff – but to be fair, people were pretty pissed at the crew of the ship for their perceived cowardice.

The crew did not escape the investigation and it came out that since most of the crew were not on duty they fled the ship before the fire got out of hand. They were deemed to be inept due to not being properly trained for a fire and their actions, in regards to not waking a soul up while fleeing, was viewed harshly. In the words of the Inquiry report,

" 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 say: the loss of the SS Noronic, and the loss of life aboard her was due to wrongful actions of the Canadian Steamship Lines Company and the Captain. The company had to pay all costs associated with the case and close to three million dollars to the victims families.

The Noronic is said to have burned as hot as she did and as fast as she did for a number of reasons: there was no separation to her structure, she was a studio apartment of ships; no fire bulkhead present; and most of the ships separating walls were heavy wood with thirty-six years of lemon oil rubbed into them.

The high death count and botched rescue was blamed mainly on the fact that the boat had no upper level exits to the docks, no way to notify passengers in their rooms of danger other than knocking on each door, no fire drills were conducted for crew or passengers and finally the fixtures for water for fighting fire had been painted over or outright neglected over the years.

Burnt out Hull of Noronic

The Queen of the Lakes, was towed off to become scrap metal. 

The whistle that called out fire, is in a Toronto Waterfront museum dedicated to nautical disasters. 

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Bibliography

  1. Chris Bateman "A Brief History of the SS Noronic Disaster." Blog TO. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "Fire on the Water." Cities in Time. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  3. "118 die on the SS Noronic Disaster." CBC Archives. 27/09/2014 <Web >
  4. "Noronic Incident." Lost Liners. 27/09/2014 <Web >

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