September 17, 1949 – 60 Years Ago Today – Cruise History.
The SS Noronic Fire: a Toronto Disaster – A fire at sea. The 60th Anniversary of the horrible disaster.
The SS Noronic was launched June 2, 1913 in Port Arthur, Ontario, Canada.She was built by the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company for the Northern Navigation Company, an operating division of Canada Steamship Lines, to perform passenger and package freight service on the Great Lakes. She had five decks, was 362 feet (110 m) in length, and measured 6,095 gross tons. At maximum capacity, she could hold 600 passengers and 200 crew.
One of the largest and most beautiful passenger ships in Canada at the time, she was nicknamed “The Queen of the Lakes.” Passenger decks were labelled A, B, C and D, and none had direct gangplank access to the dock. The only exits were located on the lowest deck, E deck. There were two gangplanks on the port side and two on the starboard side, and only two were operational at a time. The SS Noronic had two sister ships, the SS Huronic and the SS Hamonic. The Hamonic burned in 1945, with the loss of one life.
Working the midnight shift, Constables Ronald Anderson and Warren Shaddock turned their police accident car onto Toronto’s Queens Quay on September 17, 1949, in time to see the SS Noronic, one of the most impressive and beautiful passenger ships in Canada, erupt into sky-splitting flames from bow to stern.
The first rescuers on the scene, their cruiser was immediately surrounded by survivors, some with their clothing on fire. Many more were in the water. Far too many were on the ship, burning on the decks.
Anderson took off his uniform and dove into the water, which was thick with oil and very cold. He swam to the injured and the dead, pulling them onto a raft and over to the dock. Policemen with ropes would then hoist them up to the dock where Shaddock and others were administering first aid.
Soon, Detective Cyril Cole joined Anderson in the water, with both retrieving bodies and survivors. Later, fireboats arrived to assist. Cole’s partner, Detective Roy Soplet, was also on the scene. Many of the responding officers were World War II Veterans.
“Once you’ve experienced explosions, shell fire and the horror of war, you can handle bodies and injury better. The Police Force was made up of many WWII combat vets who were specifically recruited for their ability to handle this kind of pressure,” says Anderson, now 86.
The blaze started at approximately 2:30am, in full force only minutes later. Soon the hull glowed white from the heat and the decks buckled. So much water was poured on The Noronic, she listed, forcing firefighters to retreat until the ship was upright again.
“Toronto didn’t have the ambulance service we have now,” says Anderson. “Cab drivers deserve a lot of credit. Dozens of cab drivers came down from the Royal York and the King Edward Hotel to help. They didn’t charge fares, they just ran the injured to Toronto General, St. Michael’s, and Toronto Western Hospitals. When the hospitals were overwhelmed, victims were taken to the Royal York and the King Eddie where doctors and hotel staff assisted the injured and those in shock.”
Media had been at the Press Club Awards Dinner which was being held at the Royal York Hotel. They rushed to the scene of the disaster, drawn out by a horn sounding from the ship. The horn was so loud, it could be heard throughout Toronto and made it difficult for rescuers to communicate with each other.
Anderson retrieved his uniform and discovered that his wallet had been stolen. He never got the money back, but he did get the wallet when it was found on a suspect that Detective Jim Mackie, a future Chief of Toronto Police, had arrested.
(LT: Man hurrying off the burning ship) Identifying the bodies was challenging because of how badly burned they were. The ship’s manifest complicated the process as well because it reflected a variety of aliases, men who had told their wives they were hunting or fishing, but who were actually traveling with female companions. All of the fatalities were American.
With some of the victims reduced to little more than ash and jewelry, it took almost a year to ID them. Medical examiners from various parts of the US and Canada came in to help. Many of the bodies were identified through dental records, the first time this procedure was used.
The disaster was widely believed to have been caused by a cigarette, although it was never officially ruled so. A variety of design, construction and maintenance issues were believed to have contributed to the Noronic fire, including oiled wood, many coats of paint and non-working on board fire hoses.
The crew was criticized for not calling the fire department and for not waking passengers. Some fled at the first alarm, leaving sleeping passengers behind. The Captain, William Taylor, did participate in rescue efforts but had his license suspended for a year, following the Royal Commissions investigation, and never captained a vessel again.
Luxury passenger travel on the Great Lakes virtually stopped overnight following the Noronic disaster.
Sixty years on, no other Toronto disaster has exceeded the number of lives lost, 119, as the fire on the SS Noronic.
Sometime around 2:30 a.m., passenger Don Church, travelling aboard the Noronic with his family, was walking from the stern of the ship, where the lounge was located and noticed what he later described as a haze in the aft part of the starboard corridor on C Deck.
Ironically, Church was a fire-insurance appraiser and knew the odours that confronted him. He proceeded toward the source of the smoke. It led to a small room just forward of the women’s washroom, which opened into the Port corridor, behind the aft stairway leading to D Deck.
Church noticed smoke coming from a door to a walk-in closet, used to store linen. The door was locked, so he ran down the Port corridor to the social hall.
The first person he encountered was a bellboy named Earnest O’Neil, and they rushed to the linen closet. They both heard the crackling sound of fire from behind the door. Finding that he did not have the right keys for the closest, 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, and opened the door to the closet. Two others appeared to aid in the fight, including a passenger across from the closet.
For over 36 years, the ship’s interior of cherry, oak, and other fine woods had been maintained and polished with lemon oil. Imagine the amount of flammable oil that was in that wood!
Freed of the linen closet and with a fresh source of oxygen, the flames backdrafted down the hall in both directions, gaining fuel from the walls. Still with the hope of containing the fire, one of the courageous three went to get a fire hose, but as they opened the valve, only a trickle of water came out.
Understanding the severity of the situation, Church ran down D Deck to awaken his family. He and his family quietly and safely left the ship; sadly, they never attempted to awaken the other passengers. At the same time, O’Neil gave up trying to fight a fire that was gaining strength and ran to the social hall midship to ring the fire alarm.
He soon encountered the wheelman on duty, Windsor’s Jim Donaldson (see “Witness to History”sidebar), and explained the severity of the situation. Running up to A Deck, Donaldson advised Capt. Taylor and the First Mate, Gerry Wood. The Captain had returned from an evening ashore only 20 minutes earlier.
Having determined that the fire was serious, Donaldson ran to the wheelhouse to throw the ship’s whistle for the fire signal, but tragically, the whistle seized.
Instead of sounding one long blast, three short blasts and another long blast – the signal for fire on board – the horn emitted a bone-chilling shriek that pierced the air without a pause, as if setting the pace for the rest of the night – the Noronic’s “death-cry,” not soon forgotten by those who heard it.
Before the whistle blew, the night 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 situated on the Starboard side of the ship, and it was evident that the fire, having begun on the Port side, had now progressed to the danger point.
Harper immediately called the operator to connect him with the fire department. At 2:38 a.m. the first fire alarm was sounded 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 proceed full throttle to Pier 9 to aid in the effort.
After hanging up with the fire department, Harper called the police department to alert them of the situation. As he hung up, a passenger from the ship ran into the night watchman’s office saying they needed an ambulance. Harper was back on the phone with the police department, asking them to send all available ambulances and doctors. Harper then went outside and noticed the fire department already fast approaching. As well, he realized that fully half the ship’s decks were on fire.
Later, survivors would attest to the incredible speed that the fire spread. “She went up like a paint factory,” said one heavily bandaged survivor. “It just went off like the head of a match,” said another.
Street District Chief, Jim Stevens’ first image of the ship was an orange glow in the sky and a ship silhouetted by flames. The firetruck’s driver, Thomas Benson, noted, “as we went down Yonge Street and came up on Queens Quay, we could see the boat was a mass of flames. Chief Stevens radioed in the second alarm while we were still driving to the scene.” It was 2:41 a.m.
The first units of the fire department to arrive at the port witnessed every seaport fireman’s worst nightmare: the top three decks of the Noronic were fully ablaze and the only signs of life on B Deck at the bow and the stern were the moving shapes of people against a backdrop of fire. Most were milling about not knowing how to get off the ship; others were taking their chances by jumping into the chilly, dark waters below – and then screaming for help.
The fire was of such force, that District Chief Stevens immediately called in a third alarm. Simultaneously, the fire fighters began hooking up hoses to two fire hydrants on Pier 9 and throwing some lines into the harbour water to use for suction.
It was clear to all that 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 an angle of 26 degrees. It barely made contact when a woman immediately jumped upon it, as did many 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, a female passenger stumbled on the ladder and the following passengers fell into her, their combined weight focused on a small point on the ladder. With a terrifying crack, the ladder snapped in two and sent the frightened passengers into the cold water.
At this time, Aerial Number 1 arrived, but could not get to the ship because of parked cars. After clearing these obstructions, Aerial Number 1 neared 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.
Many of those still on the ship awakened to find themselves trapped in their rooms, where they perished. Of those who managed to flee their cabins, many discovered their paths of escape ended abruptly at a railing, from which they couldn’t reach the gangway. They faced an unenviable choice: stay aboard and face the flames – or jump.
Dicey escape – a passenger climbs down a rope as flames loom in the background (left); The Noronic lights up Toronto harbour (top right); firemen rescue passengers with a ladder (bottom right).
If they remained on board, the clouds of smoke and flames promised certain death. If they chose to jump into the murky, chilly waters that surrounded the vessel, they might drown – or not. That glimmer of hope gave many the courage to leap, and a number of desperate souls were soon bobbing around the Noronic in the cool waters of Lake Ontario.
For rescuers, it was tough getting them out of the water. “Hand ladders were pulled down by the weight of the people trying to climb up, but ropes were very effective,” said Benson. “The fireboat was able to pull a few out. In one instance, we tried pulling a guy out on a ladder, but he fell back in with the ladder. Another fire fighter went and got a rope, and this worked well.” Miraculously, only one person who jumped off the ship – some from heights of over 70 feet – drowned.
Because of the Noronic’s peculiar layout, access routes to and from the ship were only from E Deck – many of those in cabins above could not get off. They found their exits to lower decks blocked by fire or smoke. Many died in the mad dash that ensued around the upper decks looking for a safe point to traverse to the pier.
On shore, the scene was ambulances, fire fighters, passengers, passers-by – and confusion. “It was chaotic, everything was happening all at once,” said firefighter Benson of Rescue Number One.
Valiant efforts were made to extinguish the flames by fire fighters, but the heat was so intense that the water vaporized before it reached the hull of the ship! The metal structure was visibly white from the intense heat. By 2:46 a.m., the fireboat tied up to the Noronic’s bow and began to pour water in via two smaller hoses and the turret nozzle.
It had only been a little more than fifteen minutes since the fire was first noticed by night watchman Harper!
After about an hour of the fireboat pouring water into the ship, the Noronic began to list towards the pier. Deputy Chief Herd ordered the fire fighters and the fireboat to pull back to a safe distance. Soon the Noronic righted herself and settled on the bottom of the slip while the ship was still burning above the water line. 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 along the starboard side of the ship.
That night the Toronto Fire Department laid 37 hoses and poured more than 1.7 million gallons into Noronic. The fire was under control by 5 a.m., but the hull was still white hot in many places and had to cool before searchers could enter.
The crews then began the grim task of recovering victims. No one had any idea of the casualties; rumours were of more than 200 dead.
“I left the scene to get the other driver early in the morning, this was before they started taking the bodies off,” said one of the firefighters. “I have no regrets at having missed that duty.”
Firefighter Tom 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.”
The Noronic was ravaged and gutted from bow to stern. Not a single wooden partition remained intact throughout the whole main body of the ship.
All day long, bodies were carried off the ship, one by one, under tarps on stretchers. A temporary morgue was set up at the pier but the bodies were so numerous that they had to eventually be transported to a larger facility; the Horticultural Building at the Toronto Exhibition was converted to a morgue.
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.
This problem was magnified by the complete destruction of the ship. After all, many had just come back from a ‘night on the town’ and some came aboard with their companions.
Dealing with the charred and fragmented remains proved to be a significant challenge. By the time the Toronto Fire Department developed its preliminary report of the incident six days later, the number of lost and missing had climbed to 122. Sixty-nine of the 697 passengers and 171 crew members aboard the Noronic at the time of the fire were known to be dead, and 53 were missing. When the official court inquiry released its findings approximately a month after the fire, the death toll would be 118, with 104 dead and 14 missing.
The severity of the damage to the victims was such that new forensic identification processes had to be developed to identify the dead, and even so, 14 were unidentifiable. This new identification process is still applied today.
The task of identifying the dead was never wholly completed because some had been travelling under pseudonyms. Four who died were never identified – presumably, a quartet of widows or widowers. Their spouses would never know how they disappeared – they were supposed to be in Chicago or New York, or somewhere else far from the disaster on “business”…
Of the dead and missing individuals, all were passengers, a fact that didn’t escape official notice. Post-disaster inquires would want to know how more than 100 passengers had succumbed, while the entire crew had managed to escape.
from “Passage to the Sea: The Story of Canada’s Steamship Lines, Edgar Andrew Collard”
Word of the catastrophe was immediately sent to Canada Steamship Lines’ operating manager in Montreal. Capt. Norman Reoch’s telephone rang at three in the morning. Soon he was dressed and sped off in his car toward Toronto. Officers of the OPP stopped him, strode to his window and reportedly said: “Where do you think you’re going – to a fire?”
“That’s exactly where I’m going,” Reoch replied. When he explained, the police became his escort, clearing the way with sirens screaming in early dawn light.
Captain Reoch was summoned to appear, with many others, before a federal court of investigation headed by Hon. Mr. Justice R.L.Kelloch. Reoch took an aggressive position: Canada Steamship Lines was above reproach; as operating manager he had taken all necessary precautions; Captain William Taylor had done everything in his power under the circumstances. Nobody was to blame.
Evidence given by witnesses indicated that no adequate preparations for emergency had been made. The means for detecting fire had been insufficient – a patrol of the ship every hour was not enough; it gave far too much time for a fire to get started.
Justice Kelloch concluded in his report that the patrolling of the Noronic, the means of detecting a fire, the training of officers and crew in what to do in case of a fire, and the preparations for getting passengers off the ship were all insufficient. He urged the introduction of tough new safety requirements for passenger ships. The Department of Transportation accepted many of Kelloch’s recommendations and stringent regulations were enacted in 1950.
Captain Taylor’s certificate was suspended for one year, but he had no wish to ever serve on a ship again. He took early retirement and spent his final years as a desk clerk at a hotel in Sarnia.
Canada Steamship Lines was faced with legal claims of more than $18,000,000 in the U.S. courts, as most victims were from Cleveland. These claims were eventually settled in a Cleveland court for $2,150,000 – the company’s insurance paid out most of the awarded settlements.
The end was at hand for the old Great Lakes passenger ships – it would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit the old cruise vessels. Ships were soon withdrawn from service as a result of the strict new fire regulations. The legacy of the Noronic’s tragedy marked a new phase in steamship inspection and protection against fire – and the final days of decadent cruising on the Great Lakes.
One of the deepest held sailing superstitions concerns having anything aboard that comes from an ill-fated ship. Canada Steamships L salvaged the Noronic’s whistle after the fire. This whistle had exceptional sound and power– it was the most deep-throated on the Great Lakes. It would be an effective tool in any weather. Although the Canada Steamships Line offered it to any of its captains, none would have anything to do with it. The Noronic’s whistle was sold as scrap.
More than a month after the Noronic tragedy, work crews cut away her top decks and she was re-floated. On November 29, 1949, she was towed out of Toronto Harbour on her last journey to a scrapyard in Hamilton, Ontario. On her bow, seven men, headed by her First Mate Gerry Wood, stood quietly. No commands were given – none are needed on a ghost ship.
The fire could have happened in any of the Noronic’s ports of call, including Windsor or Detroit; that it occurred in Toronto was merely a twist of fate. One wonders how many more lives would have been sacrificed had the fire erupted in a less up-to-date berth, or at sea.
It’s not easy to find Pier 9 today, since the area has been extensively developed as part of Toronto’s bustling growth. The slip near the end of Yonge Street has been filled in and redeveloped. But as a visitor to Toronto, the SS Noronic left an indelible mark on the city’s history. A memorial to the victims of the tragic fire aboard the SS Noronic is located in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
The inland water passenger ships of the Great Lakes were wonderful vessels in their own way, and much sentiment heralded their passing from our consciousness. Sadly, of all these great vessels, only two live on: “Keewatin,” which sailed the lakes from 1907 to 1965 and is now a museum ship in Douglas, Michigan; and the Ste-Claire, built in 1910 (the former Bob-Lo boat) is being restored in Toledo, Ohio (see story p. 24).
The following sources were used to compile this story:
The Noronic is Burning, John Craig, General Publishing, 1976.
Passage to the Sea: The Story of Canada Steamship Lines, Edgar Andrew Collard, Doubleday, 1991.
Death of a Great Lakes Queen.