on the Water
Above: The Noronics
dining room luxury on the lakes; Right: Shipboard frivolity
costume party and parade in carefree days sailing the
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.
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 womens washroom, which opened into
the Port corridor, behind the aft stairway leading to D Deck.
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.
first person he encountered was a bellboy named Earnest ONeil,
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, ONeil ran to the stewards
office on D Deck to get the correct keys.
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.
over 36 years, the ships 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!
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.
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, ONeil gave up trying to fight a fire that was gaining
strength and ran to the social hall midship to ring the fire alarm.
soon encountered the wheelman on duty, Windsors Jim Donaldson
(see Witness to Historysidebar), 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.
determined that the fire was serious, Donaldson ran to the wheelhouse
to throw the ships whistle for the fire signal, but tragically,
the whistle seized.
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 Noronics
death-cry, not soon forgotten by those who heard it.
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.
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.
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 watchmans 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 ships decks were
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,
District Chief, Jim Stevens first image of the ship was an
orange glow in the sky and a ship silhouetted by flames. The firetrucks
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.
first units of the fire department to arrive at the port witnessed
every seaport firemans 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.
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.
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 Noronics
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.
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.
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.
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 couldnt reach the gangway. They
faced an unenviable choice: stay aboard and face the flames
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).
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
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.
of the Noronics 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.
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.
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 Noronics
bow and began to pour water in via two smaller hoses and the turret
had only been a little more than fifteen minutes since the fire
was first noticed by night watchman Harper!
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.
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.
crews then began the grim task of recovering victims. No one had
any idea of the casualties; rumours were of more than 200 dead.
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
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
Noronic was ravaged and gutted from bow to stern. Not a single wooden
partition remained intact throughout the whole main body of the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
the dead and missing individuals, all were passengers, a fact that
didnt 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.
Passage to the Sea: The Story of Canadas Steamship Lines,
Edgar Andrew Collard
of the catastrophe was immediately sent to Canada Steamship Lines
operating manager in Montreal. Capt. Norman Reochs 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 youre
going to a fire?
exactly where Im going, Reoch replied. When he explained,
the police became his escort, clearing the way with sirens screaming
in early dawn light.
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.
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.
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 Kellochs recommendations
and stringent regulations were enacted in 1950.
Taylors 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.
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 companys insurance paid out most of the awarded settlements.
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 Noronics tragedy marked
a new phase in steamship inspection and protection against fire
and the final days of decadent cruising on the Great Lakes.
of the deepest held sailing superstitions concerns having anything
aboard that comes from an ill-fated ship. Canada Steamships L salvaged
the Noronics 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 Noronics whistle was sold
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.
fire could have happened in any of the Noronics 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
not easy to find Pier 9 today, since the area has been extensively
developed as part of Torontos 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 citys history. A memorial to the victims of the tragic
fire aboard the SS Noronic is located in Mount Pleasant Cemetery
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).
following sources were used to compile this story:
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,
Fire on the Water: The Story of the SS Noronic,