About 2:30 a.m. on the morning of September 17th, 1949, a passenger discovered a small fire in a linen closet. Attempts to extinguish the fire proved futile and the flames spread quickly through the wood interior of the ship. Within 10 minutes, the Noronic was a raging inferno. Passengers, most of whom were sleeping, were roused from their beds, but with the corridors filled with smoke and choked with people, many found it impossible to escape the chaos. As fire raced through the cabins and corridors, some passengers jumped into Toronto Harbour in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The Toronto Fire Department arrived on the scene in minutes and rescued as many people as possible, but they could do nothing for the Noronic. By 5 a.m., the “Queen of the Great Lakes” was a smoldering ruin, a victim of a devastating fire that left over one hundred dead and scores injured.
The death toll from the Noronic disaster was never precisely determined. It ranges anywhere from 118 to 139 deaths. Most died from either suffocation or burns. Some died from being trampled or from leaping off the upper decks onto the pier. Only one person drowned. To the anger of many, all of those killed were passengers.
A Federal inquiry was formed by Canada’s House of Commons to investigate the accident. The fire was determined to have started in the linen closet on C-deck, but the cause was never discovered. It was deemed likely that a cigarette was carelessly dropped by a member of the laundry staff.
The high death toll was blamed largely on the ineptitude and cowardice of the crew. Too few crew members were on duty at the time of the fire, and none attempted to wake the passengers. Also, many crew members fled the ship at the first alarm, and no member of the crew ever called the fire department. Passengers had never been informed of evacuation routes or procedures.
The design and construction of the 36-year-old ship were also found to be at fault. The interiors had been lined with oiled wood instead of fireproof material. Exits were only located on one deck instead of all five. None of the ship’s fire hoses were in working order.
Captain Taylor was hailed as a hero in the weeks after the fire. He was among the last of the crew to leave the Noronic. During the fire, he broke windows, pulling trapped passengers from their rooms. He was even said to have carried an unconscious woman from a smoke-filled passageway and lowered her by rope to rescuers on the pier below. Despite Taylor’s courage, his licence was suspended for a year.
The ship, which settled to the bottom in shallow water, was partially taken apart at the scene. The upper decks were cut away, and the hull was re-floated on November 29, 1949. It was towed to Hamilton, Ontario, where it was scrapped.
As an odd footnote, it is standard practice to sound the horn one long blast, three short blasts and another long blast – to signal a fire on board – but in the case of the Noronic 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.
Source: The World History Project – http://worldhistoryproject.org/1949/9/17/ss-noronic-fire
My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to email@example.com
- Sam Steele: The Wild Adventures of Canada’s Most Famous Mountie, by Holly Quan
- Real Justice: Guilty of Being Weird: The story of Guy Paul Morin, by Cynthia J. Faryon
- The Dieppe Raid: The Story of the Disastrous 1942 Expedition (Twentieth-Century Battles), by Robin Neillands
- To Wawa With Love, by Tom Douglas
- Wild Canadian West, by E.C. (Ted) Meyers
- Tecumseh: Diplomat and Warrior in the War of 1812, by Irene Gordon
- Klondike Cattle Drive – Normal Lee
- Blazing the Old Cattle Trail, by Grant MacEwan
- Secrets of Lake Simcoe: Fascinating Stories From Ontario’s Past, by Andrew Hind & Maria Da Silva
- Amazing stories of WWI, WWII, and the Canadian Navy
- Grass Beyond the Mountains: Discovering the Last Great Cattle Frontier on the North American Continent, by Richmond P. Hobson, Jr.
- Jimmy Simpson: Legend of the Rockies, by E.J. Hart
- Men in Eden: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade, by William Benemann
- Northern Lights, by James Matthew Green
- To Every Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod
- Christmas in Ontario: Heartwarming Legends, Tales, and Traditions, by Cheryl MacDonald
- Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder by Lee Mellor
- The Canadian Rockies: Pioneers, Legends and True Tales by Roger W. Patillo
- Convoys of World War II: Dangerous Missions on the North Atlantic, by Dorothy Pederson.
- Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock, Mark Tewksbury
- Valour At Vimy Ridge: Canadian Heroes of World War I, by Tom Douglas
- True-life Adventures of Canadian Bush Pilots, by Bill Zuk
If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.