The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Toronto Daily Star (Toronto, ON), Saturday September 17, 1949

Full Text
Fear Bay Hides Bodies of Many Who Leaped
Heroism and Horror Mingled as Flames Sweep S.S. Noronic Firemen Comb Ruins for Dead

Nearly 200 persons perished in the fire which destroyed the S.S. Noronic, biggest pleasure ship on the Great Lakes, at the Canada Steamship Lines dock in Toronto early today. This was the estimate of firemen as they cut their way through the charred and twisted wreckage.

Fire Chief Peter Herd said there was "no telling" how high the death toll will go, and it might be two or three days before the fate of all the 550 passengers and 180 crew members is known.

Bodies were being taken off the blackened ship by the score. Fire Marshall Sam Hill made the first estimate, saying that at least 140 were dead. But this mounted as 50 firemen with high powered lanterns searched through the ruins.

Fire Chief Herd said there are many bodies in the ship below the water line." They won’t be able to remove these bodies until they are able to pump out tens of thousand of gallons of water. It may take days," he added.

The chief coroner’s office was informed there may be as many as 200 dead. An official say they were informed from the scene of the disaster to expect anywhere from 150 to 200.

Figures were difficult to obtain with any certainty but from hospital figures, an estimate of the death toll and the number said to be accounted for, it appeared there were about 100 persons missing. Hospitals reported 187 persons were injured.

Set up Morgue at C. N. E.

It was not until 8 a.m., that anyone had any idea of what had occurred in the 36 year old luxury ship which was gutted from the mast to the waterline. The 6900-ton ship built in 1913, was completely booked for what was to have been its last trip fo the year. Practically all the passengers were from the Detroit and Cleveland areas. The ship came from the head of the lakes and docked at Pier 9 at 7 p.m. last night.

The fire started at 2:40 a.m. as far as could be determined by police. There were a score of rescuers on hand within minutes. But there was little they could do.. Fire ladders were put up to the bow of he ship and those who were fortunate or had enough strength to stagger through the blinding smoke and belching flames, got on to the ladders and scrambled to safety.

A C. S. L. Official said only about 20 of the passengers were Canadians, though most of the crew were Canadian.

Within half an hour the chief coroners office was filled with bodies Chief Coroner Dr. Smirle Lawson communicated with Elwood Hughes, general manage of the C. N. E., and a morgue was set up in the Horticultural building. There relatives and friends will be brought to identify the dead. This task would take several days, officials said.

The number injured was expected to exceed 200. Every Toronto hospital was taxed to capacity as taxis, police cruisers, private cars and ambulances brought the injured in. Even the hospital at the Royal York hotel was utilized. Others went th the King Edward.

Weight Breaks Rescue Ladder

Police said the fire was the greatest disaster in the history of the city. Heroes were many of the death toll would have been greater. Women and children were carried off the burning ship. Other leaped with flames licking behind, them. At least one woman was drowned Her body was recovered. Lifesavers started dragging the slip and said they had reason to believe that others who had flung themselves overboard had not come up.

So many got on one aerial ladder that the three inch side snapped like a match stick, hurling them into the water. It was an eerie sight at the passengers slid down ropes and dived off. Some had their clothing ablaze and were screaming with pain.. Others were cut, their faces masks of blood. They said they had dived through windows, in their cabins they couldn’t find the doorway to the hall.

Can’t tell cause yet, says chief

One story regarding the origin of the fire that couldn’t be confirmed was that the blaze started in the cocktail lounge of the ship, which is licensed under the liquor license act. Authority for his was Mr. Bremner of Cleveland. "It started in the beer garden," said Mr. Bremner .

Fire Chief Herd and the fires Marshal Hill said there was no way of telling source of the fire until a completed inspections made of the charred superstructure, which lies twisted and listing to starboard. Even then they said the cause may never be known. Others rescued from the boat thought someone in bed had dropped a cigarette butt. Everything was pure speculations.

Went Up Like Paint Factory

"It went up like a paint factory,"said one witness. British United Press quoted survivors as saying fire extinguishers failed to work when they grabbed them from the walls to battle the flames sweeping through the hallway. "There was negligence on somebody’s part" the news service quoted Don Church, Silverlake, O., as saying. They said another passengers said the extinguisher he seized had no fluid in it.

There had been several gay parties aboard the ship earlier in the evening, according to survivors. "It was the usual holiday spirit that always prevails on these trips. said one crew member. He said some passengers were under the influence of liquor.

The disaster was greater than the burning of the Morro Castle off the coast of New Jersey, in 1934, when 134 died. It was far off the coast when it took fire. The Noronic was at the pier when its happy holiday crowd, most of whom had gone to bed after parties. Some had boarded the ship not long before. They had been to theaters and visited night spots.

Hear Roar of Flames Far Off

If there were screams from the cabins as flame burned through the decks, they couldn’t be heard. The roar of the flames could be heard above Front Street. It was possible , firemen said, that passengers were running around the lower decks trying to get out when the high pressure hoses were put into action, but Chief Herd said he didn’t think they cold survive long the dense, acrid smoke.

Time and again those who were taken to the hotels set up as clearing stations came back looking for friends. Some were new acquaintances, met for the first time on the cruise. One of these was a good looking youth who said he had missed a young woman. He had met her on the boat and knew her name only as Hilda. She wasn’t at the hotel. But police and C. S. L. Officials couldn’t help him. He took a taxi to check the hospitals.

Burned beyond recognition.

Tarpaulins were used to carry the dead off the deck after they were carried there by firemen. Some were burned beyond recognition. In some cases only bones were found.

Police officers and firemen who lifted the remains int the improvised stretchers, which took two and three bodies at a time. Were visibly shaken. "I hold I never see that again," said one officer. His face white.

Water causes ship to settle

Two hours after the fire swept through the three decks, the water poured into the ship caused the stern to settle on the bottom of the ship. Later the bow went down and the ship which had been listing dangerously to starboard, straightened up.

The task facing the coroner’s department was being met with the co-operation of all coroners in Toronto, Chief Coroner Lawson, through his secretary, Edward Armour, instructed all coroners to go to the horticultural buildings. He communicated with W. J. Stewart, formerly a funeral director in and the head of the Funeral directors associated with W. Keenan to assist.

Five Coroners on Duty

Funeral directors were being asked to give their services without remunerations as a public service, Dr. Lawson said. Five coroners, Drs. W. Easson, Brown, Julian Loudon, J. D. Lovering, J.P. F. Williams ad Dr. Lawson, went at once to the Horticultural building when it was opened as a morgue.

The job of tagging the bodies was started at once. Coroners will remain on duty throughout the day to take identifications.

Chief Coroner Lawson joined Fire Marshal Hill and Fire Chief Herd in the investigation of the fire.

Ninety-three persons who got off safely were taken aboard the Cayuga and others were put on the Kingston. Both were at nearby piers. They were then taken out to the bay.

Two priests came to the docks shortly after 3:30 a.m. and were there when firemen boarded the smouldering ruins to take the bodies off.

One was Father Charles Wigglesworth, chaplain at St. Michael’s hospital, who rushed to the burning ship soon after the blaze began. He said he was unable to go aboard, so returned to the hospital and administered last rites to a number of severely burned patients. "I really don’t know how many I anointed. I didn’t keep count," he said. The priest had been up all night.

Spilt families cause of confusion

Endless confusion was caused when families were split up. Wives went to one hospital, husbands to another. There were very few couples together, it seemed. If they weren’t in hospital, one was at one hotel receiving station and the other somewhere else. They trickled back to the docks, some missing each other in the crowd. Others had difficulty getting through police lines. Officers had instructions to keep everyone except authorized persons from going any farther south than the north curb of Queen’s Quay.

The first trip of firemen on the ship brought out nine bodies. Fire Marshal Hill made a quick inspection and set the tentative figure of 140 dead, which was raided as the minutes went by.

"Bring more tarpaulins," shouted a fireman from the first deck. Eight bodies came out in the second tarpaulin.

District Fire Chief Art Smith said there were 30 bodies in the upper part of the ship, and he said there were an unknown number in the water.

Many treated for glass cuts

Shoulder, face and skull cuts were numerous among those who filled the emergency wards of all the hospitals. These were inflicted by jagged glass as they scrambled for their lives through the port holes and smashed their way out of their cabins.

Dan Harper , former Toronto policeman, now employed by the C. S. L. On police duties, gave the alarm. Flames engulfed the ship within a few minutes, according th other witnesses. Crew members said the thick paint on the ship made it a holocaust in seconds.

A sister ship of the Noronic, the S.S. Hamonic, burned in July 1945, while at the pier at Port Edward. In this case a fire started on the docks and spread to the ship and scores were burned. A freight handler drowned, but there was no passenger deaths. Loss was set at $1,000,000. The Hamonic was never replaced.

Fire Truck Catches Fire

At the height of the blaze, a fire department truck on the west pier caught fire, but the blaze was quickly extinguished without the rig being put out of action.

The high pressure hoses from this pier were not as effective as the streams being poured from the bow and starboard side. At 4:30 a.m. Fire Chief Herd said it was only a matter of preventing the flames fro spreading to the pier. There was no hope of saving the ship. The harbor fire boat played streams through the port side windows, but as quickly as the belching flames were quenched at one opening, they burst out at another.

It is just like a giant blow torch,: said Chief Herd, referring to the sheets of flame coming out of the portholes.

At least two children were among the injured. They were Stephen Jasper, three, son of Mr., and Mrs Stephen Jasper of Dearborn Michigan and Kathleen Kerr 12 of Amstead Michigan.

Officials of the C. S. L. Said that, on advice of their solicitor, Frank Wilkinson, they would not release the passenger list until relative have been notified. J. Ralph Beck, passenger agent, said this decision had been made because of the confusion that followed releasing of the passenger list at the time the sister ship burned. He promised that the list of passengers anc crew would be made public as soon as possible.

Firemen permitted three Roman Catholic priest to go aboard the charred vessel about 11 a.m. to give the last sacraments. The three, all from the St. Michael’s cathedral are Rev. George Prance, Rev. B. Kyte and Rev. V. Foy, rector of the cathedral.

Father Prance told newsmen as he scrambled off the vessel: "It’s no use we must presume they all died some time ago."

The Church is permitted to administer the last rites up to three hours after death has apparently occurred.

Smelled Smoke Found Ladder

Earl E. Roettger of Cleveland said he thought the fire stared in a stateroom only a couple of doors from his own, on C deck, the third deck down from the top. Matter of factly, he said after treatment at St. Michael’s" "We smelled smoke, My wife and I went out on the deck and I found a rope ladder. I helped some of the others, especially the women, to get off and then went down myself. Mildred Briggs of Detroit, said she thought at first someone was joking when she heard the cries of fire." I knew there was sometimes a little rowdyism on board, but, I couldn’t figure how anyone could be so stupid." She said this was the 13th year she and a group of friends had made the trip.

Miss Briggs said the flames spread almost as if the ship was a matchbox. "The fire just welled up along the corridors and spread faster than any fire I’ve ever seen." she said. She praised heroic work by crew members, notably the ship’s officers, in maintaining a semblance of calm and order.

Escaped, But Can’t Say How

Mr. & Mrs. Harold Sharrock, Galion, O., and Mrs. Amelia Guiney, Mrs. Sharrock’s mother, had sailed to Port Arthur on the cruise. Wearing a gabardine jacket which had had several large stains of blood, had told of his escape. " I can’t remember just how I got off," he said. "We heard people shouting and we awoke and got out as fast as we could. The blood on my jacket came from a woman I took to the hospital."

Before ambulances arrived police cruisers were pressed into service to take the burned and bleeding to hospitals. Seats of the cars were splattered with blood. They made several trips. All city ambulances were dispatched by Harry Bentley, ambulance dispatcher, who called on private ambulances to rush to the docks.

Police reserves had to be called to hold back thousands of persons who flocked to the docks. The fire was visible for miles. Others followed the reels that came from all directions to answer the third alarm put in by District Fire Chief James Stevens. The second and third alarms were rung in immediately the reels arrives. District Chief Stevens said the flames were burning throughout the ship and belching from the deck windows and he realized it was a major catastrophe as soon as his car came in sight.

Feared It Would Collapse.

Acting Chief of Police M.M. Mulholland was called with Chief Inspector Robert Anderson and Insp. Robert Davie to direct police. They ordered persons from the pier when the boat listed to starboard. It was feared it would topple over on firemen who were playing a dozen lines of hose on that side. They moved back.

Persons who were taken to the hospital to be treated, many of them for rope burns, came back looking for luggage , clothing and other articles they tossed on the dock before they fled down ladders. There was a reign of confusion and excitement as they ran around the docks looking for these articles. This led to speculation there had been looting, but police said they had picked up suitcases, night bags, clothing and other articles. These were taken to Court St. Station by Det. Cole.

Crewman R. D. Morrison, Mooretown, said he and Fist Mate Gerry Wood were busy hoisting passengers over the side, tying ropes in loops around their bodies and lowering them toward the water.

Some of the people didn’t want to go because they said their wives or husbands were still back there, "Morrison said. "But we made them go over the side. In the case of some heavy women, with was quite a job."

Was On The Hamonic.

Morrison said he was on the Noronic ’s sister ship, the S.S. Hamonic, when it burned at Sarnia in 1945." I thinking the Hamonic burned even faster than this one,"he said, "B ut everybody got off and that one by jumping into the river.’

Among other crew members who escaped were D. Priur a cabin steward, Montreal Alfred Peterson, Brigden Ont., and Donin Oakes, Manitoulin Island.

A Chinese cook, Harry Lee, Walton St., slid down a rope into the water and managed to hang on to a lifebelt thrown to him form the dock. His only injuries were slight scratches. It is his second term on the Noronic. "I’ll never go again." he vowed.

A cabin steward, who said he didn’t want to give his name for fear the company"wouldn’t like it," said he was in his cabin when he heard screams of and cries of "Fire."

Standing on the west side of the pier, with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he told how he ran out and thought first of waitresses who were sleeping in a section of the boats reserved for the staff. It is aft to the centre.

When he got to their cabin, they were gone and he made his way to safety. "I don’t know where it started., The fires seemed to be burning all over," he declared.

Told to Duck Flames

Sam Graham, Point Edward a C. S. L. , employee, described his escape as "miraculous." He got out in his underwear.

"I came to Toronto with the supply truck, said Graham. "I always sleep on the boat and go back to Sarnia in the morning. Everybody had gone to bed; at least there was no noise. The first I heard was someone shout "Get low," they were telling those who were coming through the flames to duck under them. I saw a flash of fire go past my door. The hallway was blazing. I didn’t wait to grab my pants. I ran to the freight deck. A minute after I got out they started smashing windows I only thought of myself; I don’t know why. There was no alarm given, it happened to quickly."

For Graham it was the second fire he had been involved in he said. He was on the dock at Point Edward when the S. S. Hamonic burned.

Graham ran around in his underwear on the dock after making his way through the smoke and flames. Someone(he does ‘t know who) brought his a pair of trousers, but he had no shoes. Sitting on the edge of his truck parked about 50 yards from the blazing boat, graham said, "I am afraid that there must be many trapped on that boat. Some of those people were partying and after they had gone to bed I’m afraid many of them wouldn’t smell the smoke of hear any shouts of fire."

Lucky To Get Off

Graham went to bed at midnight, lay awake for a few minutes and then dozed off. "Just after I heard someone I the hallway shout to "get low"’ he said. I smelled smoke and then saw the flash of flame. Those who did get off were lucky. I am counting myself very lucky. Now with the Noronic gone after the Hamonic I guess there won’t be any work for me."

Later, Graham was looking for someone to provide him with shoes. His wallet was left in his trousers. He was without means of getting food or some place to stay until he could be looked after by the company. He went to the C. S. L. Office looking for help.

Mrs. Howard Kunz, Cleveland, slid down a rope ladder burning her hands and arms. Her husband escaped via the gangplank.

They hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest hospital . "I don’t know where we were taken," said Mrs Kunz, "But the first hospital , quite close to the waterfront, was full and we had to be taken a long piece to another."Mrs. Kunz were treated there and she was allowed to go.

"You may not believe this," Mr. Kunz said," but I am sure a young couple on the edge of the crowd were trying to rob people. They asked us to walk down the road with them. I had mentioned that I still had my wallet. We walked for quite a way and I became suspicious. They said their car was still farther on. We got away from them and called a cab."

Kunz said passengers were fainting in the corridor on D. Deck where their stateroom was. He said he did not see how they could have escaped

Don Carlson, 22, bell hop from Winnipeg, said: "I went to bed at 1:20, woke up at 1:45, heard someone yell, and had to pry open the door, I threw out what I could then came down a rope." He was suffering so badly from shock his teeth kept chattering. He received a badly cut foot.

Ralph Haymer, Brock Ave., a photographer, was driving on Lake Shore Rd., with a friend Sid Grossman, when they noticed the glare in the sky from the burning ship.

Looked Like Beacon.

The sky was lit up like it looks when a mine in operating a smelter." Haymer said. " It was like a beacon, I had no difficulty locating the source.

"When I arrived at the dock people were running around I their nightclothes. Some were soaking wet. Others were bleeding and bandaged.

"Very soon there were several small explosions on the front of the upper deck, It was like flares going off. Then the entire front upper deck collapsed with a roar and a hiss of falling burning embers. I didn’t have my camera with me, so I rushed home for it and then returned to take pictures. I can talk better with my camera."

Threatens R. C. Y. C. Yacht

When the Noronic listed, it threatened the R. C..Y. C. Launch Kwasind, and firemen appealed for help to get it out of the way. An R. C. Y. C member, Lorne Corley, Harcroft Rd., boarded the launch with six policemen and headed it out from the searing heat. Corley said passengers were plummeting down from the blazing ship and that he and the policemen hauled several out, but said it was a hit-and-miss affair because of the dense clouds of smoke.

It was a dreadful sight. Smoke was everywhere, passengers were jumping off, and blazing wreckage was falling into the water it was like a nightmare,"he said.

Dr. Lawson said a cordon of police would be thrown around the C. N. E. Horticultural building.

Crew members told Fire Marshall Sam Hill the fire broke out in the aft portion of the ship and aided by a southwest wind, quickly swept along the first deck.

Only two of the dead had been positively identified by 10:15 a.m. They were Eunice Dietrich, 1326 73 st. Cleveland, and Blanche Farragher, Youngston, O. The latter was identified by a girl friend who had searched frantically for hours before she was told to come to the morgue.

"I don’t see how any more than just a fraction of them could have got off. Those who hadn’t turned in for the night were the luckiest I think: said Albert Everist.

The cash from the bar said to be about $1,000 is missing in the fire. Leo Carey, Montreal, the bar manager tried to reach the lounge, but was forced back by flames.

Media Type:
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Date of Original:
Saturday September 17, 1949
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Randy Johnson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Toronto Daily Star (Toronto, ON), Saturday September 17, 1949