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A brief history of the S.S. Noronic disaster

Posted by Chris Bateman / September 8, 2012

toronto noronicIt took just minutes for the S. S. Noronic, "The Queen of the Lakes," to erupt into a blistering inferno that lit up the late-summer Toronto night in the early hours of September 14, 1949, sixty-three years ago this week. In just a couple of hours the racing, white-hot fire had claimed more than a hundred lives and gutted the ship, leaving the warped metal hull of the vast ship resting on the bottom of the shallow lake bed.

In the aftermath, the ship's crew, dangerous design, and lack of safety features would come under harsh criticism from the public and federal investigators. As a result of the disaster many old passenger ships would be forced out of service on Lake Ontario. The Noronic disaster remains one of the deadliest incidents in the history of Toronto.

toronto noronicThe S. S. Noronic was completed in 1913 by the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company at Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ontario for the Northern Navigation Company. Its distinctive short prow and single, aft funnel made it relatively easy to identify on the water.

The 6,905-ton vessel embarked on its delayed maiden voyage late that year, showing off its wooden interior complete with ballroom, library, beauty salon, music room, and full orchestra to entertain the capacity 600 passengers.

Interestingly, the Noronic was unable to leave the ship yard on schedule because of the "Big Blow" of 1913, a violent winter storm that battered the Great Lakes, wrecking or stranding a total 38 ships. Winds in excess of 128 kilometres an hour brought sudden snow storms and gigantic rolling waves.

Serving as a cruiser, the ship made the majority of its income during the summer taking those with enough cash on pleasure trips between major ports on the great lakes. In the off-season, the Noronic - later owned by Canada Steamship Lines - made several journeys from Detroit through the Thousand Islands via Toronto.toronto noronicOn September 14, 1949, the Noronic was moored at Pier 9 in Toronto for the night close to the present-day ferry terminal. With the cool late-summer breeze blowing across its decks, only a few 131 crew and a handful of 574 passengers remained awake on the vessel.

At 2:30 a.m., passenger Don Church reported seeing smoke billowing under a locked linen closet on C-deck, roughly in the middle of the vessel, and alerted bellboy Earnest O'Neil. Without sounding the fire alarm - presumably because he wasn't sure if the fire was substantial enough - O'Neil opened the closet, releasing a sudden, powerful backdraft. In seconds, the polished wood interior of the hallway was on fire. All across the ship passengers remained asleep.

O'Neil, Church and another crew member initially attempted to extinguish the flames themselves but were soon forced back by the terrifying intensity of the fire. The ship's distress whistle sounded eight minutes after the fire had spilled from the linen closet but by this time several decks were already alight.

By chance, a worker from the New Toronto Goodyear Tire factory heading home after the late shift happened to be passing as the distress whistle cut the quiet night. Realizing just two gangplanks were attached to the shore, Donald Williamson pushed a painting rig in place to help stranded passengers escape. By the time the first emergency services arrived, terrified, burning passengers were already leaping into the oily lake water.

toronto noronicThe flames had already breached the top deck and were almost as tall as the mast. The first fire pumper arrived at 2:41 a.m. - 11 minutes after the fire was released. Fire-fighting boats also arrived on the scene but many passengers remained trapped within the vessel by burning stairwells and disorientating walls of smoke. Authorities smashed portholes and attached ladders to the hull while the screams of burning passengers trapped within the craft grew louder.

As panic increasingly took hold in the face of the blinding flames, passengers began to leap to their death onto the concrete dockside and overwhelm the few escape routes. One wooden ladder tied to the side of the ship snapped under a crush of escapees, sending women falling into the obsidian water below.

20 minutes after the first alarm, the metal structure of the Noronic was white hot and the melting metal sent the decks collapsing in on each-other. So much water had been dumped on the vessel by this point that it had begun to lean toward the pier. It would take two full hours before the flames could be extinguished.toronto noronicAt 7:00 a.m. the gruesome task of recovering the bodies began in earnest. Crews found blackened skeletons lining the hallway - some locked in embrace - while others were found still in their beds. It's believed many of the remains were simply vaporized. Most deaths were attributed to suffocation, crushing or burns. Just one person drowned after leaping into the lake.

The near-impossible task of putting a name to each of the incinerated bodies - the vast majority of whom were American - fell to Ontario's fledgling Medical Identification Committee who meticulously examined x-ray records to piece together the final list of the deceased. All of the roughly 139 deaths - the number has never been precisely pinned down despite the best efforts of investigators - were passengers.

The crew were severely criticized for their handling of the fire in the immediate aftermath. Many fled on seeing the flames and failed to wake sleeping passengers. A federal inquiry by the Kellock Commission concluded that the fire was started by a discarded cigarette, possibly by someone loading the linen closet, but no-one was ever charged with causing the accident. The investigation also found that no crew member had contacted the fire department in the crucial first minutes of the blaze.

In contrast, the actions of the Noronic's captain, William Taylor, were praised. Taylor smashed portholes and lowered numerous passengers to safety.toronto noronicCanada Steamship Lines suspected arson in the fire, a notion supported by a similar linen closet blaze aboard the Quebec in 1950. The sunken hull of the Noronic was partially dismantled at the scene and the rest was towed to Hamilton and scrapped.

S.S. NoronicCSL would eventually pay out roughly $2 million in compensation. As a result of the disaster, materials such as wood were restricted in the construction of lake-going vessels. Fire-proof bulkheads, fire extinguishers, automatic alarms, and sprinkler systems became mandatory. The Noronic's legacy is improved maritime safety for all.

Images from the investigation:toronto noronicInvestigators line the dock before entering the hull of the Noronictoronto noronicWorkers pick through the fragile remains of the gutted interiortoronto noronicInvestigating an area of interest in what was the purser's office

Images: Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia Commons, the City of Toronto Archives and Derek Flack

Discussion

19 Comments

Keith / September 8, 2012 at 09:13 am
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This is the first I've heard of this tragic incident. Thanks.
BH / September 8, 2012 at 09:21 am
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I never knew about this one either. Good work giving us the background on the tragedy.
alan / September 8, 2012 at 11:07 am
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i remember seeing a play about this disaster...all a distant memory now but within the past 10 years...
Jan / September 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm
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Years ago I remember one of the senior nurses at St Mikes telling me that she had been a student nurse at the time but was also a patient in the hospital, having just had her appendix out. She was awakened in her hospital bed in the middle of the night when the supervisor rushed into her room, threw a robe at her and told her to get down to emerg because there was a disaster and they needed all the help they could get. Her story was really interesting because, at the time, I had never heard of this disaster either.
Meg / September 8, 2012 at 01:37 pm
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Always been fascinated by this disaster. Thanks for highlighting it to the rest of the city.
nomoregraffitiblogs / September 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm
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finally blogto delivers! bravo!
Phil / September 9, 2012 at 09:53 am
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We need more of these. Great article!!!
John Coates / September 10, 2012 at 04:05 am
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Loving these history articles! Keep them coming.
King / September 10, 2012 at 04:17 pm
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Brutal
Cameron / September 10, 2012 at 05:38 pm
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Weird coincidence, some friends and I were talking about this just last week. We were trying to figure out if Pier 9 is were Capitan John's now finds itself.
There's also the grisly detail of an non air-conditioned building at the CNE servings temporary morgue, but perhaps it's best that it's omitted.
MofUsene / September 12, 2012 at 01:18 pm
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Don Bower / November 21, 2012 at 10:16 pm
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I just just a boy at the time (13 years old) but, I can remember this accident as if it just occured. Tragic situation which should never have happened. Thank goodness major safety changes came about because of thos tragedy.
jan switzer / May 2, 2013 at 04:00 pm
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My Aunt had a cousin that was killed in this disaster. I remember my Mom telling me that she died in bed - but was not burned. I remeber her telling me "she looked like she was just sleeping". (Probably not the truth).
I have a question: Is the passenger Manifest available?
Jim Jacobs / November 29, 2013 at 11:55 am
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I remember this tragedy very well. I was 17 at the time and read of it in a discarded Toronto Star newspaper left on a train by a Canadian military man, of whom there were many thousands in this area around Fareham and Gosport, Hampshire, England before and after the D Day landings by the Canadian infantry battalions stationed here. I particularly recall the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. I thought the loss of life on the Noronic appalling. As was the loss of so many young Canadian soldiers in Normandy. I did not know at the time that one year later I would fight alongside 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade in the Korean War.
Jeanne Allen / April 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm
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My great uncle was killed along with his second wife in this disaster. They were on their honeymoon. The family story is that his wife had a premonition. A sad, sad story.
Rick Wagoner / April 29, 2014 at 07:40 pm
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Do you know if anything was recovered from ship I suppose to have a serving crock the firefighters took off the ship is there anyway I can find out for sure about it
Richard / May 9, 2014 at 08:30 pm
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My great uncle Harry Kaplan was killed on this ship just 3 months after I was born
John Mothersill / September 8, 2014 at 05:04 pm
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I was 17 years old and had recieved my private pilots licence at the Ontario county flying club
in Oshawa. I was working in General Motors in the kids group that day and we heard about the fire on the radio. At 5 oclock quitting time I went to rhe airport and rented an Aronca chief airplane and flew over the smoldering ship (by myself since I could not take a passenger until
Iwas 18 yrs. old ) I landed at the Toronto island ariport for a short period and returned to Oshawa .
The flying time was 50 minutes and at the airplane rental rate of $6 per hour I paid $5..
That my not seem like much but at 40 cents an hour it was more than a days pay.
I can still remember looking down at the smoldering hulk.
I still have the log book showing that entry.
Colette / September 14, 2014 at 12:33 pm
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Thank you for this page on this tragic incident. I did a research about it because I found an Hand painted souvenir in a life saver pattern in a house I bought. This is an official souvenir of the CSL with two inscriptions added hand written "Juillet 1947 Voyage sur les grands lacs" and "Ce bateau détruit par le feu, sept 1949, 121 personnes de mortes". I needed to know more about it. And I learned that today is the 65th anniversary of the last departure of the ship. What a coincidence.

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