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1949: 118 die aboard cruise ship SS Noronic

The Story

In the early morning hours of Sept. 17, 1949 passengers aboard the SS Noronic were awakened by chaos and panicked screams. During the night a fire had quietly spread across the luxury cruise liner which was docked in Toronto's harbour. The blaze sent dazed passengers scrambling for their lives and left over 100 dead. This CBC Radio clip looks back at the terror and recounts in dramatic detail one of the worst disasters to take place on the Great Lakes.

Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Aug. 18, 1977
Guest(s): Allan Anderson, Betty Tomlinson
Duration: 9:39

Did You know?

• The flagship of Canadian Steamship Lines, the SS Noronic was carrying 524 passengers and 171 crew when it dropped anchor in Toronto's harbour at 6 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1949.

• Under the command of Captain William Taylor, the cruise ship was in the middlle of a late season run from Detroit and Cleveland to the Thousand Islands.

• By the time the sun rose the next morning a fire had consumed the $6-million, five-deck, 110-metre long ship, leaving 118 dead and many more injured.

• During a time when cruise ships were a regular sight on the Great Lakes, the Noronic was the largest passenger ship in service and had completed countless trouble-free voyages in its 37 years.

• On that fateful night most of the crew, including the captain, had disembarked for a night on the town. Only 16 crew members were left on board when the fire began around 1 a.m. Saturday.

• The fire began in a linen closet on the port side of the sea deck which housed the ship's state rooms. Over the next 90 minutes the fire smouldered and spread until it was finally discovered by a passenger.

• Don Church, a fire insurance specialist from Ohio, located the blaze during a late night stroll. Smith and few crew members tried to douse it with a fire hose, but discovered it had little to no pressure.

• This was the first in a string of faulty emergency measures that contributed to the overall disaster. The fire alarm (which was sounded 30 minutes after the fire's discovery) jammed, resulting in a low whistle, rather than a loud horn sound.

• Most of those killed died in their sleep after being suffocated by the spreading smoke. Those who awoke scrambled aimlessly in the dark in a blind attempt to escape. Since the Noronic was docked, passengers were forced to either jump into Lake Ontario or risk a more than 30 metre jump from the deck to the concrete dock.

• In his 1976 book The Noronic is Burning! author John Craig calls the fire on deck "a scene from hell."

• A front-page report on the fire from the Sept. 17th edition of The Globe and Mail said "There were burned, battered, bleeding and shocked people everywhere." Downtown hospitals were jammed with survivors and a few even wandered into the newspaper's editorial offices in their pyjamas.

• The Globe story said the blaze was so strong that it "cast a glow in the sky like a battery of blast furnaces" and attracted thousands of Toronto residents.

• Dozens of Toronto Police officers and nine ambulances arrived on the scene and a temporary morgue had to be set up in the Horticultural Building at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to accommodate all of the bodies.

• The Noronic had been evacuated by 4:30 a.m., around which time it tilted and began to sink.

• A total of 118 people died in the fire, all of them American. None of the crew perished, including its captain.

• In the days that followed a federal report into the disaster was ordered. Completed in Nov. 1949, the report was inconclusive about what caused the fire, but was harshly critical of the ship's safety outdated measures.

• The report blamed the loss of life on a "complete complacency [that] had descended upon both the ship's officers and the management."

• In November 1949 the wreck of the SS Noronic was towed to Hamilton, Ont. and broken up for scrap. Captain Taylor received a one-year suspension, but retired before it was over. He spent his final years working as a desk clerk at a hotel in Sarnia, ON.

• Canadian Steamship Lines, which did not have any liability insurance for the Noronic, eventually paid out a settlement of $2.15 million US to the families of those killed on board the ship.

• The Noronic took its name from two companies, the Northern Navigation Company ("NOR") and Richelieu & Ontario Line ("ON"), which had merged to form the Canada Steamship Lines. The "IC", was a traditional suffix for Northern Navigation ships at the time.



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