Saturday 30 August 2014

S.S. Noronic Disaster

"When the sun set over the harbour Saturday evening, the five million dollar luxury liner was a hulking wreck of twisted metal." (

Horticultural building courtesy

Today we know it as the horticultural building at the Canadian National Exhibition.  Fair goers admire the roses, gladiolas and daisies as they walk up and down its aisles.  However, back in September of 1949, it housed not flowers, but dead bodies, serving as a temporary morgue for the victims of the S. S. Noronic fire.

On September 16, 1949, the S.S. Noronic sailed into the Toronto port, a cruise ship full of about 600 passengers, mainly Americans.  On a seven day cruise, the ship had departed Cleveland, Ohio a few days before and intended on stopping in Detroit the following day.  

The dining room on the Noronic's sister ship the S. S. Hamonic, which also suffered a fire in 1945.  While no one died, the Hamonic was scrapped following the blaze.  Photo courtesy

Early the next morning, plans changed.  Passenger Don Church spotted smoke billowing from a linen closet. Fetching a bellboy who unlocked the closet, the two of them tried to battle the blaze but to no avail.  Church ran back to his cabin to alert his wife and children and exited the ship.  Within eight minutes, half of the Noronic's decks were on fire.  

A police cruiser arrived at the scene.  One of the officers stripped out of his uniform and dove into the frigid oily water to rescue the passengers.  One of the first people on the scene, Donald Williamson, was a Goodyear employee who had just gotten off work.  Grabbing a raft, he rowed it alongside the ship to collect escaped passengers.  Only three minutes after the alarm was sounded the first fire truck arrived at Queen's Quay.  The ship was already completely engulfed in flames.

The scene was pandemonium on board the Noronic.  Crew members failed to wake the sleeping passengers.  The fire hoses did not work.  The only exits were located on E deck.  A ladder was raised to B deck; passengers swarmed the ladder which snapped in two.  Crew members smashed portholes to get passengers out.  Passengers screamed louder than the fire sirens.  Some, their bodies already ablaze, jumped overboard, plunging to their deaths on the dock.  A few lucky ones managed to shimmy down a rope over the side of the ship.

The firefighters worked feverishly until 5 am when the fire was finally extinguished.  The Noronic, once dubbed "The Queen of the Lakes" was a smoldering black shell.  Once inside, rescuers discovered a macabre scene:  embracing skeletons in the corridors and charred bodies still in their beds.  Only one had died from drowning; all the others had burnt or suffocated.  

Frantic family members were desperate to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.  The official passenger list had gone up in flames.  Fortunately a duplicate was located.  Newspapers kept a list of the Noronic's "Survivors & Injured", "Known Dead" and "Unable to Locate".  Identifying the bodies, however, was not easy as most were burnt beyond recognition.  Some were identified by their rings or watches.

With the death toll reaching at least 118, the survivors families demanded answers.  The House of Commons ordered an inquiry.  The public reacted with outrage when it was revealed that all of the victims were passengers; none of the crew had perished.  Although it was reported that Captain Taylor was one of the last to leave the ship, and although he carried an unconscious woman off the ship, his licence was revoked for one year.  The inquiry ruled that a unextinguished cigarette in the linen closet caused the fire.

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