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The Noronic Disaster – 122 burn to death on Toronto’s waterfront

23 Jan

The novel “Arse Over Teakettle,” the first book in “The Toronto Trilogy,” is a story of a family struggling to survive during the horrific years of the Second World War and its aftermath. The burning of the cruse ship the Noronic is included in the tale. The reader views the event through the eyes of the book’s main character, young Tom Hudson, who is deeply affected by the tragedy. The episode below is from the book, and tells of Tom’s reactions later in the day, after hearing the news of the event on the radio during the morning hours.

From the novel, “Arse Over Teakettle – Book One – the Toronto Trilogy”

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In the afternoon, when I picked-up my bundle of Star newspapers, ten-inch headlines declared, Fear 200 Dead. The sub-heading was, Heroism, horror, mingle as fire sweeps Noronic—call for divers to seek dead. An article went onto say, The Noronic . . . swept bow to stern and from waterline to mast by fire, which roared through it with lightning speed. I saw the front pages of the Telegram, —111Dead in Ship, 17 Others Lost” The paper reported that many bodies had already been recovered, but more dead were trapped in the cabins, now below water. The reporter had seen . . . Human torches flee the ship in horror . . . clothes afire.

Later, I saw the headlines in The Globe and Mail—Blaze at Toronto Dock. A front-page article stated . . . Noronic fire traps 100. Scores jump in water. Firemen rescue many.

Some of my newspaper customers met me at the door of their homes, and I noticed their shocked expressions when they scanned the front page. The articles inside the papers provided further horrifying details, as reporters told what they had witnessed dockside.

A reporter said that when he arrived on the scene, he had witnessed passengers standing on the railings of the ship, some preparing to jump, while others seemed frozen with fear and unable to move. A woman said that she could not jump, as she was unable to swim ten feet. Within minutes, the flames forced her from her perch, and she swam to safety.

Later, she said, “I guess I knew how to swim and didn’t know it.”

A ship’s officer at the bow of the ship was trying to assist a woman to descend hand-over-hand down the hawser rope, which was attached to the pier. Screams and splashing noises were heard on the port side as people leaped into the harbour, some with their hair and nightclothes aflame. The water around the ship was warm due to the intense heat emanating from the ship’s hull. It was said that this reduced the number that might have gone into shock from the traumatic experience.

The scene on deck was of panic and desperation. Though the ship’s hoses were useless against the inferno, crew members employed them to douse the flames on burning passengers. When ladders and ropes were gone, women and children were dropped from the deck. Many were injured as they struck the wharf below. The metal lifeboats had remained in their divots, but most of them were red hot. Some had buckled in the middle. One at the stern seemed in good condition, and a woman and her children climbed in. Crewmen lowered it, but at the last minute, it over-turned, its occupants tumbling to the pier. Fortunately, they were unhurt.

A young member of the crew jumped overboard naked, and later said, “Closest call I ever had.”

A burning timber that broke loose from an upper deck came crashing down behind a group of fleeing passengers. “It hastened our departure,” one man said.

Amid the turmoil, a bellboy was seen tossing lifebelts to people in the water. People bobbed in the water amid pillows, soft drink cans, and other debris from the ship.

At dockside, the conditions were no less chaotic. The intense heat had scorched the pier, and the paint on the sheds and offices had blistered. Their roofs were in danger of igniting from the flying sparks. The signs around the dock were either charred or in flames. The stories of those who had escaped were heart wrenching. A man who had managed to flee successfully, tried to re-enter when he realized that his family had not followed behind him.

A dazed elderly woman, sitting on a wooden crate with a blanket around her, told a policeman, “It was a drunken party since the ship left Detroit. Last night I saw a woman in the hallway going from cabin to cabin with a cocktail glass in her hand.”

As she spoke, a woman’s body was pulled from the water by a policeman who was dragging the murky waters dockside. A man who had left the ship to visit his mother, was seen pleading with the police to allow him to enter the ship. As they restrained him, tears ran down his cheeks. Another man, who was hysterical, was dragged from the scene.

“No, no, no!” he screamed. “ I have seven people on the ship.”

Gently, the police attempted to move people who were searching for loved-ones, away from the dock. They were shivering in the cool morning air, and some were going into shock.

A young mother asked for a nickel to call relatives who lived in the city. A woman standing near said she had lost all her clothes in the flames, but had managed to keep her purse. As she passed her the nickel, she said that she was lucky, as at least she had got out.

A woman lamented, “I jumped from the ship, the flames licking my back. In my bag was $600, but I lost the money in the water.”

She too expressed gratitude that she was alive.

A young woman in her nightclothes cried, “I’ve rescued my money, but I don’t know how I can go shopping downtown for new clothes in my nightgown.”

The macabre, the tragic, and the ridiculous seemed to melt into a common scene of despair.

Throughout the darkened hours of the September morning, the injured were taken to the hospitals. An ambulance driver reported that he saw blood on the steps of one hospital, as well as in the corridor leading to the emergency room. Inside, he heard a nurse comforting a burn victim, as the woman cried aloud repeatedly.

“Oh! The pain! The pain!”

Doctors tried to calm her as they applied ointments and wrapped her burns with gauze.

A passenger stared at his blistered hands, as he realized that the flesh of a woman’s scalp and her hair was attached to them. He had used his hands to put out the flames on her head.

The staff of the hospitals were over-whelmed by the needs of those who were rushed to their wards.

Those who had escaped uninjured, required accommodations where they could rest. Most of the victims had no money or clothing. They were transported to various hotels throughout the downtown area. At the Royal York Hotel, an emergency centre was set up by the Red Cross. The manager offered any available rooms, and then placed blankets on the floor in the foyer. At the King Edward, after the spare rooms were full, they opened the second-floor ballroom and assembled cots. In both hotels, some guests vacated their rooms and slept in the makeshift spaces to provide a small degree of comfort to those who were so badly traumatized. It was a night of despondency for the passengers, but their despair was lessened by the generosity and assistance of others.

To purchase the book to read more about the Noronic Disaster, follow the link:

Arse Over Teakettle: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000132634/Arse-Over-Teakettle.aspx

Book Two of the Toronto Trilogy is also available. It is a murder/mystery and follows the fictional character from the first book of the trilogy. The Reluctant Virgin : http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000188306/The-Reluctant-Virgin.aspx

The book “The Reluctant Virgin”is also available at any Chapters/Indigo store.

To view the author’s Home Page: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Toronto

 

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