The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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Imagine the Chrysler Building slashing across the Atlantic at 40 mph.

All but 115 of the Normandie’s crew, including her captain, Etienne Payen de la Garanderie, departed for Montreal via special train, many to join de Gaulle’s Free French. But Transat’s New York office continued to pay the Normandie’s $1,000 daily dock rental, and her skeleton crew continued to maintain the ship, stand fire watches, and raise and lower the Tricolor daily. The only evidence of American interest in the vessel was a monthly visit from a Coast Guardsman, who inspected the seal on the Normandie’s radio to make sure the U.S. order to maintain radio silence hadn’t been disobeyed.

On November 13 the Queen Elizabeth cast off, slipped out of New York Harbor, and made for Sydney, to join her sister as a troop carrier. Now the Normandie was alone, still wearing her festive civilian colors. As it became more and more obvious that America was headed for war, U.S. authorities began to realize the ship was an asset worth protecting. The next spring a U.S. Coast Guard captain, John Baylis, boarded her with a detail of 110 men. His orders: Protect the ship from sabotage. Her French crew was allowed to remain.

Nine days after Pearl Harbor the U.S. Maritime Commission took formal possession of the ship. The Tricolor was lowered for the last time, and her crew was delivered to Ellis Island. The U.S. government said France would be appropriately compensated, someday.

On December 24, 1941, it was decided that the world’s most beautiful passenger ship would be transformed into the world’s most beautiful troop transport. And she would be renamed the U.S.S. Lafayette, not a bad choice if a new name was truly needed, but one which will not be used again here, since Normandie was the name by which the ship will always be remembered.

The conversion contract was won by Robins Dry Dock & Repair Company of Brooklyn. They were given just five weeks to do the job. The ship had to be finished and ready to sail by February 1, 1942. The deadline would be extended, but only by two weeks.

On Christmas night hundreds of workmen swarmed aboard. They rolled up carpeting, rolled out linoleum, removed some $2 million worth of furniture, silverware, statues, paintings, and installed 10,000 canvas berths. Storerooms were loaded with cargo, refrigerated holds with food. Naval dishes and utensils replaced the Normandie’s elegant dining service. Guns were installed on the decks.

On Sunday, February 8, Captain Coman, the ship’s new commander, walked through the Grand Salon, noticed its four large lighting stanchions, and ordered them cut down the next morning.

February 9 dawned bright and cold, with a strong northwest wind. About 2,500 civilian employees were at work aboard the ship along with 34 Navy officers and 424 enlisted men, plus 281 Coast Guardsmen. While barges delivered stores through cargo hatches on the port side, welders covered port-holes with steel blanks. French firehose connections were being changed to American ones. Some 14,000 kapok life preservers, 10 to a bale, wrapped in burlap, were dumped into the Grand Salon to await distribution.

 
 
 
 

At 2:00 that afternoon, Clement Derrick, a welder, turned his acetylene torch on the third of the four lighting stanchions. He’d cut down the other two that morning. When the third one fell, it crushed his spark shield. He picked up a nearby piece of tin to use in its place. Derrick was burning through the third and final leg of the fourth stanchion, his back pressed against the bales of life preservers, when someone yelled, “Fire!” It was 2:37 P.M. Sparks from Derrick’s torch had ignited the lint surface of the burlap covering a bale of life preservers. The flames spread across the bales like a grass fire. Derrick and his co-workers desperately tried to beat out the fire but only succeeded in spreading it. A fire hose belched forth a gallon or so of water, then went dry.

At 2:49 someone on shore gave the alarm. Two minutes later the first city firemen arrived. Soon after, smoke forced the ship’s engineers to abandon the boiler rooms. They turned everything off. The Normandie was without light and power. “Get off the ship!” a battery-operated public address system blared out, again and again. The approximately 3,000 men aboard scrambled to obey. Rushing down the gangways, they ran headlong into groups of city firemen hurrying aboard with hoses. The mass confusion was compounded by a cacophony of sirens, tug whistles, and ambulance claxons.