The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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By now three city fireboats and several private ones had come alongside the Normandie and begun deluging her with water from her port side. Fire engines lining up on Twelfth Avenue and on the pier inundated the ship from starboard.

BEFORE LONG 43 engines had joined the fight, urged on by Mayor La Guardia himself. Some 30,000 spectators, attracted by the pall of smoke drifting over the city, stood watching, held back by two companies of soldiers. Among them was a handsome, well-dressed man with tears in his eyes: Vladimir Yourkevitch. He had vital advice to give the fire officials, but he couldn’t get through the lines. He had to stand there and watch his ship die. Left alone, the flames probably would have burned themselves out without fatally damaging the ship; in fact, fire damage was later found to be relatively trivial. The lower decks were completely untouched, as were the chapel and the theater. But fire officials, worried about the pier and about the firemen aboard the vessel, ordered engines and fireboats to keep flooding her with water.

 

Half an hour after the first alarm, the Normandie began to list to port. Some of the giant hawsers holding her to the pier snapped, with reports like cannon fire; others yanked enormous iron bollards out of the concrete dock. At 6:15 P.M. the New York City fire commissioner, Patrick J. Walsh, announced that the fire was under control. But the man responsible for the Normandie, Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews, was worried that the ship might capsize. As the fire company poured 100,000 tons of water into the Normandie, her list increased inexorably. Andrews ordered tugs to push on her port side.

Ashore, Yourkevitch finally got through the fire lines. He begged authorities to open her sea cocks and scuttle her on an even keel. The bottom of the slip was only a few feet below her hull. If she were scuttled, she might be raised with relative ease.

Andrews gave the order. But the fire department said it wasn’t necessary; the fire was out and they were calling a halt to pumping operations. Shutting down the fireboats, however, proved nearly impossible. The three city boats continued to drench the stricken ship until Mayor La Guardia himself got on the radiotelephone and ordered them to stop. It took still longer for the private fireboats to get the message.

At 7:00 P.M. Andrews decided to scuttle the Normandie after all. He ordered men into the ship to open the sea cocks or pull the condenser plates, but the dense smoke stopped them. He ordered the ship’s starboard side flooded, to correct the list, but the absence of longitudinal bulkheads made that impossible. And with the water already in her mostly frozen, it was also impossible to pump her dry.

By 9:00 the Normandie ’s list had increased to 20 degrees, putting her open cargo hatches and portholes under water. There was no helping her now. By 11:00 she was listing 40 degrees. At 12:30 A.M. Andrews ordered the straining tugs to back off.

The Normandie’s hour-long death rattle began—a horrible clanging, banging, and clattering, as everything within the ship tumbled to port or rolled off the deck into the water. Exactly twelve hours after the fire had begun, all photographers barred from the scene, the internal noises finally at end, the Normandie gently rolled over, scarcely disturbing the ice in her slip.

When New York City awoke on February 10, there was still a hint of smoke in the air. And the beautiful Normandie, which had been girding for war, was now a lifeless hulk, tumbled over in her slip, visible from every skyscraper in town. In human terms, the tragedy had been quite modest. There had been 285 minor injuries, but only one man had been killed. Yet something brave and lovely had died, and The New York Times wrote, “The sight of her hurts the human eye and heart.” Hardly a newspaper in the country failed to complain about the “plain, inexcusable dumbness,” as the Daily News put it, that had caused the disaster.

The ship was now a lifeless hulk, visible from every skyscraper in town.

Almost from the start, however, many believed that the fire had been caused not by “dumbness” but by sabotage. But the New York district attorney, Frank S. Hogan, said: “There is no evidence of sabotage. Carelessness has served the enemy with equal effectiveness.” For its part the Navy was inclined to blame the disaster on the Normandie herself. It harped on the ship’s “well-known instability and tenderness,” implying that the Normandie’s design flaws caused her to capsize, not the 100,000 tons of water that had been pumped into her.