The Noronic – A Toronto Disaster
Working the midnight shift, Constables Ronald Anderson and Warren Shaddock turned their police ‘accident car’ onto Toronto’s Queen’s Quay on September 17, 1949, in time to see the SS Noronic, one of the most impressive and beautiful passenger ships in Canada, erupt into sky-splitting flames from bow to stern.
The first rescuers on the scene, their cruiser was immediately surrounded by survivors, some with their clothing on fire. Many more were in the water. Far too many were on the ship, burning on the decks.
Anderson stripped off his uniform and jumped into the frigid, oily water, dragging the injured back to a painter’s raft in the water and to the dock. From there, police officers hauled them up by rope, where Shaddock and others would administer first aid. One of the officers lifting survivors to safety was Jack Marks, who would later become the Toronto’s Police Chief.
Soon, Detective Cyril Cole joined Anderson in the water, with both retrieving bodies and survivors.
Later, fireboats arrived to assist. Cole’s partner, Detective Roy Soplet, was also on the scene. Many of the responding officers were World War II Veterans.
“Once you’ve experienced explosions, shell fire and the horror of war, you can handle bodies and injury better. The Police Force was made up of many WWII combat vets who were specifically recruited for their ability to handle this kind of pressure,” says Anderson, now 86.
The Noronic fire had started at around 2:30 am. Within minutes, the hull grew white hot and the decks began buckling. The millions of litres of water combating the blaze, caused the ship to list. Firefighters had to retreat until the ship righted itself.
“Toronto didn’t have the ambulance service we have now”, says Anderson. “Cab drivers deserve a lot of credit. Dozens of cab drivers came down from the Royal York and the King Edward Hotel to help. They didn’t charge fares, they just ran the injured to Toronto General, St. Michael’s, and Toronto Western Hospitals. When the hospitals were overwhelmed, victims were taken to the Royal York and the ‘King Eddie’ where doctors and hotel staff assisted the injured and those in shock.”
Press flocked to the fire from the Royal York Hotel where they had been attending a Press Club Awards Dinner. They had been alerted by the horn sounding on the Noronic, which was so loud that it reverberated throughout the city and hampered communications between the rescuers.
Come morning, Anderson retrieved his uniform and found his wallet had been stolen. Months later, the wallet minus the money it had contained, was found on a suspect arrested by Detective Jim Mackie, who also became Chief of Toronto Police.
Because so many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, identification was difficult. It was also hampered by the use of aliases on the ship’s manifest. A number of men using names not their own, died with female companions other than their wives. Some were believed by their families to have gone hunting or fishing. All of the victims were Americans.
Medical examiners came in from other parts of Canada and from the US to help with the difficult task of identification. For the first time, dental records were used to identify the dead. The ID process went on for almost a year, as some of the victims were no more than piles of ash and jewelry.
The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although many believe it was started by a carelessly discarded cigarette. The ship’s design and construction were faulted, particularly the use of oiled wood, and many coats of paint. On-board fire hoses were not in working order.
The crew was criticized for not calling the fire department and for not waking passengers. Some fled at the first alarm, leaving sleeping passengers behind. The Captain, William Taylor, did participate in rescue efforts but had his license suspended for a year, following the Royal Commission’s investigation and never captained a vessel again.
The sinking of The Noronic marked the beginning of the end of luxury passenger travel on the Great Lakes.
Although it has been sixty years, the fire on board the S.S. Noronic, which claimed 119 lives, remains on the books as Toronto’s disaster with the greatest loss of life.