The early hours of September 17, 1949 saw one of the most concentrated efforts of men and apparatus ever put forth by the Toronto Fire Department. This would be the morning that the S.S. NORONIC would burn while anchored in Toronto.
Mr. Harper, the watchman for the Canada Steamship Lines, first noticed the fire as he made his rounds on Pier No. 9. The fire department was then quickly called by telephone. At 2:38 AM, Acting Platoon Chief J. Stevens responded to the scene with 1 pumper, 1 hose wagon, 1 high pressure truck, 1 rescue squad, and 1 aerial. When Chief Stevens passed through the York St. underpass and saw the top decks of the ship fully involved, and passengers jumping into the water, he ordered a second alarm before even arriving.
The second alarm was struck on Box 6, Queens Quay and Bay at 2:41 AM. It brought a district chief, 4 pumpers, 1 aerial, 1 hook & ladder, 1 fire boat, as well as the Deputy Chief and Chief of Department Peter Herd.
Chief Stevens proceeded into the ship by a lower side door, and heard the boilers exploding. He returned to the pier to see people floating in the water, some deceased and some alive. No. 5 Aerial, a 1931 aerial truck with a wooden aerial, extended it’s aerial to the bow of the ship to rescue passengers on the main deck. As the tip of the aerial touched the bow, 6 men and a woman immediately climbed on and started down. The weight was too great, however, and the aerial ladder snapped sending the people into the water. All were eventually saved. When Chief Stevens witnessed this mishap he ordered a third alarm.
The third alarm was struck at 2:46 AM, bringing one more district chief, 5 pumpers, 1 high pressure truck and 3 aerials, one of which had a 75’ aerial.
No. 1 aerial, a 1947 rig, extended its steel ladder to ‘C’ deck, but when it fell short, a ground ladder had to be tied to the end. Many passengers were saved by this ladder.
While the aerials were engaged in rescue work, the fire boat and pumper crews were busy pouring water into the burning hulk. Ground ladders were put up to the stern of the ship to assist those evacuating the upper decks. Ladders were also dropped to water level to rescue those who had jumped.
The fire boat was dispatched to the fire at 2:39 AM, arriving at 2:46 AM. It travelled 1½ miles to reach the scene. The fire boat used deck turrets supplied by 2½“ lines on the burning ship, as well as numerous hand lines.
The fire was officially called under control at 4:51 AM, although firefighters could not board her until after 7:00 AM due to the intense heat. When on board the grim job of removing bodies began. As the number grew a temporary morgue was set up in the CNE Horticultural Building. Many passengers died in their beds from smoke inhalation, others died attempting to open red hot metal doors. Many assisted firefighters in transporting the injured to hospital, including taxi drivers and civilians.
The S.S. NORONIC was built in 1913 and was owned by Canada Steamship Lines. It was 362’ in length and 52’ wide. It carried a crew of 171 and 524 passengers. On that fateful morning, 402 people were rescued due only to a supreme effort of the fire department, but 119 perished.
The fire was apparently started in a linen closet and quickly spread. The ship was a complete write-off and was sold for scrap. The pier and nearby buildings suffered $5,000 damage.
This was the first response for the new Box 12 canteen which had been delivered to No. 3 hall some two days prior. Karl Lee, Walt McCall, and John Skillen were some of the buffs that made it to the scene. Karl reported driving by the ship at 12:30 AM and noticed a large party on board.
Approximately 115 firefighters and 9 officers fought the fire. They used 555’ of ladder, 91 salvage covers, 13,000′ of 2½“ hose, 200’ of 3½” hose, and pumped 1,719,312 IGPM of water. The trucks burned 275 gallons of gas and used 12 gallons of oil.
Although there was a great loss of life, the T.F.D. should be commended for the tremendous job they did in the face of such an impending disaster, in rescuing the number of people they did. A professional job, well done.
Originally published in Vol 2, No. 9 issue of the MTMAA’s Trumpet newsletter, Fall 1976. Author Gary Wignall.