Tragic Tale of the Normandie Part 1: Smoke Across the Skyline

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Admiral Adolphus Andrews, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Third Naval District, sat behind his desk at 90 Church Street in Manhattan; had he the time to look out his window on the frigid afternoon of February 9, 1942, the admiral would have seen clouds of black smoke billowing across the New York skyline, but he was too busy preparing for a three o’clock meeting with Captain Robert Coman, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Lafayette — the former French liner Normandie. A few minutes before three the admiral picked up his ringing phone to hear an aide tell him that the Normandie was on fire.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

“I’d say it’s out of control.”

“What happened? What started it? Was it sabotage?”

“No one knows for sure, sir. It may have been sabotage, it may have been a welding accident.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Of all the great ships plying the Atlantic during the golden age of the transatlantic liners, arguably the greatest of them all was France’s Normandie. Larger, faster, and more exquisite than her rivals, she was a floating Art Deco palace. On her maiden voyage, in June 1935, she broke the Atlantic speed record and continued toppling records until the war clouds rolled in.

In the early morning hours of August 28, 1939, the Normandie arrived in New York Harbor after completing her 139th transatlantic trip. Four days later Hitler’s invasion of Poland brought war to France and turned Normandie’s return trip into a dangerous gamble. Her owners, fearing the loss of their great liner to German U-boats, cabled the Normandie’s captain to remain in New York until further notice. Most of the crew returned home by whatever means they could arrange, but their ship would never see France again.

The Fall of France in June 1940, spawned the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy, France; the new government ordered all French ships to return to their home port. President Roosevelt, fearing the Normandie’s possible conversion into an enormous troop ship that would aid further Nazi conquest, placed the ship in “protective custody.” When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Normandie was drafted into the United States Navy.

Following some initial arguement about turning Normandie into an aircraft carrier, her conversion into a troop ship began on Christmas Eve 1941. The Navy re-named her the U.S.S.Lafayette (AP53) to honor Franco-American friendship. The conversion job was under the command of Captain Clayton Simmers, who was joined on January 31, 1942, by the prospective commanding officer, Captain Robert Coman. By late January, delays had caused the target date for completion to move from February 1 to February 14. Both Capatins knew the ship would fail to meet the target date; so, on that cold afternoon of February 9, they were enroute to see Admiral Andrew’s to request a postponment.

As Captain Coman passed through the ship’s famous grand salon, Clement Derrick, former Wall Street clerk turned welder, aimed his actyline torch at the last of four stanchions he had been ordered to cut down. Close behind Derrick and his two-man fire guard were 1,413 bales of life preservers. Filled with kapok, a highly inflamable substance, the preservers were wrapped in tar paper and covered with fuzzy burlap. Outside the temperature hovered just above 32 degrees. Weeks of below freezing temperatures had frozen the water surrounding Normandie, forcing the small stores ships to break the ice to reach the liners open port-side cargo doors. Shortly after 2:30 p.m. Captain Coman climbed into his car and ordered his driver to take him to the meeting with Admiral Andrews and Captain Simmers.

Meanwhile in the grand salon, Derrick’s fire guards held a piece of scrap metal and an asbestos board close to the acetylene torch to contain any wayward sparks. Safety regulations for welding also required the presence of a fire extinguisher and two buckets of water, but only the water buckets stood near by. At 2:37 p.m. Derrick cut through the last stanchion, but the fire guards lowered their shields a second too soon — a spark leaped out and ignited the fuzzy burlap that covered the life preservers.

“Fire!” yelled Derrick.

One of the fire guards ran for the water buckets; he tripped over the first bucket, spilling the water, and wasted the second with a poorly aimed toss. Other workers dragged out the fire hose from under the bales of life jackets, but when they turned the water on it just dribbled out. Within minutes the flames spread through the salon; “like fire in dry grass,” said one witness. Someone yelled, “You can’t put this out. Hell, get the New York Fire Department”

The alarm sent four engine companies racing through the Manhattan streets to pier 88. The first response, however, came from the harbor. The fireboat James Duane arrived just as the Normandie’s loudspeakers barked, “Get off the ship, get off the ship!” Hordes of choking men poured off the Normandie’s starboard side just as land-based firemen tried to struggle up the same gangways; the fireboat had no such problem and began shooting streams of water into the burning ship’s port side.

As the workers came off the Normandie, they received medical care in Pier 88’s temporary command post. Then they were questioned by Admiral Andrews, Police Commissioner Valentine, District Attorney Frank Hogan, and the FBI. Sabotage was uppermost in everybody’s mind.

Meanwhile, the fire spread troughout the ship. Author John Maxtone-Graham in his book The Only Way To Cross, described the scene as “the fireman’s nightmare — an inaccessible fire of severe intensity, goaded by winds, situated high above ground level in a monstrous, unlit devastation of a ship.” At 3:02 p.m. a third alarm went out; eventually, every fire company in Manhattan deployed. The fireboat John J. Harvey arrived at 3:15 p.m., followed by two railroad fire tugs. All four fireboats poured rivers of water into the Normandie’s port side, while on the starboard side the firefighters battled dense smoke, fleeing workers, and limted access. When Captains Simmers and Coman arrived at the pier they immediately saw the result of tons of water pouring into the ship from the fireboats: Normandie, had a slight list to port. And with the arrival of Fire Fighter, the city’s most powerful fireboat capable of pumping more water than the other fireboats combined, the list increased to the point where the pier lines snapped and gangways fell into the water, further hampering the shore-side firefighters.

At 4:01 p.m. the fire still burned fiercely, but Captain Simmers talked the fire department officials into pumping water into the lower starboard side to counter flood the ship, thereby correcting the list, which had now reached 13 degrees. Counter flooding and the ebbing tide caused the ship’s port-bilge keel to come to rest on a rock ledge below the ship. The list temporarily stopped at 15 degrees. By 6:00 p.m. the fire was under control, yet the fireboats continued to pump water. Suddenly, the fireboat radios crackled with the voice of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia: “This is the Mayor. And I am giving all the city fireboats a direct order. Cease pumping as of this moment. I repeat: Cease pumping.”

Even after pumping stopped, the 15 degree list began to increase as water poured in through the submerged cargo door openings. By 9:00 p.m. the list had reached 20 degrees and by midnight, 23 degrees. Shortly after midnight, two of the last three gangways fell away from the pier and crashed against the ship’s side. Finally, at 2:37 a.m., 12 hours after the ordeal began, Normandie rolled like a big bear onto her port side, her stacks stopping a few feet above the icy waters. She would lie in this watery hibernation for the next 18 months.

Harvey Ardman author of Normandie: Her Life and Times wrote about a little girl from Connecticut, Patricia Nielson, who loved taking trips into Manhattan in the family car because they would drive slowly down the West Side Highway and take in the Normandie in all her majestic glory. On the morning after the fire she remembered, “As we rounded the curve under the bridge, we could see the great hump of her, lying on her side ,…. It broke my heart, that great, beautiful, beautiful creature, so tall and proud and stately, lying there all smoky and stained, mortally wounded. She looked so hurt and so helpless and so awful. I cried and cried and cried….”

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