Thursday, January 04, 2007

This Date in Fire History - Jan 4

The year was 1933, and luxury ocean travel was still popular among the well-to-do (the Great Depression had not yet spread world-wide). The Normandie and the Ile de France were two of the better-known luxury liners. A third was the L'Atlantique, built in the same shipyard as the Ile, and sharing some of the same interior design team as both the Ile and the Normandie.

L'Atlantique was commissioned for the "southern routes", Europe to South America. Her maiden voyage, from Bordeaux, France to Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires, began on September 29, 1930.

"The Classic Liners of Long Ago" has some pictures of the ship and despite the article's claim that "it looked clumsy", that was only on the outside; the interior design looked wonderful.

In January of 1933, the ship was being moved from Bordeaux to Le Havre for refitting, when it caught fire in the English Channel, possibly from the buildup of static electricity in the hull and wiring of the ship, although sabotage was also suspected. There was a crew of 200 aboard, even though there were no passengers.

Crewmembers fought the fire, which consumed a section of first class cabins before abandoning ship. The still-burning hulk was towed to Cherbourg, where the fire was finally extinguished on January 8.

The number of fatalities -- all crew members -- seems to be in dispute: The New York Times, in an article dated January 5, 1933, said, "was feared that a score of the more than 200 men of the crew who were aboard drowned or perished" [via the "Classic Liners" site; no link to the Times article, as it is, of course, behind that blasted firewall]. Wikipedia claims nine crewmen died, while NFPA, in their "key dates" list (which is where I draw the topics for these posts), says 18 perished.

To me, it has always seemed ironic that fire is the most-feared shipboard emergency. My father was in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and he told me of the fire fighting training all sailors went through. It makes sense, however: should a shipboard fire get out of control (and all fires have that potential), there is no place to go, no place to run, no place where you would be safe.

One final irony: the Normandie (renamed the USS Lafayette, after being seized by the United States for conversion into a troopship) also met her demise by fire, in New York Harbor on February 9, 1942. Not surprisingly, the Normandie/Lafayette will be the post for that date.

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