Forty-eight years ago today, on November 13, 1965, the SS Yarmouth Castle, an ocean liner and cruise ship that plied the waves between Miami and the Bahamas, caught fire and was lost in a spectacularly tragic disaster that almost no one remembers today. Among the great maritime accidents of history, including a few showcased on this blog, you’ll see ships swamped by storms and sunk by icebergs, but the greatest and most dangerous threat to a passenger ship has always been fire.
The Yarmouth Castle was a fairly old ship. She started life in 1927 as the Evangeline, and, as was common for passenger ships of the era, had a brief career as a troopship during World War II. Never a transatlantic liner, her forte was ferrying passengers on the Eastern Seaboard, and eventually cruising in the Caribbean, which became a big tourist destination after the war. By the 1960s she made twice weekly trips between Miami, Florida and Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. She was on one of these cruises when the fire began.
What happened was tragically simple. An unused stateroom, cabin no. 610, was thought to be not suitable for sale as a passenger cabin; due to its location right near the boiler room it was too hot. The crew used it to store unneeded mattresses. On the night of November 12-13 1965, the mattresses were stacked almost to the ceiling. Sometime after midnight, a short in the ceiling light caused a spark that lit one of them. In the heat of the cabin they went up. The Yarmouth Castle was then 60 miles northwest of Nassau.
A photo of the SS Yarmouth Castle in happier times. She was called the Evangeline at the time this photo was taken (probably early 60s).
An investigation after the disaster found the Yarmouth Castle was literally a floating firetrap. The ship had been repainted many times, but the layers of old paint were never scraped off–workmen just applied new layers of paint on top of them. All the paint building up since 1927 formed a very flammable skin all over the ship. There was not adequate water pressure to operate the fire hoses. One fire hose, in fact, was cut. There weren’t life jackets in every passenger room. The fire control system was faulty. Yet, despite these obvious hazards, the Yarmouth Castle had passed a safety inspection just three weeks before the blaze.
When the fire spread from room 610, no sprinklers activated and no fire alarms went off. The crew found out the ship was on fire when a passenger ran screaming up a stairway, his clothes smoldering, and collapsed. Other passengers learned of the danger by hearing shouting and commotion in the hallways. It was the middle of the night. They had never been informed of safety protocols. A general panic ensued, with people bolting out of their rooms and running screaming through the corridors.
As is sadly typical in ship fires, passengers trapped in their rooms by the smoke and flames rushing through the corridors resorted to desperate measures. Some broke portholes and windows and leaped into the sea. Those who could make it to lifeboats were by no means guaranteed survival: the ropes holding the lifeboats had been painted over along with everything else, and they jammed in the winches when the crew tried to lower them. Less than half of the Yarmouth Castle’s lifeboats got away, and many of those were half full–of crewmen. Even the Yarmouth Castle’s captain ran away, leaving hundreds of passengers behind with no one to help them.
The U.S. Coast Guard issued a lengthy report on the Yarmouth Castle disaster in 1966. You can find it on the web here, if you’re interested.
Two ships and four Coast Guard planes eventually arrived on the scene to try to do what they could. Four hours after the fire began, the flames were so hot that the Yarmouth Castle’s hull was glowing red and the sea boiling around it. At 6AM the boilers blew up, the ship turned over and sank. A total of 90 people died. Most of their bodies were never recovered.
Maritime authorities and the general public were horrified by the disaster and the severe negligence involved–many of the shocking fire hazard conditions aboard the ship were technically legal. As a result of the disaster, admiralty lawyers in various countries worked for nine years to update the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, which ironically was promulgated right after the Titanic disaster of 1912. In 1974 the new Convention went into effect. It has since been adopted by 158 countries.
So far as I know the wreck of the Yarmouth Castle remains on the floor of the Caribbean Sea, a mute reminder to the tragedy that happened that November night.