Seventy-three years ago today, on February 9, 1942, one of the most beautiful and amazing things ever created by human beings–an astonishing work of art, a powerful engineering marvel and the tangible consciousness of a nation–was destroyed in an act of shocking and heartbreaking carelessness. The victim was an ocean liner, the S.S. Normandie, and on that bitterly cold day she caught fire at Pier 88 on the west side of Manhattan. The fire was totally preventable and needless, but the bungled attempts to combat it, which was really what destroyed the ship, were so boneheaded and inept that people could scarcely believe it was an accident. Indeed, for years shadowy rumors and conspiracy theories have held that the Normandie was deliberately sabotaged by enemy agents or subversive Americans. What we’re sure of is that the tragedy at Pier 88 should never have happened, and it robbed the human race of a magnificent, one-of-a-kind artifact.
Normandie is generally regarded as the greatest passenger liner ever created. Built in France during the early years of the Depression, the French government bankrolled most of her staggering construction costs, mainly for two reasons. The first was that a ship so big (1,029 feet, 80,000 tons) and fast (32.2 knots) could, if needed, become an important military asset in hauling troops or equipment in wartime. The second, more immediate, was that she would be the oceangoing pride of France, built with not only the most advanced engineering marvels known at the time but also the most beautiful interiors, fixtures and accommodations that the nation of France could devise. World-class French food would be served aboard her and her cellars stocked with the best French wines. If you could reduce everything glamorous and positive about France in the 1930s to a single object, Normandie was that object. And she was stunningly beautiful: the whole ship was a work of art.
The S.S. Normandie in happier times: arriving in port on her maiden voyage in May 1935.
Despite the daunting economic situation of the ’30s, Normandie had a storied career as a passenger ship, serving on the North Atlantic from her maiden voyage in May 1935 to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. On the day war broke out she was docked at Pier 88 preparing to sail. The French Line canceled the planned voyage to Le Havre only as passengers were arriving at the terminal with their luggage. Although no one knew it yet, Normandie would never sail again. Rather than risk such an expensive asset (with military potential) being sunk by a German U-boat on the way across, the French government decided to leave the ship in New York for the time being. But then France was conquered by Germany in June 1940, and the United States did not recognize the puppet state (Vichy) that the Nazis set up in its place. Normandie was an orphan. Then the United States joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Now at war with Vichy France–an ally of Nazi Germany–Normandie could legally be seized by the American government. That’s what they did, and the Navy decided to turn the grand luxury liner into the biggest troop transport in the world.
The conversion of Normandie to a troop transport was an enormous effort, and somewhat destructive. All of the expensive carpets, paneling and decorations intended for the comfort of rich ocean travelers had to be torn out, and instead iron cots for soldiers crammed into every possible space. The ship also had to be made ready to operate in war zones. President Roosevelt was promised Normandie would be ready by the end of January 1942. Men worked around the clock right there at Pier 88 to convert the ship, which was now named the USS Lafayette. Because of the haste of the work, a lot of corners were cut and careless procedures were used. This proved to be the doom of the once beautiful ship.
On February 9, 1942–the conversion effort was running late–a workman named Clement Derrick began using a blowtorch to cut through some beams in the first-class dining room, which was in peacetime the height of Normandie’s luxurious splendor. Earlier that day a bunch of life preservers had been delivered and were stacked in the same room. A spark from Derrick’s torch ignited one of the life preservers, which were filled with kapok, a form of cork that’s highly flammable. (Given the terrible susceptibility of ships at sea to fire, the idea of flammable life preservers is itself criminally stupid). Soon the whole pile was burning. The ship’s fire suppression system had been shut down during the conversion–another boneheaded idea. As the fire roared through the ship’s public spaces someone called the NYFD. They showed up with trucks and fireboats, but they couldn’t connect their American-made fire hoses to the inlets for the sprinklers on board Normandie, which had European fittings. Within an hour the ship was a blazing funeral pyre.
A heartbreaking sight: the once-mighty passenger liner lies, a dead burned-out hulk, in the icy waters of the Hudson River after the fire.
As the ship burned the Navy and the fire department made one bad call after another. The best they could do was spray fire hoses onto the ship to try to tamp down the flames, but the water made Normandie start to list heavily to port. The fire happened during a terrible cold snap, and the water began freezing below decks. Now the whole ship was in danger of capsizing. As it happened, the man who designed Normandie, Russian-born naval architect Vladimir Yourkevitch, happened to be in New York that day. He rushed down to Pier 88 to offer advice; he wanted the Navy and NYFD authorities to open the sea-cocks, thus flooding the bottom of the ship evenly. The water was so shallow that the ship would settle on the bottom, stably, and there would be no risk of capsizing. This plan never went into effect. The harbor police wouldn’t even let Yourkevitch through, and when word of his suggestion got to the admiral in charge, he rejected it. Sure enough, just as Yourkevitch feared, several hours after the fire began the ship turned over. It came to rest crookedly on its side between Piers 88 and 90. Ice soon froze all around it. The ship was virtually a total loss.
Destroyed by clumsiness, carelessness and incompetence, Normandie remained on her side next to Pier 88, like the carcass of a dead dinosaur, for 18 months. Finally in the late summer of 1943 the Navy managed to get the ship right-side up, but she was now a charred, wilting wreck. Plans to rehabilitate her never came to fruition. After the war ended she was cut up for scrap at a lonely shipyard in New Jersey in 1946–the saddest end imaginable to what had once been the most beautiful ship of all time.
There was simply no excuse for the destruction of the Normandie. Blame who you want–Clement Derrick, the Navy brass, the fire department, enemy saboteurs whose existence was never proven–but the simple fact is that however it happened, it never should have happened. During World War II people went to great lengths to save cultural treasures, like paintings and historic sites, threatened by the war–the recent movie Monuments Men is all about this. Why wasn’t the same respect accorded the Normandie? She was a work of art and one of a kind. Sadly, the world will never see anything like her again.