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A testament to human stupidity: The sad fate of the S.S. Normandie.

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.

normandie 1935

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.

normandie sunk

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.

13 Comments

  1. padresteve

    It was a tragic end to such a beautiful ship. Negligence and stupidity at work.

  2. Dannyboy

    It’s easy for someone 75 or so years removed from an event to pick it apart, viewing it in hindsight. Everyone involved was just doing their job the best they knew how. The workman cutting beams should have made sure his sparks couldn’t ignite anything, but I’ll bet he had no idea how flammable kapok is. The FDNY (not “NYFD”) had the responsibility first and foremost to prevent the fire from spreading to the city. If you had any idea how bad things could’ve become, you’d probably not blame them for deluging the ship. In reading the history of this horrible tragedy, it’s obvious that a “perfect storm” of coincidences occurred. Kind of like the Space Shuttle disasters. And lots of really smart people were involved in those.

    • It would have been relatively easy to save it, even more easy to pick the events apart. It was sheer stupidity and nothing less that criminal, what those idiots caused to happen. It’s tantamount to mass murder in my and many people’s opinions. Typical response from you, someone who is trying to cover themselves for something or knows they’d make the same mistakes.

  3. John Climer

    Very enjoyable details are the essence of history. It makes the boring fun teachable Thanks for the details John

  4. Reblogged this on SERENDIPITY and commented:
    Another true story that reaads like fiction.

  5. I have read about this before and as a lover of the classic ocean liners I can only mourn the loss no matter whose fault it was.

  6. Enemy saboteurs? As my friend Marilyn is fond of pointing out… We need never attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by human stupidity!
    We should also never under-estimate man’s ability to do ever more stupids acts. I’d hope that, over time, humans might become more intelligent and less stupid. History proves the opposite most times. 🙂
    I have very little optimism for things becomming any better in the future.

  7. Jeff Bloomfield

    Nearly twenty years ago I knew a man named Mort Boyar. He had worked for the New York Fire Department in the early 1940s, and was on one of the fireboats used in the Normandie debacle. Mort told me the story of how they failed to do the simple step of opening the water cocks, and allowing the great ship to settle gently to the bottom. But he added a detail. The idiot in charge of putting out the fire also could have simply used hoses from the pier to do it, but got the notion of using fireboats. He did it because it was more impressive-looking to do it that way, and he hoped (after it succeeded in putting out the fire and saving the ship…of course) to take credit and use it to further his career. It did not quite work out that way.

    The two theories of human deviltry causing the fire were that of German or Axis agents or their friends doing it, or of Charles “Lucky” Luciano doing it to demonstrate that though still in a prison he controlled the New York docks. Later in the war Luciano was released and returned to Italy (supposedly he used his influence to aid the Allies in the war effort there). That anyway are the two theories that are brought up all the time.

    The “Titanic” is not the first mighty doomed ocean liner to be seen in a film of any importance. In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock sneaked a shot of the capsized Normandie into his film “Saboteur” which starred Bob Cummings and Norman Lloyd. Lloyd (playing the actual saboteur in the movie’s plot) is driving to lower Manhattan in a cab, when he looks out the cab window and is surprised to see the Normandie on it’s side. Hitchcock returns the camera to show Lloyd, now with a smug small smile on his face.

  8. I was 5 years old when this happened. After it capsized, my Dad, who worked in Battery Place took me to see it.
    If I ever knew what had happened I’d long forgotten until I read this. My interest was piqued by a short Antiques Roadshow segment about some Normandie memorabilia.
    Thank you. Chauvinism May account in part for the lack of recognition of this ship in the US.

  9. wolear29

    Greatest maritime disaster is the 1945 sinking of the cruise ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Packed to the gills with East Prussians fleeing the Red Army, her sinking took 10k lives to a watery grave. Modern cruise ships don’t even hold over 5k passengers. These people were panicked. For comparison Titanic loss of life is just over 2k.
    We should also never forget Churchill’s 1940 unnecessary and deliberate destruction of the French Fleet resulting is the murder of 1,297 French sailors.
    Bonus sinking is the MS Estonia in 1994.

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