Monday, January 3, 2011

Death of the Luxury Liner

It was shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon on February 9, a cold, clear Monday in 1942. Over at Pier 88 on West 49th Street in New York City, Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon of the SS Normandie a lavish ocean liner that was being converted into a troopship, the USS Lafayette. The French luxury Ocean Liner had been docked in New York since the outbreak of World War II in 1939. As his welder's torch penetrated the metal, sparks suddenly spat out onto nearby bales of burlap that had been wrapped around the ship's highly flammable life preservers. The resulting shower of fire could not be quenched, and by 3 p.m. much of the luxury liner, the pride of a once-free France, was engulfed in flames. Dark black plumes of smoke reached across Manhattan, propelled by a brisk northwest wind. New Yorkers looked up as the oily smoke became a scrim across the midday sun.

Hundreds of New Yorkers, following the smoke and the sounds of sirens, had arrived to watch as streams of water from a line of fireboats tried in vain to quell the blaze. Bellevue Hospital sounded its dreaded seven bells—the signal for a citywide catastrophe—and at nearby Pier 92, where the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had their berths, a makeshift hospital was set up for the workers who were being carried off the stricken ship.

Crowds of people had gathered for blocks along the waterfront. As the fire raged, more fireboats arrived. For hours their fountains of water flooded the ship's cabins. Soon there was more water than fire. Then, at 3:40 p.m., just as the mayor and Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews, commander of the U.S. Navy's 3rd Naval District, were attempting to board the wounded vessel, it suddenly lurched several feet to port. It was the beginning of the end.

The deathwatch took on a carnival atmosphere as skyscraper windows all over the city were thrown open so New Yorkers could watch the awful spectacle. The pier was alive with firemen and ambulance crews, with hawkers and food vendors, all watching as the great ship began to drown in the water that was meant to save it.

It took 12 hours for the Normandie to die. At precisely 2:35 the following morning, with the acrid smell of burning metal still hanging over Times Square, the elegant creature rolled over on its port side and gave up the fight. The following day, thousands of New Yorkers showed up at the pier to gape at the destroyed ship. Five-year-old Miki Rosen saw it from the inside of the family car: "My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn't even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water."