Fire at Sea
October 9, 1913: The SS Volturno catches fire. The ship was part of the Royal Line which entered the steamship transatlantic trade in 1910. The Canadian company was founded to build railways, but entered into other means of transportation before a merger in 1923. The Volturno was chartered to the Uranium Line at the time of the fire. She was built in 1906 and had the capability of transporting 24 first class and 1,000 third class passengers served by a crew of 93. Her steam engines drove two propellers with a top speed of 14 knots or 16 mph. She was travelling from Rotterdam, the Netherlands to New York City on this day.
The seas were rough when fire broke out about 6 AM. The front cargo area held highly flammable chemicals. Gale force winds may have contributed to the start of the fire and when the front cargo area was approached, it was found to be fully engulfed in flames. Shortly after 6 AM there was an explosion in the cargo area. The flames spread to the ship’s coal bunkers which cut off the supply of fuel needed to run the fire hose pumps. The crew tried to fight the fire for about two hours before realizing it was a losing battle. Captain Francis Inch then issued an order for an SOS to be sent out giving their position and their problem.
Eleven ships responded to the call for help and quickly converged on 49.12N 34.51W to help the floundering ship. While waiting for help to arrive, it seemed perilous to remain aboard the burning ship so women and children were placed into lifeboats and lowered into the heaving seas. The gale had not abated and the lifeboats either capsized or were smashed by the ship being tossed by the waves. No one survived. Carmania, part of the Cunard Line from the United Kingdom, was first to arrive. Captain James Barr took command of the situation from his much larger ship. The rescuing ships formed a “battle line” and throughout the night of October 10/11 he kept a spotlight on the burning ship and scanned the other ships to keep them from colliding.
The storm continued to rage and even when the rescuers sent more lifeboats to Volturno, the passengers were afraid to board them, having witnessed the deaths of the women and children. Shortly before dawn, another explosion rocked Volturno and things were getting desperate. The SS Narragansett, a tanker, sprayed oil on the water to help calm the seas. The storm also finally began to lessen. By 9 AM on October 11 521 passengers and crew had been successfully rescued. The 136 who died were from the early lifeboat launchings. The ship was still burning on October 17 when another tanker approached during the night. With daylight came the sight of the derelict ship. The seacocks were opened and the ship slowly sank before it could become an even greater hazard.
Life is a shipwreck but we must remember to sing in the lifeboats. – Voltaire
Time is a storm in which we are all lost. – William Carlos Williams
Happy the man who from the sea escapes the storm and finds harbor. – Euripides
The only safe ship in a storm is leadership. – Faye Wattleton
Also on this day: Vinland – In 1000, Lief Ericson arrived in North America.
Washington – In 1888, the Washington Monument was finally opened.
Bright Lights – In 1604, a supernova was discovered.
Free – In 1820, Guayaquil declared independence from Spain.
Hangul Alphabet – In 1446, the Korean alphabet was published.