Reference note: See Stability
and Dewatering article
Capable of serving nearly two thousand
passengers with a crew of over 1300, she was the
pride of the French fleet. Her exciting rivalry
with the Queen Mary captured
imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic. The Normandie
was a 1027 foot luxury-liner that had a top
speed of more than 32 knots and her quadruple
screwed, turbo-electric power plant could
generate up to 160,000 horse power. The Normandie
sailed away with the mythical "blue
ribbon of the Atlantic" for the best
crossing time on three different occasions.
The worldwide monetary crisis deepened in the
early 1930's, causing the number of ship
passengers to decline. Nevertheless, a confident
French government invested over 58 million
dollars to construct the luxury liner. New York
City, eager to remain the major U.S. seaport,
also spent millions on piers. In order to
accommodate the ship, piers had to project over
325 feet farther into the Manhattan shore front,
and the West Side Highway was elevated to
directly connect with the second stories of the
As the sumptuous ship cut steadily through the
ocean; her passengers enjoyed lavish amenities.
Movie stars, royalty and the wealthy joined the
average person on the trans-Atlantic voyages.
As the political climate in Europe was coming
to a boil, the Normandie pulled into New
York harbor on August 28, 1939, after her 139th
Atlantic crossing. Ships crossing the Atlantic
were being sunk in alarming numbers by German U-Boats.
On August 30, the Normandie's next
crossing was cancelled. A few days later, the
last ocean liner left from Europe, and it became
apparent that the
Normandie's layover could be for
several years. Fourteen barrels of camphor were
wheeled on board and the ship was literally
"moth-balled" to protect the expensive
After the invasion of France, the new "Vichy"
government began to collaborate with Germany. To
prevent possible sabotage, President Roosevelt
ordered the Coast Guard to board the liner on May
14, 1941, and place it under "protective
custody." Then on December 12, five days
after Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United
States entered the war, the U.S. Coast Guard took
official possession of the linger at the
direction of the president. The ship would be
assigned to the Navy and would be renamed the U.S.S.
Lafayette, in honor of the french hero who
aided the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
The ship was converted into a convoy loaded
transport, and on December 23rd work began.
Thousands of workers began stripping the ship of
her elaborate furnishings. More than two million
dollars worth would be removed during the
renovations, including the gold-leaf letters
spelling her name across the bow.
On January 9, 1942, an early morning fire
destroyed Municipal Pier 83 and two buildings at
43rd Street and the North River (Hudson). The
five alarm fire, only blocks from the Normandie,
taxed the department's resources as 44 pieces of
apparatus and three fire boats were needed to
extinguish the fire. This was the third major
blaze along the waterfront that winter. At first
it was believed to be sabotage, but was later
proven to be accidental. Nearby the Normandie,
her faded civilian colors covered with grey
camouflage paint and weapons added to her decks,
hummed with activity. Unhampered by the dense
smoke in the area, the conversion continued.
Realizing the severe fire hazard the
waterfront presented, and its possible impact on
the war effort, the FDNY took preventative action.
During the first week of February, the Fire
Commissioner, Patrick Walsh, announced that a new
piece of fire equipment would be added to the
department's arsenal. Hose relay apparatus #1, a
converted hook and ladder truck carrying over a
half mile of hose, would be placed in service on
February 11th. This unique truck would be housed
in the quarters of Engine Company 7, on Duane
The U.S. Navy delivered 1 140 bales of life
preservers to the Normandie. These were
placed on board and stored in the main salon on
the promenade deck. Each bale contained 10 life
jackets made of kapok, a highly flammable cotton-like
fiber. The bales were wrapped in moisture-proof
paper with burlap covering.
As work started on the morning of February 9,
1942, everyone was discussing that day's
newspaper stories. General MacArthur and his men
were battling an overwhelming Japanese force on
the Philippine peninsula of Bataan. There were
also reports of the sinking of yet another ship
off the Atlantic coast. The U-Boats had taken 15
allied ships since January 14th. The war was
becoming very real... and very near.
Over 2 700 men; sailors, coast guardsmen, and
numerous workers were on board the Normandie
that day. This was the most people who had ever
been on the ship at one time. By the afternoon,
the work in the promenade deck's main lounge was
nearing completion. Two more metal light
stanchions had to be cut down with torches and
removed. It was about 2:35 P.M. when sparks from
the cutting operation ignited a nearby pile of
life preservers. What happened next was best
described by the NFPA report, "... the early
stages of the fire has elements of Hollywood
The workers attempted to beat out the flames
bare-handed; extinguishers failed to work, and a
pail of water was spilled before it reached the
fire. In desperation they began to throw the
burning bales around, spreading the flames. A
hose was connected to the standpipe; water was
started, but despite all efforts the fire raged
Due to another series of errors, the alarm to
the fire department was delayed for between 10
and 15 minutes. At 2:49 P.M., Box 852 was
transmitted, sending four engines, two ladders,
one fireboat and two battalion chiefs to the
scene. First due Engine Company 2 raced from
their quarters on West 43rd Street, and arrived
in less than two minutes. The officer went to
ascertain the location of the fire as the men
began to hook up the 1930 Mack "Bulldog"
pumper to the standpipe system.
The ship's loudspeakers warned those on board
of the fire, and workers began to make their way
to safety. The only fatality occurred early in
the fire when an explosion hurled a worker from a
ladder and he fell from one deck to another. Men
were streaming from the gangways; others with no
available retreat, were forced to the bow. Ladder
Company 4 was directed to place their truck on
the West Side Highway and quickly placed the 85
foot aerial ladder to the bow of the burning ship.
More than 150 men escaped over the ladder.
Battalion 9 had quickly transmitted a 75
signal (all hands working) at 3:00 P.M., then
transmitted a second alarm one minute later. The
fire swept across the upper decks of the ship, as
hand-lines were dragged into place. The standpipe
connections were unusable due to incompatible
threads, and hoses had to be stretched from the
pumpers, down the pier, then up the gangways to
the various decks. Sailors were invaluable in the
fire fighting efforts, helping stretch and man
the lines as they were operated. The first water
on the fire was actually from the fireboat James
Duane, Engine 85, who had steamed up the ice
strewn river from her berth at 35th Street and
the Hudson and approached the blazing ship with
her monitors charged.
Fire fighters, sailors and workers were
joining forces and rescuing those trapped below
decks. Assistant Chief John McCarthy arrived,
assumed command and transmitted a third alarm.
Communications from the ship to those on the
shore were proving difficult and navy ingenuity
again prevailed. Sailors using semaphore signals,
called for increased water pressure on the attack
lines, and also directed additional hose-line
placement. Other important information was also
relayed via flags during the course of the fire.
With the flames out of control, a fourth alarm
was placed at 3:12 P.M.
Thick plumes of dense black smoke were pouring
out of the ship and were driven across midtown by
25 mph winds. Workers, sailors and fire fighters
staggered in the blinding smoke. Nearby Pier 92,
the American home of the Queen Mary, was
opened as a field hospital. The boilers on board
the Normandie ran out of steam at about
3:15 P.M. This stopped the drainage pumps from
removing excess water and soon a list to port
became apparent and extra hawser lines were added
in an attempt to keep the ship upright.
At this point, three fire boats and numerous
tugs were pumping a tremendous amount of water
onto the ship trying to stop the roaring fire. As
many as 40 hand-lines were being operated, most
on the ship, some from vantage points such as the
roof of the pier building.
Fire Fighter Barclay McKeough of Ladder 21,
who was detailed to the first due pumper Engine 2,
recalls the difficulty faced by hose teams on the
ship. "We operated up a staircase with the
line. We would take turns, work in relays."
They continued this for a good portion of the
fire, taking turns at the nozzle and being wet
down with a protection line. "Where we were
we faced more heat than smoke, but the others had
it really bad with the thick smoke.
Captain Clayton Simmons USN, who was one of
the few naval officers familiar with the
Normandie, began to express his fears to
officials at the scene. The list was becoming
more pronounced, and the officer feared the ship
might capsize. Admiral Andrews of the Third Naval
District, who was summoned from his office in
downtown Manhattan, asked Commissioner Walsh, who
was also Chief of Department, to stop pouring
water onto the ship. Walsh stated that the fire
was still out of control, and would rather risk
the loss of the ship than the possible
destruction of the adjacent piers with a large
spreading fire. The naval officials reluctantly
Attempts were made to control the accumulating
water. Captain Simmons knew the only way to keep
the ship from rolling was to scuttle her. This
means to let water into the ship in order to sink
her. Using the sea cocks would be too difficult
as there were 29 in all, and they had to be
opened at the same time, so he decided to attempt
to pull the condenser plates from the engine room,
which would have the same effect. Two attempts to
reach the engine room through the smoke and heat
filled ship proved impossible, and the effort was
The fire department then began to relieve the
water condition on their own. Members of Rescue 1
were lowered down the port side of the ship in
bosuns' chairs and, using torches, they attempted
to cut holes through the steel plating to allow
the water to run out. Only a few small holes
could be made on this side of the ship as the
escaping water put out the torches' flame. The
rescue men were then lowered on the starboard (pier)
side of the ship and a large hole was cut above
the water line. Engine Company 44 was pulled up
close to the ship and used hard suction in an
attempt to pump water from the lower portions of
the ship. It was an inventive idea, but it did
little to help the situation and was soon
Fire fighting continued, and at about 6:30 P.M.,
though the Normandie was still burning,
it was placed under control. More than four
million gallons of water had been used to subdue
the flames. Operations on board the ship
continued, with many hand-lines still fighting
pockets of fire as the fireboats backed off into
the ice-filled river.
At 12:22 A.M., the ship had listed to 15
degrees, and it was decided to abandon ship. All
personnel from both the navy and fire department
left the ship, and the chief ordered hose-lines
cut with axes, as it was too dangerous to attempt
When the tide went out, Captain Simmons' worst
fears were realized. At 2:45 A.M., the ship
keeled over on her side. Twelve hours after the
start of the blaze, the fire-scarred hull of the
multi-million dollar ship settled into the mud.
Speculation as to the cause of the fire
flashed through the city. Was it sabotage? German
High Command took full credit for the fire, using
it as excellent propaganda, since U-boats were
cruising the nearby waters and enemy agents could
have landed and infiltrated U.S. defenses and
caused the fire.
Various inquiries were carried out; the House
of Investigating Committee of Congress blamed
"carelessness and lack of supervision;"
the Senate Committee blamed the Navy; the Navy
blamed the renovations company. New York District
Attorney Frank Hogan's conclusion was, "There
is no evidence of sabotage. Carelessness has
served the enemy with equal effectiveness."
Still, to this day, not everyone agrees.
The most complicated salvage effort ever
attempted was begun. Almost daily, 70 to 80
divers submerged into the black water surrounding
the ship to cut away the super structure and plug
up holes and seal over 2000 underwater openings.
As part of the salvage operation, the navy set
up a diver training school that ran in
conjunction with the work on the ship. The school
ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. About 2500
divers were trained and were qualified during the
operation. This became the core of the navy
More than 6000 tons of rubble and 4000 tons of
broken glass were removed from the ship by divers.
Eighteen months after the fire, the Normandie
was slowly floated from the bottom. In November
1943 she was towed from Pier 88 to a dry dock.
After complete examination and many debates, just
after Thanksgiving, 1946, she was disassembled as
$150,000 worth of scrap.
Despite her 139 proud voyages, heroic fire
fighting efforts, dramatic rescues and an amazing
feat of salvage engineering, it was still a sad
end for a noble ship. The Normandie is
gone, but her memory lives on.