Fire on the Water! SS Noronic Burns

September 17, 1949

Harbour Square Park

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Firefighter Tom Benson recalled, “We got aboard at daylight and there were bodies everywhere. Some were cremated with just a skull or backbone remaining. The intensity of the heat was such that human bone was incinerated.”

A passenger, with a cigar in his mouth, escapes the blaze on board the SS Noronic (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Police Museum).

The Steamship Noronic was the flagship of the Canada Steamship Lines and the largest passenger cruise ship on the Great Lakes. After more than a thousand safe voyages, the end came in an inferno at Pier 9 in Toronto, where the ship had docked on the night of September 16 while en route to Prescott and the Thousand Islands. A passenger first noticed smoke coming from a small linen closet around 2:30 a.m. Fire spread with the speed of a struck match. The Toronto Fire Department arrived within minutes, but the heat was so intense that the water from the fire hoses vaporized before it reached the ship's hull. The next morning crews began the grim task of recovering victims. The death toll would be 118, with 104 dead and 14 missing.

The tragedy spelled the end of an era, as strict regulations hastened the end of the old Great Lakes passenger ships—it would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit the old cruise vessels.

More than a month after the tragedy, the Noronic was re-floated, towed out of Toronto Harbour and on to a scrapyard in Hamilton, Ontario. The Noronic fire remains Toronto’s deadliest disaster.

By James Marsh

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Toronto.

SS Noronic ablaze, September 17, 1949 (photo by Gilbert A. Milne, courtesy Archives of Ontario/C-59-3-0-17-1). View the image gallery