Steamship Sunday – French Lines’ Normandie Burns In New York Harbor

Steamship Sunday


This iconic poster advertising Normandie was designed by was by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre.

French Lines’ Normandie Burns In New York Harbor

On 9 February 1942, French Lines’ Normandie caught fire and capsized in New York Harbor. Normandie was in New York when France fell to the Nazis. She languished at her pier there, nor returning to France because of the war. She was seized by the U.S. government and it was decided to convert her into a troopship named Lafayette in honor of the Frenchman who aided the U.S. in its Revolutionary War struggle to escape from British rule.


A painting of Normandie with her sister ship Île-de-France shown at her stern.

The conversion into a troopship was nearing completion when fire broke out in the First Class lounge where thousands of lifejackets stuffed with kapok had been stored. Kapok is highly flammable. The official ruling on the cause of the fire was that a welder’s spark ignited the kapok, and, given the flammable nature of the material, the fire quickly raged out of control.

The ship had a very efficient fire protection system, but it had been disconnected during the conversion, and the New York City fire department’s hoses did not fit the ship’s French inlets. All on board fled the vessel. As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to the greater amount of water being pumped into the seaward side of the vessel by fireboats. About 2:45 a.m. on February 10, Normandie capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat.

The ship’s designer, naval architect Vladimir Yourkevitch had been at the scene, and offered his expertise, but was barred from entering by local harbor police. His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea-cocks. This would flood the lower decks of the ship and cause it to settle the few feet to the bottom of the dock. Thus stabilised, water could be pumped into the burning areas without the risk of capsize – however the suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews.

Yourkevitch had been a naval architect for the Imperial Russian Navy and had fled Russia for France during the Russian Revolution. In France, he approached French Line with his ideas for a streamlined hull that would increase the possible speed of ocean liners and reduce fuel consumption. Prior to his approach to French Line, he had offered his design to the British Cunard Lines. Cunard thought his bow design was too radical and rejected Yourkevitch’s proposal. However, French Line was impressed with the performance of his design in model form and he joined the team of designers working on Normandie. Yourkevitch called for a slim hull, a sharply-angled Clipper bow and a bulbous underwater forebow the reduced water resistance, thereby increasing the speed of the ship. Yourkevitch was on to something and almost all modern ships include an underwater forebow.


Normandie ablaze in New York harbor.

With Normandie ablaze in the harbor, it didn’t take long for speculation to break out that the fire had been deliberately set by Nazi saboteurs. There was also speculation that the fire had been a plot by imprisoned Mafia lord “Lucky” Luciano. In fact, the fire was none of that. It was simply the result of a spark from welder Clement Derrick’s work.

During an inquiry into the fire, the situation Derrick was working in was replicated. He demonstrated how he was using his welding torch to dismantle a stanchion with kapok-stuffed lifejackets nearby. A spark from his welding torch ignited the burlap wrapped around the stack of lifejackets and a fire once again rapidly consumed the lifejackets.


Normandie lies capsized next to arch rival Cunard’s New York pier.

It was natural that speculation would break out that Nazi saboteurs were responsible for the fire that doomed Normandie. Nazi u-boats had sunk 13 ships off the U.S. Atlantic coast in weeks before the fire. Nazi spies had worked their way into the fabric of New York life and their exposure increased speculation that the blaze that doomed Normandie was the work of embedded Nazis.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was in the middle of a radio speech, assuring New Yorkers that the nickel subway fare would not be raised, when word of the burning Normandie reached him. The mayor cut short his speech and raced to the pier. By now 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 French Line’s archrivals, the Cunard Queens Mary and 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 La Guardia 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 burned out hulk of Normandie.

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 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.”

Eventually the ship was righted and reflected, but it was deemed too costly to restore her. She was scraped in 1946.

Watch Normandie burn in this old newsreel:


Add yours →

  1. AMAZING, the ignorance of some who will not listen to people who have intimate knowledge of a subject. However I would think many old salts would have suggested the same thing. Even a charge to blow a hole port ans starboard was probably suggested. I am sure the port authority was sure they could eventually put the fire out.
    Good story. Never knew this nautical story either.


  2. A painting of Normandie with her sister ship Île-de-France shown at her stern.
    Île-de-France not sister ship of Normandie. Île-de-France and Normandie are different projects.


    • … hee hee … 🙂
      Well, we are both right! You are correct that Île-de-France was not a sister ship in the sense of being built in the same class as Normandie. She was built some ten years earlier and is of a very different design.

      They are sisters in the sense that they were both part of the French Line fleet and it is in that context that I wrote that they are sisters.

      Thank you for visiting my blog!

      Liked by 1 person

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