The Sinking of The S.S. Normandie At NYC’s Pier 88


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Normandie_posterOn February 9, 1942 crowds gathered at New York City’s pier 88 to witness a spectacle. The largest ocean liner in the world was on fire. Fire fighting efforts successfully contained the fire after five and a half hours of effort, but the effort was in vain. Five hours after the flames were out the stricken vessel rolled onto its side and settled on the bottom of the Hudson.

The S.S. Normandie was a star crossed ship. Intended to be the pride of the French people, she was designed to be the height of shipbuilding technology and modern culture. Her first class passenger spaces were decorated in the trendiest Art Deco style and filled with luxuries. The radical new hull design, with a subsurface bulb beneath a clipper bow, and long, sweeping lines lent her previously untouched speeds while requiring far less fuel. She even had one of the earliest radar sets ever used by a commercial vessel, in order to improve the safety for her passengers.

SS_Normandie_at_sea_01Unfortunately, all of these modern touches availed her little. The Normandie was put into service during the height of the Great Depression. A sign of her future, on launching the wave she kicked up smashed into hundreds of onlookers, though no one was injured in this accident. Though she performed spectacularly during trials, she would never prove to be a particularly successful ship, only making just enough to cover her operating expenses and never paying for the loans needed to finance her construction.

The French declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 found the Normandie in New York, tied up alongside of pier 88. In spite of the loss of 28 American lives when a German u-boat torpedoed the Athenia on the first day of hostilities, the United States remained neutral. Authorities immediately put Coast Guard troops on board the Normandie and interned her in accordance with international maritime law. Though the French crew would remain aboard maintaining the vessel, she would remain motionless beside the pier, guarded by the Coast Guard, languishing until American entry into the war two years later.

Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the French crew were removed from Normandie. France was technically a German ally under the Vichy government, and as such the U.S. exercised the right to seize the ship as belonging to an enemy belligerent. The ship would be renamed the USS Lafayette, in honor of the French General who had helped make U.S. independence possible during the revolution. The U.S. Navy took possession of the vessel and began her conversion as a troop transport.

Normandie_fireThe conversion was a rushed affair. The ship had originally been intended to set sail under the U.S. flag on the 14th of February, 1942. However, the sheer size of the ship as well as the complexity of its modern design had proved a substantial hindrance to the men performing the conversion. On the 6th of February it became clear that the conversion would not be completed on time, and the conversion crew requested that the sail date be pushed back two weeks. When this request was denied, the frenzied crew rushed into a frantic effort to complete the work on time.

Tragically, this haste set up the conditions for a disaster. Work spaces were not properly cleaned or prepared for lack of time to do it, and unsafe conditions became the norm. At 2:30 PM on the 9th, a welder in the first class lounge was performing work next to life preservers that should have been moved ahead of time. The work would ignite these life saving devices. The ship’s modern firefighting system should have prevented the tragedy, but it had been disabled during the conversion and was unavailable to be brought to bear. The New York Fire Department responded within 15 minutes, but were horrified to learn the French fittings on the Normandie/Lafayette were not compatible with their hoses. Less than an hour after the fire broke out, the ship was a raging inferno.

To fight the blaze firefighters employed fire boats on the port side of the ship, while firefighters used dockside hoses to tackle the flames to starboard. The fight to put out the fires took over five hours, but ultimately would prove successful. The fire would be declared to be out by 8:00 that evening.

Normandie_capsized_(LIFE)Unfortunately, a new problem would be realized. The fire boats attacking the port side blaze pumped water at a far greater volume than was used by the dockside hoses to starboard. The Normandie was listing heavily to Port, submerging a number of open portholes on that side. The Navy attempted to counterflood to right the list, pumping water into the starboard side so that the ship would settle evenly, but this proved fruitless. At a quarter till three, the Lafayette rolled over on her side and settled into the mud of the Hudson River’s bottom.

In the course of the tragedy, 285 people would suffer injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to burns. One Brooklyn native, Frank Trentacosta, would die in the tragedy. The Normandie herself would remain on the bottom for a year and a half, finally being righted and floated in August of 1943. A survey revealed her to be too badly damaged to be salvageable, and she would be sold and broken up for scrap in 1946.

The loss of the Normandie alongside of New York’s pier 88 would in many ways mark the end of an era. While ocean liners would remain the principle means to cross the Atlantic until commercial jet liners became available, few liners would be constructed in the post war period. None of these ships would approach either the speed or size of the Normandie. The last dedicated ocean liner to be constructed, the Queen Elizabeth II would hit the water in 1969. Most liners would eventually be removed from service to be converted into cruise liners for tourist jaunts, though a few stubborn holdouts would remain. Today only one ship continues to run the route of the old ocean liners. Constructed as a cruise ship, the Queen Mary II was launched in 2003 as a means by which tourists can attempt to recapture the experiences of the luxurious passages the Normandie had been constructed to provide.

Photos sourced from Wikipedia.

20 thoughts on “The Sinking of The S.S. Normandie At NYC’s Pier 88

  1. James s Kaplan

    Excellent and fascinating post. I had heard there was some suspicion of mafia involvement in the.fire. Is there anything to that?

    Reply
    1. James HintonJames Hinton

      Good question, James.

      In the wake of the disaster rumors flew fast and furious. A couple of months before the fire German saboteurs had been convicted as spies in a court in Brooklyn. This led to a lot of people jumping to the conclusion the fire had been set deliberately. This was only enhanced when Alfred Hitchcock added video footage of the fire to his soon to be released espionage movie Saboteur. Even though it was a work of fiction this fanned the flames of suspicion further.

      In this state of heightened suspicion that certain information came to light. “Lucky” Luciano had been sitting in a prison cell when the Normandie arrived in New York in ’39. He began scheming with some of his men on the outside to use a threat against the Normandie to force new York to pardon him and release him from prison. Though the threat was not made good, Luciano did get transferred to a more pleasant prison in exchange for convincing the Mafia to help out against the Nazis. This led many to assume that the mob did, in fact, start the fire, and that the Luciano deal was in part a pay off to prevent further incidents. This rumor has persisted to this day.

      Reply
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  3. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez

    It is generally believed that the large bronze doors leading to the dining room of the Normandie were salvaged and now are used as the entrance doors to Our Lady of Lebanon a Marronite Catholic Church in downtown Brooklyn but actually, the church only bought the medallions that adorn the church’s original doors Bronze Medallions from Doors of the dining room of the SS Normandie, now adorn the front doors.

    The original two dining room doors were 20 foot tall, spanned over two ship decks in height and had 10 medallions–five on each door. The fate of the actual Normandie doors is not known. Six of the medallions were installed in the church’s Henry St. doors. Four of the medallions were installed in the two Remsen St. doors.

    The original door assemblies on the ship included script under each medallion describing the scene. The medallions were created by the French artist Raymond Subes. The church also acquired the Normandie’s Captain’s Table that remains in use .

    Reply
  4. Jane Jacobs

    My uncle was one of the Coast Guard men who was assigned to the Normandie. I’m always interested in learning more about this once luxurious ship. Thanks for the story.

    Reply
    1. Bill Hardy

      Hi Jane ,

      My (Adopted) Uncle also Served in the Coast Guard and was assigned to the Normandy. Small World – Would you happen to have any photos?

      Reply
  5. Lynn Robbins

    Just read your article. Thank you
    My father, Theodore (Ted) Stamatis, was one of the hard hat divers who worked on raising the ship. He worked the night shift under Commander Tucker. I had several items from the ship, a soup pot, a luggage coin, pictures from the dinner at the Waldoff Hotel after the ship was raised, the invitation to the dinner, picture of the dive crew.
    So that these items did not get misplaced thrown away, I donated them to the Mariners museum in Newpot News, Virginia.
    Loved to hear the stores about the ship from dad.
    Thanks again

    Reply
  6. Kate Robertson

    Dear Mr. Hinton,

    Your article about the fire aboard the SS Normandie is indeed interesting – and paralleled the story my father had long ago told me about her as he had been working in the harbor during those days.

    I have a wooden steamer trunk that has S/S Normandie Transatlantique stickers on it (Havre Southampton New-York). Apparently, this belonged to a friend of my grandparents.

    Given my father’s accounting (which he wrote in a book on the Normandie), this is one of my most treasured items.

    Kate Robertson

    Reply
  7. Karen Emmott Shortt

    My father was in the Navy during WW2. When I was in my early 20’s , he told me a story about working on a ship in NY Harbor, about 7? levels below the upper deck, when it caught fire. He and one of his fellow sailors were able to make it to the top deck, where they were forced to jump ship. My grandparents happened to be staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He and his buddy were able to make it to shore and to their room. My grandmother opened the door and my Dad said she didn’t recognize him and screamed. He was pretty badly burned on the face and upper body. They finally let them in and called for a doctor. They stayed in the room , while recovering, for about 3 days. When they reported back, they were arrested for going AWOL. I don’t remember what he said happened afterward. I always thought it was a pretty funny story. I can’t help but wonder if he was on the Normandie. Is there a way to find out?

    Reply
  8. Ruth M.

    Hi. Thank you so much for this great article. My grandfather was apparently the last man off the ship before it sank and there was a photo taken of him. I believe it made the front page of one of the local newspapers at the time. Would you happen to recall seeing such a photo somewhere? I’d love to find a copy of it. I can’t find the old newspaper clippings that my grandmother kept.

    Reply
  9. Sue

    I understand that my husband’s uncle, Alfred Thor Jr. died in this fire. You cite only one Brooklynite did so but several hundred were injured. Is there a list of who was injured in the fire?

    Reply
  10. Jonathan B. Richards II

    I just have to Comment here. In February of 1942 my grandfather had taken me by train from Providence, RI to NYC to be seen by a specialist for a mastoid infection problem. We stayed in a high rise apartment of my aunt and uncle on the Manhattan/Hudson water front. One night we drove to the Pier 88 area and I witnessed the smoking hulk of the SS Normandie lying on her port side capsized in the Hudson. I was only 5 1/2 years old but have always retained in my mind’s eye the dramatic images of this tragedy. Thank you for the post to confirm these memories after all these years.

    Reply
  11. JOAN Hardy

    I WAS TOLD MY FATHER JOHN MILLS WAS ON THE SHIP WHEN THE FIRE HAPPENED. I AM TRYING TO FIND OUT ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PEOPLE WHO WERE HURT. WHERE WERE THEY TAKEN TOO. Would you have any information on what hospital the injured were taken to thank you

    Reply
  12. Marcella

    Did the paintings in the first class original salon get salvaged before the fire? Paul Jouve was commissioned to do paintings of elephants and a second one of tigers in 1935. I would’ve loved to have seen them. Excellent story, I was reading his biography and started researching the SS Normandy. Sorry to hear such a majestic ship had such a tragic ending.

    Reply
  13. Peggy

    I have come across some very old black and white photos in my grandparents attic of the Normandie and many other extremely old photos that were used by the international news inc. out of New York City. I found them fascinating and it brought me to this page. The article was very informative and gave me a great piece of a history lesson. Not sure if there worth anything but it was a great find

    Reply
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