Mariners Museum

The Volturno Disaster of 1913

By James Donahue

The Volturno might have been compared to a tramp steamship in its day, except she was a cargo ship converted to carry a freight haul of up to a thousand low-cost "steerage" immigrants at a time during the exodus from Europe to the "New World."

It was an iron ship, 375 feet in length, built in 1906 in Glasgow for the Uranium Steamship Co. of England. She was operated by the Canadian Northern Steamship Co. and was involved in the transport of emigrants from Rotterdam to New York.

She was steaming from Rotterdam with an estimated 653 passengers, mostly Jews from Hungary, Austria, Galicia and Russia, bound for Halifax and then New York on October 9, 1913, when fire broke out somewhere in the bow of the ship at around 5:50 a.m.

A passenger who first saw the smoke said he thought the fire might have been started by a cigarette carelessly dropped through a hole in the steerage floor. It landed on luggage stored below the floor.

Survivors said there was an explosion early in the morning that probably killed about 80 or 90 people, including a navigating officer, some passengers and other members of the crew who may have been attempting to fight the fire. The stored material in that compartment included large quantities of oil, rags, burlap and chemicals that were all highly flammable. The radio operator then sent out a distress call.

The Volturno was seven days at sea, at 48-12 north latitude and 34-51 west longitude on the North Atlantic, and only about 600 miles from where the Titanic was lost just one year earlier. Not only was the ship on fire but there was a severe storm raging from the north-northwest, the seas were high, and attempts to launch lifeboats led to further death and injury. There were only 19 lifeboats and six wooden rafts on board. Six lifeboats were lowered and four of them were crushed by the seas. All who were in them were drowned. The two boats that got away were not found.

The wireless call for help that morning brought ten ships by mid-afternoon. The first to arrive was the Carmania, which was on its way to Europe. The seas were so high that it was impossible for a rescue so all the armada of ships could do was stand by the burning steamer, their searchlights playing on it, while passengers on the rescue vessels gazing at the mass of desperate people huddled at the stern of the blazing ship. It was said the flames were reaching about 80 feet into the air.

By the morning of the tenth the storm was abating and a tanker ship had arrived with oil that calmed the seas. At last the small boats succeeded in taking off the survivors. Because they went to various ships, some of the survivors arrived in Europe and others went to New York. In the end, it was estimated that 523 people survived the disaster, but 131 died, mostly from the explosion, the crushed lifeboats and a few who panicked and jumped overboard.

Afterward there were conflicting reports about the behavior of the crew and the condition of the life-saving equipment. Some survivors told how some members of the crew attempted to monopolize the life boats but were forced back by Captain Francis J. D. Inch at gunpoint. One of the stewards told a newspaper that the fire hoses were rotted.

The burned out hull of the Volturno floated on the open sea after it was abandoned until October 17, when the Dutch tanker Charlois found it. The vessel was still burning. Crew members boarded the wreck, opened the sea cocks and sank it so it would no longer be a hazard to shipping.

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