Of The Yarmouth Castle
skipper and cowardly crew was blamed for the deaths of about a 100 passengers and crew members when the cruise ship Yarmouth
Castle burned during a Caribbean cruise on Nov. 13, 1965.
The fire that
started around 1 a.m. in one of the cabins quickly spread through the wooden superstructure of the 39-year-old vessel, forcing
373 passengers and 174 crew members in a battle for their lives.
The liner, commanded
by Capt. Byron Vatsounas, was in the midst of its regular New York-to-Nassau
run when crew members smelled smoke and began a search of the decks. It was first noticed when a crew member in the engine
room caught a wisp of smoke and reported it to the Chief Engineer. The engineer, without contacting the bridge, conducted
an unsuccessful search of the galley, pantry and bakeshop areas.
He met a night
cleaner in the main entrance lobby who said he also noticed smoke in the men’s toilet on the promenade deck, just above
cabin 610. When they went forward to investigate, they found the cabin ablaze. The bridge was then notified and the night
cleaner went aft to wake up the crew.
The chief engineer
ran out fire hoses and personally fought the fire. Later he turned the job over to crew members while he ran back to the engine
room to turn off the mechanical ventilation system. He thought the vent was feeding oxygen to the fire.
The captain failed
to sound a general alarm, but the sleeping passengers were quickly becoming aware of the fact that something was very wrong.
Crew members were running down the long corridors, banging on doors and sounding an alarm. Other people, trapped in cabins
by smoke and flame, were being rescued by crew members who broke open their windows and, for those who were thin enough, pulling
them through portholes. People were shouting and screaming as they discovered the danger and raced through smoke-filled hallways
to doorways to the deck.
The fire raced
through the ship that morning because its 39-year-old wooden superstructure, extra dry from years of steaming under a tropical
sun, and saturated after years of being covered and recovered with oil-based paints, were a perfect fuel.
Crew members found
that many of the liner’s life boats, which were not kept in good condition, were literally frozen by layers of paint
to the davits. Because Captain Vatsounas believed the fire could be contained, he failed to tell his radio operator to send
an S.O.S. By the time he realized the need it was too late. The fire had spread to the radio room.
was in a regular shipping lane and other vessels were close enough to see the glow from the fire in the night sky. The liner
Bahama Star and a cargo ship, the Finnpulp, both arrived in time to save about 450 lives.
The Bahama Star
no sooner arrived on the scene when a raft from the burning liner drew alongside. From that raft stepped Capt. Vatsounas and
other officers. That the captain left his burning ship while passengers were still aboard and fighting for their lives so
angered the crew of the Star they locked him in the captain’s quarters.
the Yarmouth Castle
was by then a raging inferno, burning from amidships with the fire spreading both fore and aft. The heat was estimated at
about 2000 degrees. It was so hot that the paint on the funnel of the Bahama Star started to burn. Somebody on the Star used
a home movie camera to get pictures that showed outlines of people running around on the burning ship, trying desperately
to escape the flames.
Both the passengers
and crew of the Bahama Star were touted as heroes by the newspapers of that day. They not only sent lifeboats into the water
to pull swimmers to safety, but many passengers gave up their cabins so the injured survivors had a place to be tended to.
which arrived later, also sent skiffs and boats with powerful lights to search the waters around the burning liner for survivors.
The Yarmouth Castle keeled
over to port and sank at about 6 a.m., about five hours after the fire was first noticed. It sank in about 1,800 feet of water.
During an inquiry
that followed, Captain Vatsounas was charged with gross incompetence, negligence and manslaughter. Cruise Operator W. R. Lovett
was charged with improper maintenance of the ship.
The board of inquiry
determined that poor wiring, improper storage of combustible materials, and poor maintenance of rescue equipment were all
factors in the disaster. Also, the crew had failed to perform safety drills, and the crew members were never trained to use
the fire-fighting equipment.
The disaster led
to the creation of the SOLAS rules requiring ships at sea to meet certain international safety requirements. No longer would
new ships be built with wooden superstructures. Also safety equipment would be inspected and crews would be trained to use
it. Also routine safety drills were required.
The SOLAS rules
are still being practiced today.
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