Clevelanders know the worst local tragedies of the 20th century by heart – the Collinwood school fire, the Cleveland Clinic fire and the East Ohio Gas Co. explosion.
But this year marks the 60th anniversary of a deadly event you likely have never heard of, a ship fire that killed dozens of people from Northeast Ohio.
They were all aboard the Noronic, a 6,000-ton, luxuriously appointed Great Lakes cruise ship that was tied up overnight in the Toronto Harbor.
The ship had embarked from Detroit on Sept. 14, 1949, then stopped in Cleveland to pick up more than 100 passengers before sailing to Toronto, where it docked the afternoon of Sept. 16.
Its 527 passengers were enjoying a six-day autumn cruise, dancing and dining on their voyage from Lake Erie, through the Welland Canal, to Lake Ontario.
Instead, many of them were incinerated in a fire that tore through most of the ship in less than 20 minutes.
Cuyahoga County Coroner Sam Gerber was called to Toronto to help identify burned bodies, using skills he had honed after the East Ohio gas explosion on Cleveland’s East Side just five years earlier.
The Noronic fire remains Toronto’s deadliest disaster. It also contributed to the end of what had been a thriving business in the 1940s but is now largely forgotten – luxury liners cruising the Great Lakes in six-day journeys with hundreds of passengers aboard.
Kathleen Stehno, who lives in Granger Township, was an 11-year-old girl on board that night. She and her family had boarded in Detroit, and when the ship docked in Cleveland, her mother bought her and sister, Barbara, 6, new shoes at Higbee’s.
The girls were deep asleep when the fire began a little after 1 a.m. Kathleen's 8-year-old brother, Philip, and her parents, Raynor and Maryellen Kerr, died in the fire – they were in a separate cabin. But she, Barbara and their aunt, Josephine Kerr, survived.
For James Alperin, the loss was also personal. The Noronic voyage cost him the grandparents he never got to meet: Dr. Morris Alperin and his wife, Lucille.
This past July, Alperin traveled to Toronto to see the plaque commemorating the dockside fire, which had flames that could be seen from all over Toronto.
“When I was a child, my parents just said, ‘Your grandparents died in a ship fire,’ ” says Alperin, who owns the jewelry store that bears his name in Pepper Pike. “Later, I found out my father and my uncle had to go identify them. My uncle told me that after that, he almost went out of his mind.”
The Noronic was one of three sister ships; the other two were the Hamonic and the Quebec. All three were lost to fire between July 1945 and August 1950, giving rise to speculation – never proven – that the fires were the work of an arsonist.
The Noronic, though, was the flagship of the Canada Steamship Lines, known as the “Queen of the Lakes.” She was impressive – 385 feet in length, with five decks that towered above the water.
The hull was painted a glistening black, the upper decks white. The dining salon on the top deck had huge observation windows, as did the salon, with its overstuffed leather chairs. This room became the ballroom in the evening, when passengers – some ladies partnering with crew members – danced to the ship’s orchestra.
The fire that night started in a linen closet on the Promenade deck. Perhaps someone had been smoking inside it, or a cigarette had been dumped in a wastebasket. No one ever knew for sure. But when a member of the crew opened the closet door after seeing smoke coming out, he gave the flames the oxygen they needed.
The ship’s gleaming oak-and-cherry walls, polished with lemon oil for three decades, made the fire flash; the ship’s passageways acted as chimneys.
Worse, instead of calling an alarm, crew members attempted to douse the flames with fire hoses. But the hoses didn’t release any water.
There had been no safety checks of the equipment, no passenger drills. And other than the shriek of the ship’s whistle, the only way to rouse deeply sleeping – or intoxicated – passengers was by knocking on doors.
Only 15 of the 171 crew members were on duty; many of the others were enjoying a night on shore. In the days following, when Toronto’s adjacent Horticultural Center was converted to a makeshift morgue, there was anger and questions about why only passengers died – no crew members.
The ship’s captain, William Taylor, had just returned to the Noronic after attending a dinner party on shore – with Josephine Kerr as his date. He was later accused of drinking that night, but he denied having more than one drink. What was certain was that his ship’s equipment was not in order, his crew hadn’t performed well, and both had cost lives.
Taylor never went back to the sailor’s life, instead ending his days as a night clerk in a small Ontario hotel.
Under his watch, some 119 to 122 people had died, 47 of them from Greater Cleveland. The total number was never completely certain, partly because there might have been visitors on board. Also, a number of couples had signed in under the names “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – and some either died or disappeared in the confusion.
Kathleen and her sister survived because their aunt, returning from the dinner party with the captain, was still getting ready for bed in the ladies’ room, which was next to the linen closet.
She smelled smoke and ran back to the room to get the girls. She pounded on her brother’s cabin door, too, but there was no response. She tried to take the girls down the steps to the gangplank, but they were met by thick smoke. They turned back and went onto the deck.
A Cleveland man, golf pro Arthur Alves, helped Kathleen’s little sister, who clung to his back as they all climbed down a cable to the dock in the crush of desperate people. He wasn’t exactly a hero to his wife back in Cleveland, though. When reporters called her, she was confused, because he’d told her he was on a fishing trip with his brother Gordon, who was also on board.
Kathleen suffered third-degree burns on her arm and foot that night from the intense heat before she fell off the cable and into the black, dirty water of the harbor. She swam to the top and to the wharf. She remembers a woman in elegant nightwear helping place her into an ambulance.
“The worst part was they took us all to the hospital and put us in a little hallway that was very dark,” she says. “I think it was so we couldn’t see each other.”
It wasn’t for many days that she and Barbara learned their parents’ and brother’s bodies had been identified.
The city of Toronto embraced the girls, both of whom ended up going back there for their private-school education. Their Aunt Josephine raised them in Michigan, where she took over her brother’s lumber and coal business. She died in 1993.
Ten years ago, Kathleen and Barbara went back to Toronto for a 50th reunion of survivors. There were only four there, as well as some people who had worked on the ship, perhaps a dozen in all.
“It was emotional, but inspirational,” says Kathleen, who still carries the burn scars. “We dedicated the plaque on the harbor that day.” They also laid flowers at the nearby cemetery where many who died were buried.
She’s never been much interested in ship travel (though Barbara is on a cruise this very week). But what really brings back the terror of that night for her is the smell of smoke.
“For years, if I was in a hotel room with an open transom, I’d worry about smelling smoke,” she says. “That smell is definitely the thing that still bothers me.”
James Alperin can think of no other reason that he avoids high floors in hotels and has no desire to be on a ship than the story of what happened to his grandparents.
“As a child hearing about it, it was more an abstraction,” he says. “Now, as someone who spent a lot of time learning more about that night, I know how real it was.”
— News researcher Joellen Corrigan contributed to this story
— Evelyn Theiss is a feature writer at The Plain Dealer and can be contacted at email@example.com