French Line Ships Fire Hazards or Just Bad Luck


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Daniel Odysseus

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While looking at French Line ships, I noticed that quite a number of them caught on fire (some of them, several fires throughout the career) such as Liberte, Normandie, Paris, etc.

Were these ships fire hazards or was it just bad luck that the line would lose so many ships to fire...?
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Easley South Carolina
I doubt that any of them were more of a fire hazard then any other. I would chalk up Normandie's demise more to stupidity then bad luck. Doing work with a cutting torch near piles of highly flammable kapok life preservers should...in my opinion...qualify the one doing the hotwork for sterilization in order to protect the integrity of the human gene pool.

Fires are not as uncommon on ships as a lot of us sailors wish they were. Machinary sometimes malfuntions, wires get frayed over years of service which causes problems, sometimes fuel lines give up the ghost near ignition sources, lint in vents that haven't been cleaned out in an age catches fire (This is what happened on Carnival's Ecstacy.)...the list of possibilities is endless.

If the fire party is on the ball, the problem can usually be nipped in the bud befor it gets out of hand. If not, then you've got BIG problems. Especially if the fire equipment is in bad shape. Ask anyone who survived the Morro Castle or the Yarmouth Castle. You'll get an earful!
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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Actually, it is a hard question to answer. On the one hand, it is difficult to think of another major group of shipping lines (since what is commonly called The French Line was actually at least three separate companies) losing nearly all of their flagships to fire in the space of a decade, but on the other hand there are other issues- chiefly political- to consider as well. The Georges Phillipar, The Paris and most likely the Lafeyette, were alleged to be victims of arson,(Nazis and Communists being the perpetrators depending upon the politcal slant of whomever is writing the account) while l'Atlantique was understaffed (en route to the shipyard) and the France was 22 years old at the times of their respective fires. So bad luck was certainly a factor, as was politics. But, one might ask why the ships burned so aggresively once they WERE ignited-the Normandie, for instance had her vaunted fire alert system, but also had at least one major firewall made out of wood (?) so there will always be the question of design flaws to investigate as well.
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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Investigating fires at sea is far easier then investigating them on land (from what I have been told). I have only having done the at sea version, it is fairly easy to determine the source, you have limited amount of people and space and material which could be potential starters.

Not having done any research into the ships mentioned I would wager it was more often then not design which allowed the fire to spread so quickly. What prevented the Ectasy's demise was her design and the training of the crew. Wood isn't a common thing on newer ships that those that do have it have a special covering for the wood which makes it less flamable then the varnish used in yesteryear.

On the Great Lakes many of the older ships still have passenger accomadations, decorated in ornate woodwork (the Willis B. Boyer is a good example as is the William G. Mather).
 
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John Meeks

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Jim,

Having a fire barrier made out of wood isn't actually quite so stupid as it would sound!

When subjected to high heat, steel, being a conductor of heat, not only transfers heat quite rapidly to whatever is 'on the other side' - but ultimateley distorts, melts, buckles, generally loses its strength and gives up the ghost in a fairly predictable time.

Wood, on the other hand, although flammable (OK, fellow Brits - inflammable..!) - and especially if it is a dense hardwood - will initially burn on the surface until well charred....and then having created its own insulating blanket of charcoal...impede further burning.

That's why quite a few old - even Mediaeval - buildings have survived fires that would have destroyed a modern steel structure. It's just a matter of having wood that is dense enough, and thick enough.

(Concrete's not too bright, either - it shatters....!)

Regards,

John M
 

Jim Kalafus

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John- Thank you for the input. The wooden firewall aboard the Normandie was not hardwood, but plywood. I do not have a photo of it postfire, since it was retracted at the time of the fire and was removed- in whatever condition- when the superstructure was cleared. The initial composition of the wall was plywood with an ornamental veneer of bronze on either side, and a pair of doors with glass panel windows set into the center. The bronze work had been removed prior to the fire and survives, so I am assuming that the firewall, as it remained in 1942, was raw plywood. I did not make that clear in the initial posting, and based my assumption of (in)flammability on what happened to the plywood veneer walls aboard the Morro Castle where there was almost total destruction in the burned areas.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Continuing with the thought- the design of the Normandie and l'Atlantique would have made them fairly inescapable had their respective fires happened at sea (Normandie) or with passengers aboard (l'Atlantique.) On both ships the funnel uptake were split, allowing the first class public rooms to flow uninterrupted along a central axis- in the case of the Normandie when the firewall between the lounge and smoking room was retracted an uninterrupted view of about 500 feet was possible, extending from the stage of the theatre to the windows of the Cafe Grill. In both cases, this single extended "room" served as wind tunnel, and in both cases the fire managed to circumvent the "firewalls" by blowing out the windows along both the upper and lower promenade decks, spreading down the decks, and jumping around the walls through the windows on the far side. Even with a trained fire crew at work it would have been difficult to contain a fire in these areas since it would require, eventually, a crew for each of the four promenade deck fires as well as the crew fighting the fire in the room itself. In both cases, too, access to the lifeboats was limited by the superstructure-long wall of fire and smoke the first class public rooms became. Had the fires occurred during a period of normal service they would have replicated what happened aboard the Morro Castle on a large scale.
 
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John Meeks

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Jim...

Well...yeah...I don't think plywood would have 'cut it'! It's loaded with glue - usually highly (in)flammable!

I lit a fire once, using discarded construction grade plywood remnants as kindling....please don't try it!

My old Franklin stove actually glowed 'cherry-red' and I consider myself very lucky to have kept my house !

Regards,

John M
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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Yes, there are several Morro Castle accounts which go into detail about the particularly acrid smoke thrown off by the burning plywood, and of the speed with which it burned.

One odd detail about the Normandie fire- the theatre was apparently fireproof and managed to successfully repel the blaze. One can see the remnants in several of the photos taken during the removal of the superstructure. One is left wondering why the remainder of the public rooms were not constructed in the same way. Probably expense.
 

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