SS Normandie on fire in New York Harbour
The war found Normandie in New York. Soon the Queen Mary, later refitted as a troop ship, docked nearby. Then the RMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Queen Mary. For two weeks the three largest liners in the world floated side by side. In 1940, after the Fall of France, the United States seized the Normandie under the right of angary. By 1941, the U.S. Navy decided to convert Normandie into a troopship, and renamed her USS Lafayette (AP-53), in honor both of Marquis de la Fayette the French general who fought on the Colonies’ behalf in the American Revolution and the alliance with France that made American independence possible.
Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this was dropped in favor of immediate troop transport. The ship was moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 for the conversion. On 9 February 1942 sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of thousands of life vests filled with kapok, a highly flammable material, that had been stored in the first-class lounge. The woodwork had not yet been removed, and the fire spread rapidly. The ship had a very efficient fire protection system but it had been disconnected during the conversion and its internal pumping system was deactivated. The New York City fire department’s hoses also did not fit the ship’s French inlets. All on board fled the vessel.
As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to water pumped into the seaward side by fireboats. About 2:45am on February 10, Lafayette capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat.
The ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and offered expertise, but he was barred by harbor police. His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea-cocks. This would flood the lower decks and make her settle the few feet to the bottom. With the ship stabilised, water could be pumped into burning areas without the risk of capsize. However, the suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews.
Enemy sabotage was widely suspected, but a federal investigation in the wake of the sinking concluded that the fire was completely accidental. It has later been alleged that it was indeed sabotage, organized by mobster Anthony Anastasio, who was a power in the local longshoreman’s union. The alleged purpose was to provide a pretext for the release from prison of mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano’s end of the bargain would be that he would ensure that there would be no further “enemy” sabotage in the ports where the mob had strong influence with the unions.
The ship was stripped of superstructure and righted in 1943 in the world’s most expensive salvage operation. But the cost of restoring her was subsequently determined to be too great. After neither the US Navy nor French Line offered, Yourkevitch proposed to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized liner. This plan also failed to draw backing and the hulk was sold for US$161,680 to Lipsett Inc., an American salvage company. She was scrapped in October 1946.