SS Yarmouth Castle Fire November 13, 1965
88 Passengers and 2 Crew Died
Jonathan Hamilton, age 14, died in the fire aboard the SS Yarmouth Castle on November 13, 1965. He embarked on a Caribbean cruise from Miami, Florida for Nassau on November 12, 1965 with 376 passengers and 176 crewmen aboard, a total of 552 people. Jonathan was on the cruise with his family. His Mother Mary Hamilton was severely injured in the fire, and lost a leg afterwards.
In room 610, located on the main deck in the bow of the ship, a fire had begun smoldering on the evening of November 12th. Debates would rage as to how the fire started. Some say arson, others say stupidity was the culprit. Though arson was never proven, stupidity was.There was no sprinkler head in room 610. Other sprinklers head were not working. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) investigation showed that room 610 was not empty contrary to what the Yarmouth Castle Greek Captain, Byron Voutsinas, age 35, testified, instead full of old mattresses, papers, old wall panels, broken chairs and other highly flammable debris such as paint, floor cleaner and wax.
After the fire, more stupidity came to light. The USCG found no general alarm was sounded to warn passengers. The radio man claimed he had left his post, and when he became aware of the fire, could not make his way back to the radio shack. It was this same explanation given for the crew of Yarmouth Castle never calling out a SOS distress signal to alert those vessels able to assist in the rescue.
During recent renovations, the windows to outside cabins were sloppily painted, resulted in window frames being painted shut. Painting everything and everything was also the problem with lifeboat ropes painted so thick, they would not slide through the winches so they could be lowered.
Some of these contributing factors to the deaths of the 88 passengers and two crew aboard were confirmed by Oscar Benet. Benet and his wife were booked into cabin 703 right above room 610. Benet said that the window in his cabin was painted shut, he had to kick it out so they could evacuation after finding fire in the hallway. When they made it to a lifeboat, it was full.
Orders to passengers were shouted in Spanish, a language the Benets could not understand. They made it to a second lifeboat, but the ropes to lower it were painted and they stuck in the winches. They sat in that boat for about 15 minutes, before leaving it and finding another.
Of the thirteen lifeboats, only six were launched. The first lifeboat launched had 20 people in it. Of the 20, only four were passengers, none of them women or children. The other 16 were comprised of the captain and 15 crew members. The next two lifeboats also were full of crew.
These lifeboats arrived at the freighter Finnpulp. The Finnpulp had been eight miles ahead of the Yarmouth Castle when crew noticed on their radar that Yarmouth had slowed, and looking back could see flames coming from her.
The captain, John Lehto ordered his freighter turned around full steam ahead and organized the rescue. He pulled his vessel along side Yarmouth Castle and began evacuating passengers right onto his ship. When flames pushed him back, he backed off, lowered his lifeboat and sent it to Yarmouth Castle. Imagine his surprise, when the first of Yarmouth Castle's own lifeboats arrived with her cowardly captain and crew aboard and only four passengers. Lehto became angry, took the four passengers aboard, but ordered Voutsinas and his crew back to their ship to assist in the rescue of their passengers. Had two rescue ships not arrived on the scene almost immediately, the survivors would have been 99% crew.
Later, Voutsinas would testify that he was not a coward, and in fact was the last to leave his ship, an honor no captain takes lightly. The testimony of Captain Lehto cleared up any doubt as to the moral character and leadership of the young Captain Voutsinas, and most of his crew.
The passenger liner Bahama Star had been following Yarmouth Castle, and was about twelve miles behind her. Her captain, Carl Brown saw the smoke and fire aboard the Yarmouth Castle around 0220 hours and radioed the USCG. He increased his speed and raced toward the stricken cruise ship.
Captain Brown order his lifeboats into the water and had them pull along side Yarmouth Castle's starboard side. Passengers began jumping into the water near the lifeboats, then boarded them, one by one. Seeing the effort by Captain Brown, Captain Lehto ordered his motorboat into the water to quickly tow Brown's lifeboats back to the Bahama Star, unload the passengers, so they could quickly return for more survivors.
Captain Brown of the Bahama Star later reported hearing sounds of great panic coming from Yarmouth Castle. He recalled hearing cabin doors being broken down, as well as glass breaking as passengers pushed back by flames in the hallway, tried to exit their cabin windows. He said he could hear a great many people screaming.
Both Brown and Lehko spoke of a low groaning sound heard throughout the rescue, which was determined to be steam escaping Yarmouth Castle's whistle.
Benches, deck chairs, mattresses and luggage were thrown from the burning ship to people struggling in the water.
Two captains and their well-organized, quick acting rescue plan saved the lives of hundreds that day, when one inept crew and captain, failed their passengers miserably.
By 0400 hours all survivors were off the blazing cruise ship, and at 0600 hours she sank.
Of the 90 people who died as a result of the fire, only two were crew. Stewardess Phyllis Hall and Dr. Lisardo Diaz-Toorens, the ship's physician were the two crew who went down with the ship.
Fourteen critically-injured people were taken by helicopter from Bahama Star to Nassau hospitals. The passenger ship Bahama Star rescued 240 passengers and 133 crewmen. The freighter Finnpulp rescued 51 passengers and 41 crewmen.
In all, eighty-seven people went down with the ship, and three of the rescued passengers later died at hospitals.
Seaman Terry Wise stayed aboard the Yarmouth Castle, and was credited with rescuing dozens of passengers. He was called a hero, and was later given a medal for his, selfless heroic effort, when other crew fled.
The Yarmouth Castle disaster led to the creation of the Safety of Life at Sea law (SOLAS) in 1966. This law brought new maritime safety rules, requiring fire drills, safety inspections and structural changes to new ships, that exclude wood products from structural composition.
Under SOLAS, any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers is required to be built entirely of steel. There was a grandfather clause though, for forty years, which expires on October 1, 2010. This explains the recent wave of older ships being sold to businesses aboard for use as museums and hotels, while others have been broken down.
Yarmouth Castle was built in 1927 by the William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was christened Evangeline. The ship was 365 feet long and measured 5,002 gross tons. At the time of the fire she was owned by Yarmouth Cruise Lines and registered in Panama.
Panama refused to take action against the captain and his crew.
Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about the tragic incident, The Ballad Of The Yarmouth Castle.