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By Jane Feehan
Eighty seven people, including 27 members of a Pompano Beach senior center, went down with the SS Yarmouth Castle November 13, 1965 after it caught fire 60 miles from Nassau. Three others died from burns days later. The disaster, which claimed local and national headlines, resulted in tighter marine safety laws.
The aftermath of the tragedy, like so many others, revealed what could have, should have happened but did not. There were 376 passengers and 176 crewmen aboard the ship that left Miami the day before. It caught fire so fast that a distress call could not be sent. Only four of the 12 or 13 lifeboats could be launched, sprinklers did not activate, fire doors did not close and an alarm did not sound. The ship went down in five hours. Survivors were picked up by the nearby Finnpulp and Bahama Star. Among those on the first half-filled lifeboat to reach the Finnpulp was the Yarmouth Castle’s 35-year-old Captain Byron Voutsinas; he was told to go back to his ship.
It was later detailed in a 27-page report that the fire started with mattresses set against a circuit board in a storage room where cans of paint sat. Excessive coats of paint throughout the ship contributed to the scope of the disaster, and so did the wooden superstructure that enabled rapid spread of flames. Fire hose pressure was insufficient. The captain and several crew members were later cited for their actions – or non-actions. Of the 90 (some reports say 91) who perished, only two were crew members - a doctor and a female steward.
The report’s findings led to the creation of the Safety of Life at Sea Law (SOLAS) in 1966 that dictated a ship carrying more than 50 overnight passengers be constructed of a steel superstructure, that regular fire drills be conducted, and ample life saving equipment be available in cabins and inflatable life rafts provided on deck. (I sailed aboard the ship as a child and can vouch that there was at least one fire drill on our cruise - before SOLAS was enacted.)
The 356-foot, 5002-ton ship was launched as the SS Evangeline in 1927, and operated by the Eastern Steamship Company in a route that included Boston, Yarmouth and Nova Scotia. During World War II, it was pressed into service as a transport ship in the Pacific theater. The Evangeline was sold to Chadade Steamship Company and renamed the Yarmouth Castle in 1964. By then, its home port was Miami as it cruised to Nassau, Jamaica and Haiti.
The ship's history was peppered by a number of events before it burned and sank. It was the first cruise ship to enter the Port of Miami after World War II. Later, on another trip, about 80 passengers came down with food poisoning. It again made headlines when it rescued and towed a ship to Government Cut, south of Miami. Another time, a Cuban stowaway was found when it was docked in Jamaica.
Two other burning ship disasters grabbed headlines in prior years. The Miami Herald mistakenly reported the Yarmouth as the the worst "sea disaster in the Western Hemisphere in the 32 years since the Morro Castle, also a cruise ship, burned off Asbury Park, NJ in 1934 ... when 134 lives were lost." In fact, the worst disaster before the Yarmouth was the burning of the Naronic in Toronto Harbor in 1949 when 139 people perished.Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
See another Florida-related sea disaster and how it changed maritime law:
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Miami News, Nov. 14, 1965
Tags: cruise ship disasters, SS Evangeline, SS Yarmouth Castle, Port of Miami history, maritime law, Florida sea disasters, film industry researcher