Fire at Sea: The Saga of the Volturno
by Cary Ginell
In the fall of 1913, the sinking of the Titanic was still a recent news story, having occurred exactly eighteen months before. Headlines shouted around the world of the tragedy that befell the grandest, most unsinkable ship of them all. Since then, the Titanic's story has become the most celebrated disaster of the 20th century.
But in October 1913, another ship, called the Volturno, was also sailing for America when it suffered a tragedy at sea. The Volturno didn't strike an iceberg, it caught fire and burned, killing 136 of its 657 occupants. The story was front page news in the New York Times for most of that week, but was forgotten soon afterward.
Unlike the Titanic, the Volturno was not a highly publicized "unsinkable" vessel transporting glamorous passengers on its maiden voyage. It was simply an average sized ocean liner making one of many trips across the Atlantic between Europe and North America. The passengers of the Volturno were neither captains of industry nor members of wealthy families. They were the bedraggled, desperate dreamers of the world: emigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia coming to America for a better life.
There was something else the Volturno had that the Titanic did not. My family was on board.
The story of the fire on the Volturno had been a family legend for many years, related mostly by my great-aunt Sarah, who was the youngest of eight children of Celia and Max Tepper. After examining microfilm copies of the New York Times and interviewing my great aunt, now 91, I was able to piece together the events leading up to my family's arrival here in America.
It was my great-uncle Abraham Tepper who decided to make the journey first, sometime around 1910. The Teppers lived in the village of Mahalowitz, near Odessa in the Ukraine. He was about to turn seventeen, an age that required automatic enlistment into the Russian army. It was common knowledge that the Czar's army put Jews in the front lines, and so Abe stole across the border and made his way to Brooklyn. A few years later he sent for his younger sister Sadie, and then his brother Sam and father also joined them in New York.
By 1913, Abe had saved up enough money to send for the rest of the family: his mother Celia, and his remaining siblings: brother Al, 11, and sisters Ida, 15, Bella, 13, and Sarah, 7. They were also traveling with a friend's teenaged daughter, who was passing herself off as a cousin. Abe had sent money and tickets to travel to Amsterdam by train where they would board the Volturno as cabin passengers. They would then make the two-week ocean voyage in relative comfort before arriving in New York after a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
One week into the journey, in the early morning hours of Thursday, October 9, my family was preparing for breakfast when a tremendous explosion rocked the boat. My family rushed to the top deck to see that the forward part of the ship was a blazing inferno. Almost immediately, the neighbor's daughter, who had a premonition that she wouldn't survive the trip, leapt into the sea in terror before anyone could stop her.
It was later learned that the fire was started by a Russian steerage passenger who was smoking a cigarette on board. Being caught smoking constituted a $5 fine, so when a steward approached, the Russian dropped his cigarette through a hole in the floor to avoid being caught. Directly beneath was the hold where the emigrants' luggage was stored. It was soon burning fiercely with the fire spreading to other parts of the ship. The first of three explosions occurred when the fire reached the boiler room.
My family made their way to the lifeboats at the rear of the ship and were helped into one. They were just about to be lowered when my great-grandmother Celia said, "No, let's get out. Let the water come to us. Why should we go to the water?" The first lifeboat finally was lowered with crew members on board. When it hit the harsh waters, it capsized instantly and all were drowned. Another lifeboat was lowered directly afterwards, and this one was smashed against the hull of the ship with its occupants drowned or shredded by the ship's propellers. At this point, the ship's captain, a 36 year-old Englishman named Francis Inch, reportedly pulled a pistol and ordered that no more boats were to be lowered until the storm died down. An S.O.S. was sent out to nearby ships by wireless calling for assistance. And then everyone waited.
Two hours later, a ship arrived on the scene, steaming at 20 knots in answer to the S.O.S. She found the Volturno a blazing and unapproachable hulk. They launched a rescue boat, but after two hours of struggling in the stormy seas, it had to return. Nine other ships arrived, offering help as well, but they too were helpless due to the raging sea. They encircled the burning Volturno and waited for an opportunity to launch their own boats.
In the meantime, Captain Inch and his crew fought the fire and tried to keep order. Passengers were instructed to put on lifejackets and not to panic. The Jews on board davened on the decks, praying that the fire would not spread to their part of the ship before they could be rescued.
The next morning, an oil ship arrived on the scene stocking a supply of lubricating oil which was commonly used to calm treacherous waters (refined petroleum would have no doubt ignited if fire came too close to it). Within ten minutes, fifty tons of oil were pumped into the ocean, instantly calming the waters. Rescue operations began immediately, and within a few hours, all the survivors were taken to the various rescue ships. After performing a final search for any remaining passengers, Captain Inch, the last man on board, left the Volturno for the last time.
The three youngest members of the Tepper family, Bella, Al, and Sarah, were saved first. They boarded a German ship, the Seydlitz, along with about thirty other passengers, and continued on to Philadelphia where they were met by their brother Abe. They arrived the following Wednesday, October 15, six days after the fire started (Upon being informed that all the members of his family were rescued, the New York Times reported that Abraham Tepper "tore his hair and shouted and it took the employees of the line several minutes to quiet him.").
Celia, and her older daughter Ida, were rescued, ironically by a Russian ship called the Czar, which returned to Amsterdam. The other ships landed in New York, Havre, London, Halifax, and Liverpool. The Volturno was spotted still burning a week after she was evacuated.
The Red Cross Emergency Relief Committee arranged with the Commissioner of Immigration to discharge the formalities attending the landing of immigrants and the survivors were able to be met and cared for. Many of them, like my family, were Jews from Russia and spoke only Russian or Yiddish. Clothing for the survivors was provided by the Council of Jewish Women, which directed the assistance of other organizations. Pleas for financial help from New York mayor Adolph Kline, raised over $5,000 to help the survivors who arrived in the United States.
Two weeks later, the entire family was reunited once again when Celia and Ida arrived from Amsterdam on another ship.
When I interviewed my great aunt Sarah, her eyes glazed over with excitement as she recalled minute details of the fire. At 91 and with failing eyesight, she remained sharp-minded as she told of the Volturno's crew hosing down the deck during that awful day on the ship, to keep it cool because the fire was burning just below it. She recalled being lowered to the rescue boat while hanging onto a rope, and almost falling into the water before having her legs grabbed by someone and pulling her safely in. And she remembered her older sister Bella, who would become my grandmother, who was so scared that she wanted to jump into the ocean like their poor friend, only to be restrained by the rest of the family.
We read her the thrilling stories related in the paper and she was able to see, for the first time, the headlines in the New York Times and a picture of the resourceful Captain Inch, who helped restore order and save hundreds of people from different nationalities who had but one common purpose: to come to America to start a new life. And we marveled as to how close we came to never being born but for the good sense of my great-grandmother to wait to be rescued rather than board one of the Volturno's doomed lifeboats.
It's an incredible story that I will pass on to my grandchildren, even if Leonardo DiCaprio isn't cast as my great uncle Al.
Cary Ginell is a music consultant working in the entertainment industry. He lives in Thousand Oaks with his wife and two sons.
Cary's great aunt Sarah DeCovnick recently celebrated her 95th birthday.
This article was originally written for the Jewish Journal, portions of which were published on May 22, 1998.
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