The Volturno Ship Disaster - A Tragedy on the High Seas

The Volturno Ship Disaster - October 1913

Submitted by Henning Pfeifer

© 2000 by Jan Daamen

A Tragedy on the High Seas
Source: The Independent, October 23, 1913: The Story of the Week

The wireless call for help brought ten ships, on the 9th, to the relief of the liner "Volturno," which was burning in the north Atlantic, about 600 miles east of the spot where the "Titanic" went down.  The doomed ship, carrying 654 souls, had sailed from Rotterdam on the 2nd, for Halifax and New York.  Early in the morning on the 9th fire was discovered in the forward hold.  A passenger who first saw the smoke says he thinks the fire might have been caused by a cigaret dropping thru a hole in the steerage floor and upon the immigrants' luggage stored beneath.  When the ship's officers sought to check the flames, they were leaping 40 feet above the deck.  Unfortunately, there was much inflammable material in the cargo, which included large quantities of oil, rags, burlap and chemicals.  Six lifeboats were launched.  The sea was lashed by a violent storm.  Four of the boats were smashed against the ship's sides, and those who sought to escape in them were drowned.  Two boats got away, but have not been found.  By the wireless calls 523 of those who sailed from Rotterdam were saved; but 131 are dead.
   To the calls ten ships responded.  A majority of them were on their way to Europe.  Putting on full steam, they raced to the burning vessel.  The first to arrive was the "Carmania."  Her race was for only 78 miles.  Other great ships were soon near the "Volturno."  This was in the afternoon of the 9th.  But the sea was so rough that for many hours their efforts were made in vain.  Boats were sent out at great risk, but were forced to return without reaching the burning ship.  Thru the night a searchlight played upon her, and passengers on the surrounding lines gazed at the despairing passengers assembled near the stern.

In the morning the sea was calmer.  The gale had gone down and the waves had been smoothed by oil discharged from a tank ship.  Then the boats took off the despairing 523.  These were distributed.  For example, the "Carmania" had 1 and the "Grosser Kurfuerst" 105.  Many of them have been landed in New York, where their tales of suffering and danger have been published.  Never had a scene so appalling in mid-ocean been witnessed by so many spectators, for the ships that came to save surrounded the burning "Volturno" for sixteen hours.
   There are conflicting reports about the behavior of the crew and the condition of the life-saving apparatus.  Captain Inch, whose conduct was heroic, says the crew's behavior was above reproach, that the boats were sound, and that there was no panic.  On the other hand, surviving passengers are reported in the press as asserting that the crew attempted to monopolize the boats and that the captain forced them back with a pistol.  One of the stewards is said to have declared the fire hose was rotten and that the boats were so leaky that they filled when placed in the water.  Among those who perished were several who leaped overboard, preferring death by drowning to death by fire.  A young couple from France, recently married, committed suicide in this way, clasped in each other's arms.  There will be an official inquiry as to the cargo, the fire hose and the boats.  The rescue of five hundred of the passengers of the "Volturno" is the most impressive demonstration of the value of the wireless telegraph that has yet been made.  The spectacle of ten great steamers rushing to the rescue of an endangered comrade is as inspiring as it is thrilling.

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Created: 6 November 2000 ~ Revised: 31 March 2001