13th January was twice a significant date in Normandie’s history, both connected with fire. The first was in 1935: there had been several incidents of sabotage reported in the final months of her fitting out. On 13th January 1935 a patrolling supervisor noticed some panelling in a corridor was loose: behind them he found the electrical wiring had been tampered with, enough to create a series of short-circuits and possibly start a fire. Some of the electrical conduits had needles inserted, others had been cut and some had been removed entirely. The supervisor raised the alarm, then quickly assembled a specialist team of skilled electricians who checked and repaired every conduit throughout the ship. It was never discovered who had caused the damage or why.
The second was on 13th January 1942. A survey had been conducted into the ability of the ship to fight a fire. The survey, by Walter Kidde & Co, was very superficial – they only checked a few of the extinguishers on board, before declaring that they were not built ‘according to American design’, and recommended that all be replaced with American units. However, nothing was put in hand. The fire alarm system had been disconnected. The ship-to-shore fire alarm link to the New York City Fire Department had been cancelled once Normandie was taken over, and the Navy didn’t consider it necessary to replace it.
And all the French-made hose couplings on the water main for the firefighting system were being changed to American-pattern couplings: workers ignored an instruction to retain compatible couplings, so a mixture developed of different couplings, although the original hoses remained. Most of the French firemen had left when the US took over the ship: the civilian ‘fire watchers’ that replaced them were totally untrained in the equipment aboard or emergency procedures. This created confusion and mayhem. And the result was the devastating loss of Normandie!
Extracted from Volume 1 and Volume 5 of the Normandie Series.
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