By 9th February 1942 work was well-advanced on adapting USS Lafayette (ex-Normandie) into a troopship, capable of carrying over 14,000 troops. There were over 3,000 workers aboard, including civilian contractors, Coast Guards, Navy personnel and others. Concerns were raised about safety on board, and it had been decided to remove the four large lighting fixtures and benches in the Grand Salon. The glass segments were dismantled and taken ashore, and the seating removed, leaving the basic metal frames. The carpet in the Grand Salon had been rolled up, ready to be replaced with linoleum. The fireproof partition between the Grand Salon and the Smoking Room had been dismantled. Also in the Grand Salon were bundles of lifejackets, filled with kapok and wrapped in hessian.
The lighting stanchions were 15 feet high, on a 20 inch base that contained ventilation ducts. It was decided to leave the bases, to create large tables, but to cut off the stanchions. A welding/cutting crew were assigned to the job. The first two stanchions were removed before lunch. After lunch the two men assigned to hold asbestos sheets to contain any sparks had been assigned to other work, and the replacements hadn’t arrived. The team removed the third stanchion and moved on to the fourth one. The cutting crew had to toss bundles of lifejackets to one side to create space. Apart from a couple of buckets of water, there were no hoses laid down, and no other precautions taken. As Clement Derrick shut through the leg of the stanchion, sparks from the oxy-acetylene torch caught on some of the life-jackets, which quickly caught fire.
The foreman ran for the hose on the Promenade Deck but there was no pressure in the main; the instructions were still in French which no-one could understand. Some of the nearby workers tried to toss the burning bundles of lifejackets outside, but some fell on the carpeting, which in turn started it burn. The central fire station had been dismantled and the replacement had not yet been set up. The alarm system to the local city fire brigade had been disconnected when the US Navy took over the vessel. There were a few fire extinguishers in nearby lockers, but no-one knew they were there, and by this time would have been inadequate anyway.
The fire doors to the Main Salon, which should have been shut, were open and the fire started to spread. Other fire doors were blocked with scaffolding, tools and debris and couldn’t be shut. Some 15 minutes after the fire started the first fire engines arrived, and soon after the first fire boat. The firemen struggled to get on board as all the workers were fighting to get off. Some workers had to be rescued from ladders propped up from the quayside to the bow!
Several hours after, with too much water aboard and no way of draining it fast enough, Lafayette slowly started to list, and sadly, some 12 hours after the fire had started, she rolled over and capsized. Although many ideas were suggested in the coming months to raise her and rebuild her, it was not economical or practical, and by now the war was entering a new phase. Finally the decision was taken to dismantle most of her superstructure, the raise the rest and scrap the remains.