Carelessness – Time Magazine, Monday, Feb. 23, 1942

The Lafayette lay on her side like a dead whale, belly exposed, in the dirty ice mush of her slip in the Hudson River. Snow fell gently on the mammoth, fire-scarred hulk. Thousands of New Yorkers trooped to the waterfront to stare at her. She was a heartbreaking sight. Evidence grew that the catastrophe need never have occurred. While rumors of sabotage still persisted, evidence at hand showed something worse than sabotage: carelessness. The story was pretty clear: Workmen had been stripping the onetime Normandie of her peacetime elegance. She would have been ready for U.S. military service in about two weeks. Already aboard were 400 U.S. Naval officers, sailors, 300 Coast Guards. Working on her were 1,500 civilians. In the grand salon on the promenade deck, a workman with an acetylene torch cut through the last of four ornamental steel stanchions. So close to him that his back touched them as he worked were piled kapok life preservers, wrapped in tar paper and burlap. Sparks from his torch must have shot into the pile. Smoke puffed up. Flames spurted. Only two buckets of water were at hand. Workmen had to flee. From the deck outside they poked a hose through a window. A feeble stream had no effect. Fire licked along ceilings, cabin walls, panelings. All that afternoon the Lafayette burned. Held back by policemen, Army & Navy patrols, crowds choked the streets, jammed skyscraper windows. Among the watchers was a small, greying man with a heavy accent. With agonized eyes Vladimir Yourkevitch, naval architect, designer of the ship’s hull, watched the Lafayette burn. Suspicious policemen refused to let him through the lines. In the pier shed beside the ship, tall, urbane Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews, Chief of the Third Naval District, watched too. Admiral Andrews was still watching at 2:35 in the morning, when the doomed liner, listing heavily now from the tons of water poured into her from fireboats, turned quietly over on her side. Who Was to Blame? Angry and shocked, the country scowled around for a scapegoat. The blistered decks were scarcely cool when New York’s tabloid PM released the story of a gumshoe investigation, made weeks before the fire by Reporter Edmund Scott, a story which PM had suppressed at the time because it was “a blueprint for sabotage.” Masquerading as a longshoreman, Scott had got a job with a crew hired to lug furniture ashore. Scott found that almost anyone could get aboard, longshoremen were hired by minor labor bosses who could be greased; Federal authorities made no checkups; there was no real surveillance; no fire drills; no fire stations had been assigned. In short, the Lafayette had been wide open to sabotage. PM said these facts had been reported to Captain Charles H. Zearfoss, the Maritime Commission’s anti-sabotage chief, who denied the findings (said PM), merely replied: “Get your reporter out of there before he gets shot.” FBI nosed around. District Attorney Frank S. Hogan questioned more than a hundred witnesses. Not until all the evidence was in could the question of sabotage be determined. But the story of carelessness looked worse & worse. The Navy maintained that responsibility for fire precautions was up to the Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co., conversion contractors This week a court of inquiry under Rear Admiral Lamar R. Leahy, retired, sat down to try to fix the blame. Did the Lafayette’s elaborate fire-detector system operate? What had happened to her fire-fighting equipment? Was a fire patrol on watch? Why allow men to operate acetylene torches so close to inflammable kapok? And why had the ship been allowed to capsize? The fire had been doused in some six hours. When she showed signs of overturning, she might have been scuttled (to settle securely in the mud, only eight or ten feet below her bottom), or tanks on her starboard side might have been correctly flooded to counteract the weight of the water on her portside. One attempt at flooding was made, but it was unsuccessful. Design and operating experts thought the primary negligence was in not having aboard a trained crew that really knew the ship. Said Designer Yourkevitch sadly: “She was helpless, like a sick man, unable to fight to save herself.” Engineers studied salvage plans. Designer Yourkevitch had one. After divers had sealed all openings, one after another of her compartments could be sealed and pumped out until she was buoyant. If water was then pumped into her double bottoms and deep tanks, Yourkevitch believes, the ship would finally right herself. At week’s end, as she must for many a coming week, the Lafayette lay, desolate and shameful, in the river’s grey ice.,9171,884442,00.html