The steamship Yarmouth Castle was built in 1927 and was christened Evangeline. At that time Evangeline and Yarmouth, her sister ship, operated on the Boston to Yarmouth, NS route of the Eastern Steamship Lines.
The ship caught fire and sank on November 13, 1965 while en route from Miami, Florida to Nassau, Bahamas. Of the 376 passengers and 176 crew on board, 88 passengers and two crew died. The ship was built in 1927 with a wooden superstructure. Wood and other flammable materials were used throughout the ship. As the US Coast Guard investigation noted, the foreign-flag vessel was not subject to USCG inspection. Passenger ship construction standards were subsequently strengthened and US law was amended to provide for examination by the Coast Guard of foreign passenger vessels embarking passengers in a US port to ensure compliance with international standards.
Yarmouth Castle departed Miami for Nassau on 12 November 1965 with 376 passengers and 176 crewmen aboard, a total of 552 people. The ship was due to arrive in Nassau the next day. The captain on the voyage was 35-year-old Byron Voutsinas.
Shortly before 1:00 a.m. on 13 November, a mattress stored too close to a lighting circuit in a storage room, Room 610, caught fire. The room was filled with mattresses and paint cans, which fed the flames.
At around 1:00 a.m., a badly burned passenger emerged from a stairway and collapsed on the deck. Crewmen who rushed to the man’s aid found the stairwell filled with smoke and flames. The watch officer immediately notified Captain Voutsinas of the fire. The captain ordered the second mate to sound the alarm on the ship’s horn, but the bridge went up in flames before the alarm could be sounded. The ship’s radio operator, who had been off duty, found the radio shack to be completely ablaze by the time he reached it. By this time, Yarmouth Castle was 120 miles east of Miami and 60 miles northwest of Nassau.
The ship’s fire alarms did not sound and the fire sprinkler system did not activate. The fire swept through the ship’s superstructure at great speed, driven by the ship’s natural ventilation system. The flames rose vertically through the stairwells, fuelled by the wood paneling, wooden decks and layers of fresh paint on the walls. Passengers were awakened by screaming and running in the corridors as people frantically tried to find lifejackets. Many passengers had to break windows and squeeze through portholes to exit their burning cabins. The whole front half of the ship was quickly engulfed, causing passengers and crew to flee to the stern of the ship. Several of Yarmouth Castle‘s lifeboats burned before they could be launched.
More problems ensued. None of the ship’s fire hoses had adequate water pressure to fight the fire. One of the hoses had even been cut. Crewmen also had difficulty launching the lifeboats. The ropes used to lower the boats had been covered in thick coats of paint, causing them to jam in the winches. Even the boats that were successfully lowered had no oarlocks and had to be paddled like canoes. By the end, only six of the thirteen lifeboats had been launched.
There were tales of both courage and cowardice among the crew. Many fled the ship without helping the passengers. Others pulled passengers from the windows of their cabins and directed them to rope ladders on the side of the ship. Some crew members had to physically throw weak and panic-stricken people off the side of the ship, away from the spreading flames. Several sailors even gave away their lifejackets.
Fourteen critically injured people were taken by helicopter from Bahama Star to Nassau hospitals. Bahama Starrescued 240 passengers and 133 crewmen. The Finnpulprescued 51 passengers and 41 crewmen. Both ships arrived in Nassau on 13 November.
Eighty-seven people went down with the ship, and three of the rescued passengers later died at hospitals, bringing the final death toll to 90. Of the dead only two were crew members: stewardess Phyllis Hall and Dr. Lisardo Diaz-Toorens, the ship’s physician. While some bodies were recovered, most were lost with the ship.
An investigation into the sinking was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which issued a 27-page report on the disaster in March 1966.
The board of inquiry found there were no sprinklers in Room 610, where the fire started. Mattresses had been stacked improperly close to the ceiling light, which was the ultimate cause of the fire.
Room 610 was unsuitable as a cabin because it was too hot, being located directly above the boiler room. The paneling and suspended ceiling had been removed from the room a month before the blaze, and the exposed insulation fuelled the fire.
Excessive layers of paint were also found to be at fault. Walls were never stripped before being re-painted, which the board maintained was a fire hazard. Painted ropes had prevented several of Yarmouth Castle‘s lifeboats from being launched. Some passengers had difficulty escaping their cabins, as the clamps on the portholes had been painted over.
The Coast Guard discovered numerous other violations: No fire doors were closed during the blaze. Lifejackets were not stored in every cabin. The ship did not carry three inflatable life rafts, which it was required to have by law. There was only one radio operator on board, while the law required two. Passengers had also never been informed of evacuation procedures.
Yarmouth Castle had passed a safety check and fire drill three weeks before she burned and sank. However, the ship did not need to conform to American safety regulations since it was registered under the Panamanian flag. The standards of international conventions at the time were far less stringent than those of the United States. Also, Yarmouth Castle had been built in 1927, and did not conform to many safety rules adopted since then. Yarmouth Castle‘s largely wooden superstructure was found to be the main cause of the fire’s rapid spread.
Captain Voutsinas and other members of the crew were ultimately charged with violation of duty for leaving the ship before attempting to rescue passengers.
The Yarmouth Castle disaster was followed by updates to SOLAS, the Safety of Life at Sea law. The updated law mandated new maritime safety rules concerning fire drills, safety inspections, and structural changes in new ships. Under SOLAS, any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers now is required to be built entirely of non-combustible materials such as steel.