Today marks the 98th anniversary of the fire aboard SS Volturno that led to the ship’s destruction and the deaths of 30 crew members and over 100 passengers.
Although several time zones to the west of where Volturno met its end, I was, just like those on the ill-fated ship, awakened this morning shortly after 6:00 a.m. to the sounds of a heavy storm. Unlike those on Volturno, however, I awakened in a comfortable bed and in a sturdy house, which is firmly attached to solid ground and most decidedly not burning out of control.
When I think of the Volturno disaster, I’ve always tried to imagine what it must have been like on board the Volturno at that time. I’ve tried to imagine the sounds. The clamor of hundreds of people speaking many languages. The shouts of officers and crew making vain attempts to fight the fire. The yells of families struggling to stay together. The prayers for deliverance. A shofar blowing against the roar of gale-force winds. Each pop of the hull, expanding from the flames like a giant radiator, inducing fresh shrieks from panicked passengers. All of this overlaid on the sounds a ship straining against heavy seas.
I’ve tried to visualize the sights on board the ship. The smoke and flames erupting from the front half of the ship. The sight of lifeboats—seeming to be, at first, the only salvation from death by fire or water—overturned in the water or smashed against the ship, their occupants claimed by the heaving sea. The sight of panicked passengers and crewmen jumping to their deaths to flee the conflagration. Watching as the ship’s fire hoses played on the flames with little effect. Seeing the dazed passengers—some clad only in sleeping clothes, most not dressed to be in the weather—huddled at the back of the ship. Observing the rescue ship lifeboats one after another, futilely striving against the sea. Experiencing the eerie glow of a ship illuminated at night only by flames and a setting moon, while surrounded by nearly a dozen ships, each fully lit, circling tantalizingly close.
I’ve tried to imagine the smells. The smell of the ocean. And rain. The crisp autumn air blowing in from the northwest. The smells of 600 people a week at sea in cramped quarters. Coal smoke emerging from Volturno’s stack. The pungent smells of burning chemicals and hot metal. The smells of coffee and baking bread emerging from Volturno’s galley even as the fire raged.
I’ve tried to understand how it would be to feel the sensations of being on a pitching ship settling to starboard and by the bow. To shiver in the cold air and rain even while the deck below continued to get hotter underfoot. To jump from the deck of the rolling ship, when lifeboats were finally able to approach, plunging into the cold ocean with hopes of being dragged into a waiting boat.
As much as I can’t ever know for sure, I can at least imagine what it might have been like to be on Volturno during that storm, fire, and rescue, in that early October, 98 years ago today.
I’ll be keeping the victims of the disaster in my thoughts today, and hope that you will, too.