SS Volturno was a steel-hulled ship built for £80,000 in 1906 by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Govan, near Glasgow, Scotland, for Navigazione Italo-Americano of Naples. The ship had twin screw propellers, each powered by a coal-fired triple-expansion steam engine. The vessel was about 354 feet long and about 43 feet in width, and had a modest top speed of around 14 knots. The ship was used for hauling a mixed load cargo and passengers, a small portion of whom were in first class (or cabin), and the majority of whom were in third class (or steerage).
After the ship changed hands several times, it came under control of the Canadian Northern Steamship Company (an affiliate of the Canadian Northern Railway) and eventually chartered to the Uranium Steamship Company in about 1909, where it was placed in transatlantic service. The ship sailed between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and New York City, making a stop in Halifax in between on westbound trips, taking about four weeks to make a complete circuit.
On Thursday, 2 October 1913, Volturno sailed from Rotterdam with 561 passengers and 93 crew, and a mixed cargo that included some highly flammable chemicals. Early on the morning of 9 October, while Volturno was sailing through a strong northwesterly gale, a cry of fire rang out through the ship. The number one cargo hold, in the front of the ship, was found to be fully engaged in flames.
The initial surge of the fire killed four crewmen while they slept in the forecastle. The British captain, Francis Inch, oversaw the initial fire fighting efforts, while others in the crew evacuated the passenger compartments and ushered everyone to the back of the ship. Shortly into the firefighting efforts, some of the cargo exploded, which may have killed as many as dozens more passengers and crew. Fearing that any further explosion might quickly send the ship to the bottom, Captain Inch ordered the lifeboats to be filled and deployed.
Six boat launches were attempted in the 30-foot seas, resulting in four boats smashed against the heaving ship, killing almost all the occupants of each. Only two boats got away with anyone on board, and one of those had to be righted after overturning and losing its passengers to the sea. By this time, the radio operator had gotten in contact with several vessels who were altering courses to aid the stricken ship. Knowing that help was on the way, Inch suspended boat launches and focused on containing the fire. Several on board despaired of rescue and chose death by ocean rather than by flame.
By mid afternoon, the fire had spread to the coal bunkers, cutting off most of the fuel for the ship’s engines. As the limited coal supply dwindled, the engines’ power faded and, consequently, the power for the fire hose pumps and the ship’s wireless was lost. The wireless operator switched over to battery-powered emergency set and continued sending and receiving messages until the antenna was carried away the explosion of the ship’s magazine.
The Cunard Line’s Carmania was the first of eleven rescue ships to arrive, and launched a boat of its own. After futilely trying to reach Volturno for hours, Carmania‘s boat was recovered without rescuing a single person. As other ships arrived throughout the afternoon and into the night, most other captains launched boats as well. Although several boats were able to approach near to Volturno, the rolling ship and crashing waves kept them from getting near enough to pull passengers from the burning liner. Some boat crews were able to convince a few passengers to jump, and returned with handfuls of Volturno refugees.
One of the last ships to arrive was the Standard Oil tanker Narragansett, sailing with a load of lubricating oil out of New York. To help calm the seas, Narragansett sprayed some 50 tons of oil over the surface of the ocean, rendering dangerous crashing waves into gentle swells. Combined with the lessening of the gale, this action enabled boats from nearly all of the ships to swarm Volturno and pull off all of the remaining people. Captain Inch was the last person to leave the ship.
The ten ships dispersed in all directions seeking Volturno’s two lost lifeboats (which were never found), before resuming their own transatlantic journeys, four headed to North America and six to Europe.
All told, 457 passengers and 63 crew were rescued by ten of the ships. The North German Lloyd steamer Grosser Kurfürst and the Russian American steamer Czar did the lion’s share with 208 between them, while the other ships ranged between the one rescued by Carmania up to the 86 by the Red Star Line’s Kroonland (which included Captain Inch).
All but 20 of those landed in Europe crossed the ocean again to end up in North America. The American Red Cross, the Hebrew Sheltering Home, the Clara De Hirsch Home, and the Settlement Home assisted a majority of those that landed in the United States, with the Red Cross also monetarily aiding those whose intended destination was Canada.