Saturday, June 7, 2014
Looking back at Toronto's fireboat — the William Lyon Mackenzie
It wasn’t until the Canadians decided to go it alone that an agreement to have both sides jointly build the St. Lawrence Seaway was finally signed. The new waterway was officially opened by U.S. President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth on June 26, 1959.
With an increased number of large cargo ships coming into Toronto Harbour one obvious result of a new seaway city officials began to realize the need for improved safety equipment.
One thing high on the list of many was a new fireboat as was proved by the lack of a modern vessel to help fight the disastrous Noronic fire in September 1949. But as usually happens financing of a new vessel was a key concern.
In fact, some suggested that the oil companies that occupied much of the industrial area along Cherry and Commissioners streets should provide, at their cost, the necessary vessel.
The discussions dragged on with some senior politicians call the proposed fireboat nothing more than a “toy for the harbour of this (Toronto’s) size.”
Nevertheless, agreement was reached and $600,000 set aside in the estimates for a new fireboat that would sail into Toronto Harbour on May15, 1963, nearly four years after the new Seaway opened its massive locks and the Great Lakes to the world’s shipping.
Wednesday, July 21, 1965 was hot in Toronto and down on the waterfront things were about to get hotter. It was almost 2 in the afternoon and Captain Markos Lyras’ Greek freighter Orient Trader was about to depart Toronto having unloaded part of her cargo that among other things consisted of tons of raw rubber.
Still deep in the cargo holds were piles of rubber destined for several other ports located along the shores of the upper Great Lakes. The 20-year-old vessel had been built in a Baltimore shipyard right after the war and launched as the Stamford Victory, a name that was changed to one that would become part of Toronto Harbour history, Orient Trader, in 1960.
As the 7,700 ton freighter backed away from the dock wall near the foot of Yonge St. suddenly one of her crew members began shouting “FIRE, FIRE."
Within seconds plumes of heavy black smoke began pouring out of one of the holds. Alarms were rung in and only minutes passed before city fire trucks were on the scene. However, with the ship moored lengthwise against the dock the firemen could only attack from the city side what had now become a roaring inferno deep within the ship.
The steel hull plates had turned white as a result of the internal heat and began to buckle.
Rumours began to spread that the ship would explode and when it did much of the east end of the waterfront (that in the sixties still consisted of sprawling product-filled warehouses, numerous small commercial businesses and several industries including Victory Soya Mills and part of the Gooderham and Worts complex) would be destroyed.
To the rescue came Toronto’s year-old fireboat, the one that many of the city’s long-time politicians said we didn’t need nor could afford.
The first thing the William Lyon Mackenzie (so named in honour of our first mayor) did was to assist pulling the burning ship away from the city and out into the relative safety of the east end of the harbour.
For the next 24 hours Mackenzie continued to pour thousands of gallons of water on the blaze through her 12 hoses.
Thanks to the gallant firefighters and the fireboat many didn’t want the city was saved from what might have become the worst waterfront disaster since the destruction of the SS Noronic and the loss of 119 lives when the popular passenger cruise ship caught fire while moored at her Bay St. passenger terminal in September of 1949.
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