SS Volturno (1906)

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SS Volturno was an ocean liner that burned and sank in the North Atlantic in October 1913. She was a Royal Line ship under charter to the Uranium Line at the time of her fire. After the ship issued SOS signals, eleven ships came to her aid and rescued 520 passengers and crewmen. About 130 people—most of them women and children in unsuccessfully launched lifeboats—died in the incident. Volturno had been built by Fairfield in Govan and was completed in November 1906.

Fire and sinking

At about 06:00 on 9 October 1913, Volturno, carrying mostly immigrants bound for New York, caught fire in the middle of a gale in the North Atlantic. The crew attempted to fight the fire for about two hours, but, realizing the severity of the fire and the limited options for dousing it in the high seas, Captain Francis Inch had his wireless operator send out SOS signals. Eleven ships heeded the calls and headed to Voturno's reported position, arriving throughout the day and into the next.[1] In the meantime, several of Volturno's lifeboats with women and children aboard were launched with tragic results; all the boats either capsized or were smashed by the hull of the heaving ship, leaving no one alive from these first boats.[1]

Captain James Clayton Barr of Carmania, the first ship to arrive, took command of the rescue effort.[2] Barr had the other nine vessels form a "battle line" of sorts and slowly circle the burning ship. Throughout the night of 10/11 October, Carmania kept one of her searchlights on Volturno, with another sweeping the ring of rescue ships to help them avoid collisions.[1] Despite Carmania's efforts, two of the ships, the Red Star liner Kroonland and the French Line steamer La Touraine almost collided, coming, according to one passenger, within 15 feet (4.6 m) of impact.[3]

In the high seas, the rescue ships had launched lifeboats of their own to try and take passengers off the stricken Volturno, but the poor weather, high seas, and a reluctance of Volturno's passengers to jump into the frigid waters hampered rescue efforts. On board Volturno, the crew and some of the male passengers, unable to extinguish the fire, were at least able to keep it from spreading to the aft cargo holds, over which the others on board were gathered. But, shortly before dawn, a large explosion—probably of her boilers—rocked Volturno. At this point, the rescuers felt that the ship, which had not been in imminent danger of sinking up to this point, might founder at any time. In the early morning of 11 October, the tanker Narragansett, one of the eleven rescue vessels, turned on her pumps and sprayed lubricating oil on the sea to help calm the surface.[1] The combination of the oil and the lessening of the storm allowed many more lifeboats to be sent to Volturno's aid.

With all boats recovered by 09:00, the rescue ships all resumed their original courses.[1] In all, 521 passengers and crew members were rescued by ten of the eleven ships. The death toll was 136, mostly women and children from the early lifeboat launchings.[1]

On the night of 17 October, the Dutch tanker Charlois, unaware of the events of the week before, came upon the still smoldering hulk of Volturno. Charlois lowered a boat that stood by, attempting to hail any possible survivors on board. When day broke on 18 October, Captain Schmidt saw the full extent of the damage, and realizing that Volturno was a hazard to passing ships, ordered Volturno's seacocks opened. As the ship slowly took on water, she slipped beneath the waves.[4]

Rescue ships

Ships that participated in the Volturno rescue:[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "135 perish when ship burns at sea". The Washington Post: p. 1. 12 October 1913. 
  2. "Capt. Barr Cites Log On Volturno. Says Carmania's Part in Rescue Work Was Misrepresented in English Reports.". New York Times. October 27, 1913. Retrieved 2010-02-26. "The Cunard liner Carmania arrived yesterday from Liverpool with forty-three survivors from the Volturno, including twenty-two women and children who had been rescued by the Leyland steamship Devonian and landed at Liverpool." 
  3. "Ships near a crash in aiding Volturno" (pdf). The New York Times: p. 8. 19 October 1913. Retrieved 21 June 2008. 
  4. Spurgeon, pp. 66–68.
  5. Spurgeon, pp. 57–58.
  6. "Capt. Spangenberg of German Liner Praises Work of His Officers and Men.". New York Times. October 16, 1913. Retrieved 2010-02-26. "Capt. Spangenberg of the Grosser Kurfurst and his officers told yesterday of the rescue of passengers from the Volturno." 


  • Spurgeon, Arthur (1913). The burning of the "Volturno". London: Cassell and Company. OCLC 8318646. 

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