Tragic Fire at Sea in the Meteor 1971

by Captain Tony Toxopeus 2016

Meteor with Ready and Racer

The cruise liner Meteor on fire being assisted by the CCGC Ready and the CCGC Racer. (Photo from the Toxopeus collection. )

When the Coast Guard base closed in Vancouver I found this photograph in the debris left behind so I saved it for its historic significance. Subsequently I found this quote in the H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest 1966 to 1976 (Ed. Gordon Newell) 1977:

"A tragic marine disaster in Pacific Northwest water was the sudden fire which swept the Norwegian cruise liner Meteor during the early morning hours of 22 May 1971, claiming the lives of 32 crew members.

The Meteor, a 297–ft motor liner of 2,856 gross tons, built in 1955, had arrived only recently as the first Scandinavian vessel to enter the increasingly popular British Columbia-Alaska cruise trade, with North Land Tours of Seattle as general agents. She was returning from one of her first cruises to the north, carrying only 67 passengers and a crew of 91 when the flash fire broke out below decks forward in the crew area as she was passing Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia, only 60 miles from Vancouver. The flames spread with such incredible rapidity that the 32 victims were trapped below decks and burned or suffocated to death in a matter of minutes. There was little or no apparent exterior damage to the ship.

The Meteor broadcast a mayday call on VHF Channel 6, but not on the international distress frequency, which is the only one required by law to be monitored by other vessels. Fortunately, the Alaska State ferry Malaspina, which was in the immediate vicinity, was monitoring both channels and responded quickly to the call, as did Northland Navigation’s motor vessel Island Prince and the coastal tanker B.C. Standard, and several smaller craft. Using boats from the Meteor and Malaspina, all passengers and four injured crew members were taken aboard the ferry and returned to Vancouver. Most of the passengers were still in night clothes, so sudden was the disaster and subsequent evacuation of the liner. All of them were united in their praise of the Meteor's surviving crew for their efficiency in fighting the fire and in awakening and evacuating the passengers safely.

The Canadian Coast Guard cutters Racer and Ready and salvage tug Sudbury II stood by the Meteor playing hoses on the fire until it was under control, after which the Norwegian vessel reached Vancouver under her own power, although listing about 15 degrees to starboard.

At the subsequent investigation, Captain Alf Morner, the Meteor's Master, told a grisly story of men ‘crawling like animals’ through smoke–filled corridors in an attempt to save trapped crew members in the forward section. His voice cracked by sobs, Captain Morner told an inquest jury at Vancouver he led a small party of men into the fire areas shortly after the fire broke out. He said he shook some bodies he came across and was shocked to learn they were dead because they had not been burned. A Norwegian investigating commission attributed the fire to negligence on the part of one of the crew members, probably through careless disposal of a cigarette. Apparently the negligent seaman was one of those who died in the fire.

Captain John A. Boden, the Canadian pilot who was aboard the Meteor at the time of the fire, testified that the firefighting efforts of the surviving members of the crew and the work of the two Can. Coast Guard cutters saved the ship from total loss. Captain Harold Payne, in command of the Malaspina at the time of the rescue, was subsequently given an award of commendation by Governor William A. Egan of Alaska for him and his crew.

Editor’s Note: Captain Tony Toxopeus is a Licensed Master (500 GRT) with Transport Canada. He has served as Master (Captain), Coxswain and ‘Pilot’ on numerous lifeboats, ships and Hovercraft. He also held a Dynamically Supported Craft Captains license Unlimited (Specialized certification high performance vessels including SWATH, Hovercraft, Air Cushion Vehicles, ACV’s, Hydrofoils); He holds a United States Coast Guard USCG Surfmans Certificate (Heavy Weather and Surf Operations) and a Canadian Coast Guard Coxswains Certificate. He spent for than ten years gaining experience and was a founding instructor at the Canadian Coast Guards Rigid Hull Inflatable Offshore Training School (RHIOT School). Overall he has more than 30+ years experience Canadian Coast Guard Search & Rescue B.C. Coastal waters on Rigid Hull Inflatables Lifeboats Ships and Hovercraft; He is currently an Accredited Marine Surveyor (SAMS # 096) 1988 – Present

To quote from this article please cite:

Toxopeus, Captain Tony (2016) Tragic Fire at Sea in the Meteor 1971. 2016.


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