A searing memory: 'Nothing but flames everywhere'

April 06, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The fire erupted about an hour out of Baltimore, off Anne Arundel County near Seven Mile Knoll and Bodkin Creek. Within three minutes, all of the steamship City of Baltimore was ablaze and passengers on a Summer of 1937 cruise down the Chesapeake were leaping into the bay.

Elliott White was on board with his wife, Stella. He was 26, the same age as the ship, working as a quartermaster and drawing a Depression-era salary of about $60 a month. Mrs. White, who grew up on Lee Street in South Baltimore as Stella Shiflett, was a young wife back then. She had decided to accompany her husband that Thursday on a routine run from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va.

The alarms began sounding a little before 8 p.m., and as the long night of July 29 turned to the early morning of July 30, the Whites found themselves on separate rescue boats with no knowledge of who had perished and who had not.

"There was nothing but flames everywhere," said Mr. White, now 84 and a retired tugboat captain. "That main deck was all wood and she was dry as powder."

The 80-year-old Mrs. White, who doesn't swim, said she tried not to get excited, that she stifled screams out of respect for her husband's position as a ship's officer, even when "they thought Elliott was lost."

Of the 96 people on board the 297 1/2 -foot long steamer, three were lost: passenger Jacob S. Polikoff and two crew members, Abel Whealton and Cyrus Haynie. The ship's captain, Charles O. Brooks, had his license suspended because he failed to immediately sound a general alarm and was lax in getting passengers into lifeboats. Second engineer Albert Neill was also found guilty of negligence for not using all available pumps to bring water on the fire.

And the Whites, who before now have never sat down to tell the story, won't ever forget the most dramatic night of their lives.

An exact cause was never established, but investigators believed a lighted cigar or cigarette got caught under a load of 100-pound bags of sugar before the City of Baltimore left the Chesapeake Lines' Pier 19 terminal on Light Street.

Most of the passengers were in the salon or the dining room when the fire was discovered by a 21-year-old kitchen helper named James Johnson. Buckets of galley water had no effect.

"My cousin Macon was the bartender in a lounge on the quarter-deck and we were talking to him when I saw smoke going by the window," remembered Mr. White, who was off duty when fire broke out in the hold. "I took Stella by the hand and said: 'Let's get out of here.' We were going up the steps when the bell went off. We got her a life preserver and I headed for my fire station. When I got down to the freight deck, the purser said: 'Whitey, get out of here. There's nothing you can do.' "

With the canvas covering the main deck burning as fast as the 20-mph winds behind it, Captain Brooks gave the order to man the life boats. Mr. White was on the starboard side; the intense heat kept other boats from coming alongside, and the shore was thick with locals from Bayside and Pinehurst watching flame jumping 50 feet and higher.

Six lifeboats rowed away from the blaze with Mr. White at the helm of one of them, steering toward the pilot boat William D. Sanner. A knot of passengers was still on the City of Baltimore, huddled on the bow until flames forced them to jump. The Sanner picked up about 60 people from the lifeboats, including Mrs. White.

"Before we even got to it, a man jumped and hung on [to the Sanner] by his fingers, he was so scared," she said.

Mrs. White was not in her husband's lifeboat and he did not see her board the Sanner, which immediately turned for Baltimore. Bottles of liquor were passed out to the rescued, but Mrs. White says she did not partake.

"People were saying this one didn't live and that one didn't live," said Mrs. White. "I didn't know whether he was alive or not."

Other survivors brought to shore were driven into town by residents who had opened their homes to the victims or were taken to hospitals by ambulance. Mr. White boarded the Love Point ferry, which made its scheduled stop at Love Point before heading back up the Patapsco.

By midnight, the City of Baltimore lay grounded in 13 feet of water some 500 feet east of Bodkin Point, its hull still burning.

About the same time, the ferry delivered Mr. White to Light Street. Mrs. White arrived at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point about 1:30 a.m. Not long afterward, they were back together at the Recreation Pier, where their reunion kiss was captured by photographers from the local papers.

"I said to her: 'Hon, you can take your life preserver off now. We're on dry land.' "

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