Even though it led to tough new safety standards for cruise ships, the fire that killed nearly 100 passengers on the S.S. Yarmouth Castle in 1965 has been all but forgotten, with a few exceptions.
Bob and Marge Jackson of Vero Beach are among those who have never forgotten the night of Nov. 13, 1965. They lost two family members when the ship caught fire and sank while heading from Miami to Nassau. In April, from her balcony on a Disney cruise ship, Marge was able to see the approximate spot where the ship went down about 60 miles northwest of Nassau. She looked out at the sea and said a prayer for Louise Jackson, whose remains still rest inside the sunken ship.
Louise Jackson, Bob’s stepmother, was an active community volunteer and Welcome Wagon hostess who delivered gifts and good wishes to Vero newcomers. She arranged to take her daughter, Marty, on the cruise. Twenty-one year old Marty had graduated from Vero Beach High School and attended the new Indian River Junior College in Fort Pierce. She was working for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., when her mother offered her the trip.
“It was Marty’s first time away from home and this was probably her first vacation,” Marge said. “They were excited about the trip. They were happy, so happy about it.”
Louise, her husband and Marty’s stepfather, Bill, and Marty attended a service at Trinity Episcopal Church in Vero the Sunday before their departure. Mark Jackson, Louise’s son and Bill’s stepson, served as an acolyte at the service. The following Friday, Marge drove Louise and Marty to Vero’s Greyhound bus station, where they boarded a bus that took them to the Port of Miami.
Around midnight on the first night of the cruise, a stack of mattresses, some wooden furniture and cleaning supplies ignited in a storage room right next to the Yarmouth Castle’s boiler, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported in a 1988 retrospective story about the disaster. The fire spread quickly through the ship’s wooden superstructure.
“Fire hoses were manned and the valves turned on,” the newspaper wrote. “But the hoses lay limp; there was no water pressure. With terrifying speed, the blaze began to consume the 39-year-old ship`s wooden superstructure, sweeping from midship forward and aft, top to bottom. Soon it was out of control.”
The newspaper said the ship’s alarm system was quickly put out of commission by the fire, so that no alarm sounded to awaken the passengers.
“The ship`s radio shack, a wooden cabin, went up so fast that no distress signal was sent,” the newspaper stated. “Five hours later, the 5,000-ton Yarmouth Castle, flames shooting 150 feet into the night sky, slid beneath the ocean`s surface, taking 83 people to a watery grave. Another eight would die later from their injuries.”
Louise and Marty probably were sleeping in their cabin when the fire broke out. Marty later said her mother fell to the floor in a hallway engulfed by smoke and flames. Marty was burned over 80 percent of her body as she made futile attempts to move her mother. Marty got off the ship alive, but at a terrible price. She had to make her way down a rope ladder with rescuers because the pulleys that held lifeboats in place did not work. Somehow, she fell into the salt water before being picked up by a lifeboat. She and about 30 other survivors were taken to Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau.
News of the event was slow reaching the U.S. in that pre-Internet age, which must have been torturous to worried families. A Welcome Wagon associate of Louise’s called Bob and Marge and said she had heard “something on the radio,” Marge recalled.
“We were terrified,” she said. “We were just trying to find out something.”
Bob, a lawyer, called a former University of Florida law school classmate in Miami and got him to help find out what happened. Also, Miami Mayor Robert King High flew to Nassau and was helpful to anxious families, as was U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers, the Jacksons said.
Bob and Mark flew to Nassau to visit Marty at her bedside.
“I think Bob’s first words were, ‘It’s Bob,’ and I think that meant so much to her,” Marge said.
Marty and other critically injured passengers were flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for treatment in the hospital’s renowned burn unit. Bob, Marge and Mark visited her twice a week for the next three weeks. She suffered terribly from the burns that blackened most of her body.
“She couldn’t touch her hands much, because they were burned so badly,” Marge said. “She was very conscious about how she looked. At one point, they took he bandages off and soaked her body. She could see how she had been burned. She kept asking about her mother. It was so hard on Mark to see his sister this way. I think it tore him up.”
“She felt like she probably was going to die, but she did everything they asked her to do,” Bob said. “She wanted to live so badly.”
One day, Bob took bags of Indian River oranges to the hospital and said Marty told him which nurses to give the fruit to. She seemed to be improving, but when Bob got home around 8 p.m., a doctor called to tell him she had died. The doctor told him it wasn’t unusual for a mortally ill patient to rally before passing away.
The Jackson family has deep roots in Vero’s McAnsh Park neighborhood. Marge grew up in the Cortez Avenue house that has a distinctive round sunroom that’s visible from State Road 60. Bill, Louise, Marty and Mark lived on nearby Cordova Avenue, just west of Troy Moody Park, a round expanse of green space in the middle of the neighborhood. Bob and Marge raised their three children in their home just north of the park, and the couple still live there.
Known as the “Welcome Wagon lady” and “Lady Louise,” Louise Jackson volunteered every week with the Indian River Memorial Hospital Auxiliary. She was a member of the Vero Beach Woman’s Club, Golden Wheel and was a charter member of the Pilot Club of Indian River County. Bill had retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before the family moved to Vero in the early 1950s. He later was a writer and editor for the Press Journal.
Bob said his father never recovered from the tragedy, which was compounded three years later. Mark, an honor student at Vero Beach High School, ran track and played the trumpet in the band. After graduating in 1966, he went to the University of Florida for one year before enlisting in the Army. A first lieutenant in the Infantry, he was killed in Vietnam in 1968 when his helicopter was shot down. He received three Bronze Stars for heroism.
“That tore my father up,” Bob said. “His health was never the same after that.”
As for the Yarmouth Castle, its demise led some people to think South Florida’s cruise line industry might come to an end. Instead, the tragedy led to new safety regulations, including tough fire prevention standards The Coast Guard banned the construction of wood superstructures on all passenger ships that sailed out of U.S. ports. But the captain’s actions at sea that night in 1965 are sadly similar to two recent events, the sinking of a ferry in South Korea in April and of the Contra Concordia cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 2012. Neither ship’s captain went down with his ship. The same was true of the Yarmouth Castle.
“The captain of the Yarmouth Castle jumped ship,” Bob Jackson said, “He tried to board the Norwegian Bahama Star, which was behind them. They wouldn’t let him on.”
Bob and Marge said they never got as much as a letter or phone call from the Yarmouth Castle owners after the disaster. Later, the affected families sued the cruise company to recover damages.
“The company had to pay, and they paid everybody something,” Bob said. “It might have been about $100,000.”
In April, Marge took some younger members of the family on a little vacation. Daughter Jennifer Jackson Pileggi, her husband, Richard, and their children, Jackson, Lillian and Isabel, joined Marge for a four-night Disney cruise to Nassau.
Marge got in touch with the ship’s captain and asked him to show her the approximate location of the Yarmouth Castle sinking. None of the officers she talked to had heard about the disaster.
“I had to educate the whole crew!” she said. “The first officer had not heard about it, the purser had not, and the captain had not. I told them I don’t do the Internet but I know it’s there, so look it up!”
They learned that the tragedy had led to new safety standards for cruise ships. The Coast Guard strengthened safety rules as a direct result of deficiencies on the Yarmouth Castle.
“The captain was so kind,” she said. “He said when we left we would be heading northwest and he said for me at 5:30 to go outside on the balcony and look southwest, and within a ten-mile stretch that would be the closest we would get to the site. I wanted to see where the ship went down. Of course, Louise is still there.”