This account of 9/11 was submitted to our site by Bruce Vancil. We would love for you to submit your 9/11 stories as well.
By Bruce Vancil
On September 2nd, 2001, the s.s. NORWAY (ex FRANCE) began a voyage of 16 days promoted as her final Trans-Atlantic crossing. Beginning in Miami she would head up the coast with stops in New York, Halifax and St John’s before turning east onto the North Atlantic for a four-day crossing she would continue on to Glasgow, Dublin, Le Havre and Southampton. It was said to be an historic voyage. Some noted that it might be the last Trans-Atlantic steam passenger crossing ever. Everyone knew it would be memorable. Nobody knew just how memorable it would turn out to be.
The mood in Miami was high spirited. Everyone beamed with a sense of anticipation that they were taking part in history in the making. All were happy, all were eager to get on board, have their picture taken, not once but twice at the gangway using different settings. One involved live crew in show dancer’s garb. The party had begun.
Once my wife and I saw our cabin and became familiar with our surroundings it was time to go on deck and explore the public rooms. We had never been aboard this ship before and we took it as vital that we learn the layout as soon as possible to allow us free and easy navigation within the ship. Who wants to waist even one precious moment studying wall charts to find where one wants to go. That would be time wasted, indeed!
Key points of interest included Club Internationale, the former first class smoking lounge. It looked very much like an ocean liner lounge should look. It was easy to overlook the loss of the windows and patio aft of the room and focus instead on the two story high room and the high windows that showed passengers walking the circuit on the deck above. The Windward Dining Room (former 1st class dining room) was another main attraction. The group’s organizers had managed to get the entire SSHSA group into late seating in the Windward, save those who had requested an early seating or wanted the Leeward Dining Room to avoid the Windward’s notorious noise factor which was quite noticeable. Next on the list was the Sun Deck area to bask in the shadow of those famous winged funnels. Never mind that we were standing on decks that were considered by many the spoilage of the s.s. FRANCE’s fine original lines. From that vantage-point it was easy to see the artistic grace that those great funnels possessed. It did not matter that the wings were no longer functional in discharging the boiler’s heated gasses or that great tubular pipes extended noticeably above the center of each funnel. These unpainted silver toned metals obviously and almost unashamedly stood out as not part of the original sculpture that were those trade mark funnels. The image was still unmistakably s.s FRANCE.
It is fair to note here that I was on board to take advantage of his last reliable opportunity to sail on the s.s FRANCE. Since childhood I had considered the s.s. FRANCE the finest looking, the most beautiful liner ever built. Many have commented that her interiors were cold, sterile and almost uninviting – but she was a product of the late 50′s, after all. The trend in décor at the time was simplicity of lines, function over decoration and a love of the uncluttered and clean lines that deny the tradition of intricate art deco and powerful flowing lines that had for so long dominated liner interiors. In so far as what remains on board of the original s.s. FRANCE is scarce I found it all beautiful.
The sailing from Miami was beyond exuberant. Cars lined the highway, taxi’s stopped and drivers and occupants waved to the ship. A fireboat gushed, an elaborately decorated, two-masted yacht owned by a noted marine artist sailed along side flying a large union jack and a large banner that read “Farewell Norway, Godspeed”. Whistle blasts were sounded and answered repeatedly all along the channel as we headed to open sea.
Passengers crowded almost every open space along a rail to wave and take in the vast spectacle. At one point I was even able to make out the face of a friend on shore with whom I had dinned the night before. He and his family were standing exactly where he said they would be and were waving as hard as they could. It must have been hard to see the ship sail away after being so much of a fixture in Miami for some 20 years.
Standing with friends on the forward most end of the Sun Deck I could see the open sea ahead as we cleared the breakwater. As the small boats broke off their parade, we were left alone to head out for the 2 day run to New York.
The two days and nights after Miami and before New York were the prefect opportunity to rest up from the rush of getting away from the office and the many details that had to be secured before leaving. Lets not forget the mad rush to get to Miami that began with a 3:30 am airport shuttle. All together, enough reason to want the two days before starting in with shore excursions and other cruise type activities. The days passed quickly and easily with the usual pattern of formal night and the Captain’s Cocktail Party. SSHSA hosted a cocktail party of its own where guest lecturers were introduced, artists were presented to the audience and members mixed and socialized. For the first couple of days we took breakfast in our cabin so as not to start the day too early and tried each dining facility on board during lunches and snacks so as to experience all there was to offer. The only disappointment in dining was a space on International Deck all the way aft. The “Great Outdoor Restaurant” was little more than a cafeteria line that reminded me more of my high school than any grand Atlantic liner. The deck was crowded with tables, lines narrow, poorly marked and confusing to many as they would enter the wrong way, forget something and have to figure out some clever way to get back to the salad dressings (or whatever). It was famous for greatly varied food quality with “passable” being the highest mark I would give it. The one bright spot in this tragic facility was a small table set up next to the coffee and tea on the starboard side. This ship’s kitchen did produce the most wonderful, fresh, rich cookies you could ever want. That almost made up for everything else in there that was so disappointing. People would travel from pools and lounges from the furthest ends of the ship just to grab a couple of cookies to take back. Those of us in the late seating for dinner found the cookies the perfect way to hold over until 8:30 finally arrived.
With a couple of days to rest, relax, explore and socialize now under our belts, it was time to set our alarm clock for the first time in the trip to see the early morning arrival in New York. The Captain’s overhead address had noted that we would pick up our pilot at 5 am (yikes!) near Ambrose light station. I did make the early morning event. My wife did not because she’s very much smarter than I. The approach was fascinating. There, in the dark, the faithful of the Liner world gathered on Sun Deck. The scene of people milling about, mostly with only one eye fully open, among the massive funnels still bathed in flood light in the pre-dawn darkness. Each one peering into the darkness tried to make out any familiar sight.
The lights of the shore were immediately visible. As the day broke the city began to stand out in the hazy distance. The city’s lights gave way to the growing morning light. Before long we were passing under the Varanzano Narrows Bridge and heading up river. We had all been informed the day before that this was the best time to view “Lady Liberty” as the sun would be fully on her face showing all of the detail – perfect conditions for taking pictures. We progressed as one might expect, past lower Manhattan, past the skyscrapers and the World Trade Center, at that moment taken mostly for granted by all as an immutable landmark of the New York skyline. We eased into our berth at pier 88, a seemingly natural home for the former French liner. Scores of passengers herded to gangways well in advance of their being ready. Crushes of people filled the hallways eager to take in the city. One fellow passenger, a local from the city and a medical professional, explained that he had scheduled patients for the day and had to get the rest of his clothes. Finally the gangways were ready and the crowd started to move. We went to play, he went to work. Hey, its NYC!
Our visit ashore was brief as we wanted to get together with friends who would be coming aboard for the SSHSA reception. We took in a quick tour of INTREPID and her museum and we were back to NORWAY. We did manage to stop and take pictures of the ship from the dock. These turned out to be some of the best photos of the trip. Once back aboard we found friends right away. A quick lunch in that sub-standard restaurant aft and we were ready to run around, socialize and make as much of a day with friends as possible. The Bridge Tours were in operation and we took a few friends and ventured up to the bridge. NCL had produced a lovely, slick color brochure for the bridge tour. Our officer guide could have used a bit of help from Toast Masters, but we held on as long as we could before letting ourselves out. We didn’t have much time for lengthy descriptions as the ship would be sailing soon and we had so many more sights to take in, cabin parties to visit and glasses to raise to a great day with super people. It all went so fast and then all guests were called ashore. Gathered on the parking roof of pier 88 the group stood with a banner reading “Farewell Norway”. Emotions ran high as people snapped pictures frantically to help savor this, supposed, last visit to the big city by the big ship. High levels of very mixed emotions ran through the crowds gathered on the pier and on the ship as the whistle sounded and we began to move. The stern swung out faster than the bow in an effort to counteract the river’s currents. We kept taking pictures and took particular interest in the three harbor tugs pushing at our starboard side. It seemed like a lot of tugboat attention all on one side.
Suddenly, a fellow passenger ran up and announced that we had hit the other pier. We hurried to the port side to see a dented and scraped section of one of the upper level pillars. Looking down on the pool deck one could see broken glass from two of the wind shield panels, a bent in section of the ship’s side above the deck level and a light pole bent over leaning toward the ship’s interior. OK, there’s something to tell one’s grandchildren about. But the fun wasn’t over just yet.
As the tugs finally got us off the piers with no further damage we found ourselves sideways in the Hudson with the whole of the portside taking the fast current. We were moving down river sideways! Our bow passed INTREPID by less of a margin than I would call comfortable. But finally, somehow, we got our bow pointed down river and out to sea. We were headed for Canada this time. We would have a sea day before reaching Halifax followed by another sea day and St John’s before we headed across on the Atlantic.
Before I could concern myself with the itinerary ahead, I had a few events of my own to coordinate. Dinner that evening was to be an important one. If I may, I’ll share a story here of a personal nature that was noticed throughout the ship. I had been planning a surprise for my wife since December. It took the help of many friends and tonight would be where it all played out. Everyone knew . . . except my wife.
The conversation over dinner went normally. One of the men at our table looked at me with a firm, fixed gaze and announced that he needed to excuse himself from the table for a moment. I gave him about five seconds and excused myself. The restroom near the dining room was quite small and provided the perfect excuse why we were gone so long. Back at the table with all guests present, I turned the conversation to how Sheaufang and I had talked about renewing our wedding vows, often when we went to Las Vegas or talked about going to Vegas. I noted that I liked the basic idea, but had not been comfortable with our guests at such an important event being a bunch of Elvis impersonators. Poor Sheaufang could only sit in amazement with all eyes focused on her as I pulled out a new ring and asked if she would marry me, again. She took a moment and managed to squeak out a “yes”. The table went wild, but couldn’t understand her understated reaction. One friend even asked “you’re sure you want to do this, right?” He didn’t understand that for Asian women public a display of excitement was a real no – no. She was very proper in her response from the perspective of her background and upbringing. Such excitement is conveyed in private. With that done, Scott M. offered to play piano for us at the ceremony and his wife offered to act as maid of honor. We had yet to select the room, the date and decide who would officiate. Skipping the details of the arrangements the date was set for Monday, September 10th at noon in Club Internationale. We asked Captain Card if he would officiate and he agreed noting that he had never done a wedding as Captain. The gentleman who had preceded me to the restroom at dinner had been helpful in getting my wife’s wedding gown on board – now he would serve as my best man. As she and I returned to the cabin she was trying to decide which of the dresses she had packed might be best for the occasion. I note that each one she described in detail was a possible option. When we entered the cabin, the gown was laid out on her bed. Now I really did need to use the restroom, unlike the dinner trip when my friend and I raced through the ship’s hallways to get the bag from his cabin to mine, get the dress laid out and the bag hidden again. It had been a full and exciting day.
The next several days passed easily with a delightful sense of “vacation” about them. Halifax was beautiful and St John’s was charming. The sea days were welcome interludes in the pace of shore excursions, bus and taxi rides, shopping and sail-away parties at each stop. Each stop and each day saw a new mix of people as we moved through our vacation. Each group was a pleasant mix of people who shared an interest in whatever activity or destination was at hand. Each group seemed perfectly suited to its members and the activity at hand. Nobody could have planned it any better.
Finally, Monday and the renewal of vows was here. The invitations had all been sent out and a full response was received. The room would be filled with our friends from SSHSA and the LinersList internet group. We were among good friends. The room was reserved for our private use. The champagne and mimosas flowed freely just as we had instructed the waiters. A lovely cake was ready and waiting for the end of the ceremony. Scott played piano music to help instill the party atmosphere. Stephen Card made the announcement for people to take their places. Scott changed songs to signify that something was starting. Our best man and maid of honor marched in and took their places. As they reached their assigned positions, Scott again changed music and the traditional wedding march rang out. Cameras flashed across the whole of Club “I” as Sheaufang and I entered from the hallway beyond the bar and made our way to the stage. Captain Card noted that we were here to renew the vows we had taken 12 and a half years ago. Some clever person at my work had noticed that this was half way to 25, and that was adopted as the official theme and meaning of the renewal. Stephen officiated as we repeated the very traditional vows, said our “I do’s” and marched off to the well wishes of those attending. We then went on to mix and drink and eat with the group until it was time to go. We had the room from 12:00 – 1:30 and people needed more than wedding cake. Lunch was now in order.
The wedding party members decided to attend lunch in the Windward dining room in full dress. As we entered and Sheaufang appeared at the head of the grand stairs in her wedding gown the room erupted in applause. People rushed the base of the stairs to take pictures. We actually had to stay and pose for a while until we could be seated. Throughout the whole of lunch many well wishers visited the table.
Spirits were high, it was all fun and how could this trip ever be bad. They day went on more as normal once we got the clothes put away and returned to deck in normal garb. Exhausted after a day of fun we went to bed without setting an alarm.
Tuesday began for us at about 11:00 am. We scuffled about the cabin slowly as we got ready to start the day with lunch. On the table in the middle of the cabin was the ice bucket, now serving as a vase for the flowers used in the previous days festivities along with a rather large serving of left over wedding cake. We gradually abandoned the wedding leftovers and headed to lunch. We selected the Leeward dining room again and were seated with the most delightful English couple. The conversation had hardly begun when the overhead page rang in with the captain’s voice telling us that there had been an accident with a plane hitting the World Trade Center. At this point the second plane had not yet hit, the nature of the incident was not fully understood as an attack. The mood changed noticeably and permanently. There were more overhead pages throughout the meal that let us know that a CNN down-link had been established so we could follow events on any TV in the ship. Everyone now finished lunch as quickly and quietly as possible with only occasional speculations posed as to what might actually have happened.
For the remainder of the day many stayed to their cabins. The activities were lightly attended if not outright cancelled. Small groups gathered in public spaces. One fellow passenger noted most intuitively “the jolly little cruise is now over”. We were in the middle of the Atlantic with two full sea days after this day ahead. Who knew what might greet us in Europe.
Once the attack nature of the events was understood, the captain announced that everyone would be given 5 free minutes of phone and 5 free minutes of internet access to find and alert loved ones of their situation and learn of their fates. As we sailed across the sea, the world was changing dramatically and many of us felt a keen sense of isolation.
SSHSA had scheduled an evening with a cocktail party in Club “I” followed by a group dinner in Le Bistro. Organizers had to be convinced not to cancel. They were worried that people would stay to their cabins instead of coming out. Besides, it hardly seemed appropriate to engage in festive group activities. Finally, both events were held and fully attended. But the mood was more of mutual support than celebration. It was a support group for those isolated from home, friends, families and co-workers who may have suffered in the attacks. As it turned out, this was just the kind of thing that most of us needed. Wednesday passed quietly and little happened on deck or in the public rooms. Many were simply using their free communications opportunities. Most wondered if their flights home would be affected. Thursday came with a lighter mood, but far from the ballroom atmosphere we had enjoyed just days before. Some noted feeling like this was more like a Queen Mary voyage in 1939.
Finally we arrived in Scotland. Most had recovered from the shock and confusion and emerged ready for a day of diversions and fun exploration. We took in the excursion to the Royal Yacht BRITANNIA. Along with time in town to explore, it was just the type of day to help us forget the anxiety of the crossing. The next day was Dublin and another bus ride with stops in key sites. We had another full sea day after that, before we reached Le Havre. The sea day was lovely. A few of us spent it by the topside pool on Sky Deck. The sun was out and temperatures were mild. The sunscreen and personal CD players came out and pool towels were employed as steamer rugs for moments when the sun passed behind a cloud and winds could chill one in bathing attire. There was a great deal of sea traffic and of course, those delightful cookies from the Outdoor Restaurant to end the day.
Le Havre was exciting. Many took trips to Paris or the D Day beaches at Normandy. My wife and I decided to see the town where the FRANCE, NORMANDIE and so many fine French ships had their origins. The town was absolutely alive with s.s. FRANCE history. The Chamber of Commerce had two very large models of FRANCE and one of NORMANDIE. As we walked through town under cold and cloudy skies it drizzled occasionally; just to keep us around. We found a shop with nautical décor items. We took full advantage of this opportunity, buying a print of s.s. FRANCE and a book. Later down the road we found an old mansion that was being restored and used as a museum for s.s. FRANCE. Another lovely, large model and several displays of artifacts, videos and art covered all of the 4 floors. That was enough for one day. We walked back to the ship to enjoy the sail-away.
Perched up on the Sun Deck over the ship’s bridge we endured the powerful, cold winds to witness the send-off. We were rewarded with a shore lined with cars and people waving farewell. The sun was setting behind cloudy skies and darkness came quickly. The whole town seemed to sparkle as photo flashes popped constantly and without end all along the shore line and the apartment tower balconies. It was a dazzling site. Once at sea, all that was left to do was prepare to attend the last dinner we would enjoy on this cruise.
The menu at our last dinner, a mix of Mediterranean dishes, left a great deal to be desired but no one much cared. This was a chance to let everyone know how much we had enjoyed each other’s company during the cruise, each other’s help and participation in the celebrations and each other’s support during the tragedy. It was something of an emotional last meeting of the table-mates who had been assembled by a master of social engineering. Thanks Tom – you’re the best! Following dinner it was time to pack. As usual, bags were to be placed in the hall before 2:00 am. Some of us had done much the night before – some had a long night ahead of trying to figure out how to fit their clothes and new acquisitions into the luggage that had barely held the clothes in the first place.
The morning arrival in Southampton was an early one. Breakfast was available in the dining room from 5:00 am to 7:00 am. We were off the ship by 10:30 am (later than the promised 9:00 am) and hired a private bus with Stephen Card and others bound for London. In the city we all went our separate ways. Some headed straight for the airport and flights home. Others on to other travel adventures. Sheaufang and I took in the sights of London for two days before returning home.
It was upon returning home that we learned that NCL had announced that the ship was to stay on for an extra season. Well, . . I’ve been on one of her final crossings. That will be enough for me.