Onboard the Ward Line’s SS MORRO CASTLE, in the early morning hours of September 7, 1934, a deadly fire erupted in two places on the cruise/liner en route from Havana Cuba to New York City.
- After wonderful days at sea and a wonderful time in Havana, the cruise turned into a nightmare.
- Nothing could have been more horrendous for the passengers and crew of the SS Morro Castle than to hear the officers shout “Fire at Sea, Abandon Ship!
Top: SS Morro Castle; Bottom Left: Cocktail Bar; Bottom Right: Special group sailing on the ill-fated cruise.
- The fire started just hours after the ship’s Captain Robert Willmott had been found dead in his stateroom of strange circumstances. “Acute indigestion” according to the ship’s doctor Dr. DeWitt Van Zile.
- Adding to the disaster was the fact that the ship was facing into the wind – a Northeasterly 30 mph blow – with a number of officers and crew bordering on incompetent.
- Starting in the First Class Writing Room, the midship flames were fanned by the wind and a temporary ship’s captain who froze under the tragedy, never leaving the bridge to assess the damage.
- Probably the “Morro Castle” was doomed at the first sign of smoke.
SS MORRO CASTLE – LUXURY CRUISE SHIP DURING THE DEPRESSION
- During the Great Depression, it was a rare luxury for people to afford a cruise on luxury liners, yet over 72,000 people took cruises in 1934. Built-in 1929 – 1930 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia, the “Morro Castle” and her sister ship “Oriente” were part of a congressional bill that loaned $250 million to American shipbuilders.
- Taking advantage of such an opportunity was the Ward Line, a mail and cargo line whose main route was back and forth to Cuba.
- Costing $5 million, the “Morro Castle” was named after the fortress and lighthouse in Havana. For four years the ship made its way back and forth from Cuba usually half to full of passengers.
- While it was routinely maintained, and glossed over, the “Morro Castle” had never been drydocked for maintenance.
The lobby and cruise passengers aboard the SS Morro Castle.
- Paint covered everything (a detail that would only compound the tragedy), and drills and safety instructions were largely ignored. The crew changed hands routinely. Most were paid less than the government Civilian Conservation Corps workers, surly and inefficient. With a government contract to deliver mail and other goods between the U.S. and Cuba, punctuality was first and foremost in the Ward Line officials’ minds.
- “The ship’s Art Deco-inspired profile, seen daily in advertisements of the New York papers, attracted passengers from a variety of social backgrounds … the Ward Line knew its clientele and catered to them shamelessly,” wrote Brian Hicks in his 2006 book When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the ‘Morro Castle” Disaster and Its Deadly Wake. “(The) crew was divided into two camps: those simply happy to have a job and others outraged by the way the Ward Line treated them.”
UNHAPPY CREW AND OFFICERS
- Unhappiness and significant grievances cast a pall on the last few months of the ship’s existence. Agitators, Communists, discontents, and maybe even murderers, were part of the general mix. George Alagna was a radio operator who vocally expressed opposition over how most of the crew was treated to all who would listen. His fellow radio operator George Rogers turned out to be even more mysterious and sinister. Captain Willmott had major problems with his officers as well as the crew.
- With all of the above turmoil in mind, hindsight shows the “Morro Castle” a disaster waiting to happen. According to William Warms, Chief Officer who took over the ship after the undetermined death of the captain, Captain Willmott told him the day of the fire, “I’m afraid something is going to happen tonight, I can feel it.”
Moving ten miles off the coast of Delaware Bay “The ship looked like a photograph from a travel agent’s brochure come to life … an outpost of paradise, an oasis at sea,” Brian Hicks visualized. Dodging both the northeastern and a hurricane coming up the coast, the officers of the “Morro Castle” just wanted to get inside the safety of Sandy Hook, the entrance to New York Harbor by early the next morning.
A last night fancy ball was canceled after Captain Willmott’s demise. Passengers and crew became on edge. At 3:00 am a fire erupted in a closet off from the Writing Room. Almost simultaneously another erupted elsewhere. Flames quickly engulfed the ship. A small number of the crew tried to put out the fire, while at the same time telling two young ladies who wanted to sound the alarm to be quiet lest they wake other passengers up.
Both officers and crew were paralyzed with fear and indecision, the result being a fire that quickly engulfed the ship. No order was given to stop or turn the “Morro Castle” around. Consequently, the blaze burned everything back through the stern in quick order. Although only a few fire hydrants were used, water pressure became extremely low.
In flames, the ship proceeded out of control up to the coast a few miles offshore. Panic ensued among passengers and crew. Many of the crew looked out for themselves as they dropped lifeboats and filled them. They did not direct terrified passengers who had received no life vest and lifeboat drills at sea. Although the ship had more than enough lifeboats – a rule enacted after the “Titanic” disaster – they were not filled. Some of the lifeboats were painted in place and could not be lowered.
More afraid of being burned to death than being in the water, many people jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. No one was told that cork life preservers needed to be held upon descent or they could cause injuries such as broken necks or unconsciousness. No doubt this added to the fatalities.
VIDEO from ShipGeek.com – HEYDAY on the MORRO CASTLE and TRAGEDY
- VIDEO – The SS Morro Castle was launched in 1930 and had her maiden voyage from New York to Havana in August of that year. Only four short years later, a mysterious fire broke out on board that has never been explained, rapidly spreading throughout the liner and forcing the evacuation of her passengers in lifeboats.
- Of the 555 people on board, 133 lost their lives. Featured here are 16mm home movies from that period, the first being “Sandy Sails Morro Castle” for the sail away footage, followed by amateur movies of the ship still burning on the beach in New Jersey. This video is dedicated to those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy.
MORRO CASTLE – A FIRE TRAP AT SEA
The ornate wooden interior on the ship just added to an out of control raging fire. Cleaning fluid exploded, as did the Lyle Gun stored over the Writing Room, designed to attach its line to another ship to start the evacuation. An SOS was oddly enough first heard by radio station WCS in Tuckerton, NJ. After a questionable sequence of events and time enacted by the radio operators, the word spread.
Ships and local boats from the coastal Asbury Park area headed to the scene, rescuing some people in the water. Others had died from their fall, being crushed by the ship’s propellers, or drowned during a night of high seas and bad weather.
The final tally was disastrous: six out of twelve lifeboats only were lowered, a total of 137 people died. Investigations took place after the ship had beached itself off the oceanfront Convention Hall at the summer resort of Asbury Park. Lawyers, passengers, crew, the FBI under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and his brother, and the Ward Line all conducted inquiries into the tragedy. Testimony was conflicted and self-serving in cases.
The “Morro Castle” became an attraction seen by thousands over the ensuing months – first, a smoldering hull, later charred remains. Summer businesses extended their season well into the fall, making for the best season they had in years. Souvenirs were sold; hotels, boarding houses, and restaurants did a brisk business.
Brian Hicks puts together now unclassified testimony and numerous information on radio operator George Rogers, who at first emerged as the hero of the “Morro Castle.” Now revealed as a psychopath, liar, and murderer, Rogers is shown for what he was – not the dependable radio operator who stayed by his post trying to raise a signal from another ship. He was a pyromaniac who, through his extraordinary knowledge of explosives and radio devices, managed to take down a large liner.
While hindsight draws many conclusions, one young seventeen-year-old on board as the third purser spent years telling groups of people that not all the crew was negligent. Some helped passengers and their fellow crew members. Tom Torresson testified, “When I first saw the beautiful ‘Morro Castle’ I fell in love with it.” He went on to graduate from Norte Dame, the Army Air Corps and became a flight instructor.
According to Hicks’s book, Torresson “had indefatigable energy … For most of his life, he kept alive the notion of a grand cruise ship in its final glory days.” “It’s all baloney,” Hicks quotes Torresson as saying after finding out the rumor for the high death toll was primarily due to the crew. Tom Torresson died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine, close to the seventy-first anniversary of the disaster.
The “Morro Castle” remained on the beach off Asbury Park for a few months in the fall of 1934. It was then towed to Baltimore, taken apart, and sold as scrap.
Neither the circumstances of Captain Robert Willmott’s death nor the actual cause of the sinking of the “Morro Castle” has ever been officially determined.