Today, marks the 75th Anniversary of the luxury liner SS Morro Castle disaster.
This is highlighted by recently found home movie footage.
These great cruise history videos have never been seen before. They show the September 8, 1934 fire aboard the cruise ship. (Photo credits caremaritime.com and wardline.com.)
The 16mm film shows aftermath of fire aboard Ward Line steamship that offered weekly service between New York and Havana, Cuba.
|Home movie footage of the luxury liner Morro Castle disaster
Morro Castle: The darker side: The ship was know as the “Havana Ferry Boat” or the “Floating Whorehouses”! There was a dark undercurrent beneath the glamorous and placid surface presented by Ward Line publicists: rumors abounded regarding drug and alcohol smuggling; illegal alien importation; gun running and gambling.
The “Havana Ferryboats” were referred to, not affectionately, by longshoremen and NYC waterfront police as “The Floating Whorehouses” because of the alleged presence of not-on-the-passenger-list call girls who worked the liners during peak convention and charter season. Particularly during her final year, enough of the Morro Castle’s misadventures appeared in the press to make the other rumors seem plausible.
The SS Morro Castle, named after a fortress that guards Havana Bay, was a luxury cruise ship of the 1930s that was built for the Ward Line for runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba. In the early morning hours (around 3:00 am) of Saturday, 8 September 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing a total of 137 passengers and crew members.
Despite attempts to tow her to a safer location, the ship continued to drift toward shore. By 7:30 pm, she came to rest on the beach at the foot of Sixth Avenue in the summer resort town of Asbury Park, N.J. Carl Nesensohn, N.Y. Times Wide World photographer (who took above photo) arrived with other news cameramen in the late afternoon. They made photos of the victims and the burning hulk. Early the next morning, Nesensohn decided to board the smoldering ship.
The first class dining room aboard the Morro Castle. (Gare Maritime)
A Coast Guard patrol boat threatened to shoot him down as he first attempted to board Morro Castle from a hired boat. Enraged, Carl Nesensohn stormed into Coast Guard Headquarters, shouting about the government threatening to shoot a newspaperman; how would it look in the newspaper? Coast Guard finally gave Carl permission to board the ship.
Onboard the Morro Castle, the steel deck plates were still hot. Flames, noxious gases, smoke, minor explosions and charred corpses surrounded him. He took the first photos of the burned-out interior of the Morro Castle for two and a half hours, after which he returned to shore, his clothing torn, his shoes almost burnt through and his face covered with soot.
Later, N.Y. Daily News photographer Larry Froeber attempted the same thing, but he was overcome by poisonous fumes. However, he got back safely. The Morro Castle disaster set the standard for daring photojournalism–the coverage was excellent, but the courage of the photographers defined the day.
Officially, the cause of the fire was never determined, but the design of the ship, the materials used in its construction, questionable crew practices and mistakes escalated the on-board fire to a roaring inferno that eventually destroyed the ship. The fire, however, was a catalyst for improved shipboard fire safety–the use of fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and fire drills were direct results of the Morro Castle disaster.
TRAGEDY OF THE MORRO CASTLE
On September 8, 1934, the cruise ship ss Morro Castle was returning from Havana, Cuba, with 549 passengers when a fire broke out, destroying the ship, and killing 134 people. Sidney and Irving Davis, Alan’s father and uncle, were stewards aboard the ship. They managed to get to lifeboats and row ashore. To make matters worse, the captain was found dead mysteriously, and origins of the fire were never determined. Because of the tragedy, Congress passed various maritime laws designed to prevent future disasters.
The rain battered the New Jersey shore along southern Monmouth County in the early morning hours of September 8, 1934. With winds approaching 60 miles per hour, it would take a brave or foolhardy person to challenge the weather in a storm like this. Yet the few daring souls that did choose to go out in those pre-dawn hours were greeted by a sight they would never forget. Offshore in the distance, the clouds glowed an eerie red, as if lighted by some vast inferno.
Those more comfortable people who chose to remain inside that morning quickly learned of the source of the red glow as radio stations across the dial announced the news of a ship at sea embroiled in a tragedy in the making. What was truly astonishing to the radio listener that morning was the identity of the vessel. For it was not an old freighter or transport ship, but one of the newest and supposedly safest ships afloat, the passenger liner Morro Castle.
The Morro Castle had been launched just four years earlier with much fanfare. It had been built with help from the United States government in an effort to modernize our aging maritime fleet and to compete with the newer and more reliable foreign liners that American travelers preferred. Operated by the Ward Line, it immediately began making regular voyages from New York City to Cuba. The company’s advertising brochure boasted, “During its 50 years of continuous service, the Ward line has lost but two ships, and it has never lost a passenger.” They would not be so fortunate this time.
The round trip from New York to Havana, Cuba took the Morro Castle about a week, and it had made the voyage over a hundred times by 1934 with few problems. Most of the passengers were vacationers, but the ship also delivered mail and cargo. The fare was very inexpensive, even by those Depression standards. It cost just $75.00 for a round trip which included meals and a two night stay in Havana. The trips were often referred to as “whoopee cruises” because of the non-stop drinking that some passengers imbibed in once the ship was outside the three mile territorial limit of the still prohibition laden United States.
But drinking and revelry did not stop once the ship landed in Havana. It continued in this exotic port where things were so much more liberating and open than the vacationers’ homes. Liquor was cheap and legal and there was a host of new experiences for the middle-class voyager. On the trip back the partying continued and often reached its zenith on the last night before the ship reached port in New York. After all, any liquor purchased legally in Cuba had to be dispensed of before the ship landed, so all night parties were the rule for many passengers. Not all of the travelers, of course, behaved like this. There were also many business travelers and social clubs that made the voyage.
The captain of the Morro Castle from its very first voyage was Robert Wilmott, a veteran old salt who had been with the Ward Line for over 25 years. After operating many older ships over the years he was thrilled to be put in command of the line’s newest liner, which was built with both comfort and safety foremost in mind. Upon taking command of the ship Wilmott was asked what would happen if the Moro Castle was ever taken away from him. He answered jokingly that, “In that case, I’ll take here with me.” Those words would seem prophetic years later.
Captain Wilmott was a personable and respected officer. He liked to mingle with the passengers and was considered a fair boss, if not a bit stern, by the crew. His second-in-command, First Officer William Warms, though competent was the opposite of the captain in many respects. He was virtually unknown to the passengers and unfamiliar to many in the crew. Warms never initiated any actions on board, he simply followed orders. Like most of the officers on board, he was qualified to command a ship, but the Depression had made such opportunities rare, and officers had to sign on to whatever position was available.
In order to be profitable, the Morro Castle had to make as many voyages as possible. This allowed for almost no “down time” for the vessel. On a typical voyage the ship would arrive in New York on Saturday morning, discharge the passengers and cargo, take on new passengers and cargo, and depart that evening. Although the captain and some other senior officers were given regular vacations, the rest of the crew was held hostage by the schedule. If they wanted to take a break or visit family they needed to quit the crew and hope they could sign back on for a later voyage. The ship’s timetable often led to a fifty percent turnover in crew on each cruise, assuring that few onboard would be familiar with the ship and its safety procedures and features. It also allowed for no loyalty between the crew and the company or its officers on board. Adding to safety concerns, Captain Wilmott, much to the chagrin of Warms, had ceased fire drills on the ship after a passenger slipped and fell during an earlier drill and had sued the Ward Line.
When the Morro Castle departed New York on September 1, 1934, few expected anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the voyages had become so routine that the ship was often referred to by sailors as the “Havana Ferryboat.” Some of the crew did notice a change in Captain Wilmott’s personality over the previous months. Perhaps it was overwork or stress, but he became less outgoing and gregarious. There was also a rumor that the ship was secretly smuggling arms to the Cuban dictatorship and had become a target to Communist insurgents on the island.
On this latest voyage the captain still ate dinner with the passengers, but was otherwise rarely seen by them. By the time the return trip started on September 6, 1934, he became even more hostile and suspicious. Some crew members blamed his demeanor on an upcoming storm, but others sensed a more serious cause. The captain had confided in some officers that he had was convinced that someone was out to murder him and damage or destroy the ship. Whether he suspected communist guerillas or a disgruntled employee, he did not say. However one crew member fit both descriptions in the mind of the Captain Wilmott. He confided in Warms and Chief Engineer Eban Abbott that he suspected George Alanga, an Assistant Radio Engineer, was, in his opinion, a “dangerous radical”.
The radio operators aboard the Morro Castle, like all radio operators at the time, were not employees of the Ward Line, but were hired and assigned by the Radiomarine Corporation (now RCA). Each passenger ship was required to have three on board, one for each shift. On this cruise Bayonne resident George White Rogers was the Chief Engineer and George Alanga was one of the assistants. On an earlier voyage Alanga had tried to organize a strike against the shipping line for better conditions but was unsuccessful. He had earned the undying hatred of Captain Wilmott and the Ward Lines for his effort, and in fact had already been notified that he was being dismissed when the ship returned to New York.
On September 6th the Morro Castle was steaming full speed ahead to New York and expected to arrive two days later. Captain Wilmott seemed to recover his disposition enough to join the passengers and officers for dinner. He also spoke with George White Rogers about his assistant Alanga. Rogers, though seemingly friendly with Alanga, did little to defend him. He reported to the captain that he had found two vials of what he thought were the ingredients for a “stink bomb” in Alanga’s locker. Inexplicably, Rogers had thrown the vials overboard instead of keeping them as evidence. The captain had his suspicions about Rogers too, as did many in the crew, but he needed an ally who was close to Alanga, so he chose to accept his story.
George White Rogers was someone who warranted suspicion. It was not just his unusual appearance (he was well over six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds), but his unusual demeanor. There were times Rogers could be a bundle of energy, and other times when he would nod off in mid-conversation. His rotund, flabby body and extremely pale face did not portray a seaman, and he had no friends on the crew. In fact, no one really knew much at all about the man, except that he exuded an air of discomfort to those around him.
The passengers awakened on the morning of September 7th to a miserable and wet day. The approaching storm had finally arrived and activities on the ship would be confined to indoors. Cruise Director Robert Smith would have his hands filled keeping the travelers entertained. As Cruise Director, Smith acted as the liaison between the crew and the passengers and he was very good at his job. Whatever the vacationers needed, Smith did his best to accommodate them. He was the representative of the line to most passengers and the only officer on the ship they would get to know during the cruise. One of the activities Smith was planning for the day was a new game he had thought up called “life boat”. On a signal, all the passengers would rush to their cabins, put on their life jackets and report to their assigned lifeboats. The first team to accomplish this would be given prizes at the final dinner onboard that night. Smith, like First Officer Warms, was concerned by the lack of fire drills, and thought this might be a good way to practice without alarming the passengers. Captain Wilmott thought it was the silliest idea he had ever heard and refused permission.
Captain Wilmott, besides his growing paranoia, was now suffering from stomach cramps. He spent most of the day in his cabin as the weather worsened. His discomfort was matched by many of the passengers who were becoming seasick as the ocean waves became rougher and rougher. The final dinner onboard the Morro Castle before docking in New York was a highlight of the trip. Called the “Captain’s Dinner”, it was one of the few times when most of the officers, especially the captain, were present to entertain the guests. Therefore, it came as a shock to the passengers when Captain Wilmott did not make an appearance. What the guests did not know was that the commander of the ship had just been found dead in his cabin.
The ship’s doctor made a perfunctory examination of the body, and declared the captain had died of a heart attack and “nervous stomach”. Three other physicians traveling onboard concurred, but with reservations. An autopsy was impossible given the current situation, but one would be possible once the ship landed in New York. First Officer Warms assumed command and each officer below him advanced one grade. This may have been customary, but it put each man in a position he was unfamiliar with, a liability if an emergency situation occurred.
Warms assumed control of the bridge and began to plot a course to battle the now fierce storm. The rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was gusting to near hurricane force. The passengers were informed of Captain Wilmott’s death, and assured that the current officers in charge were more than capable of bringing the ship home. They should feel sadness, not worry. Some of the passengers were not so sure. The captain was dead, they were battling a storm, and many now regretted the lack of fire and safety drills.
Just prior to 3:00am a crew member thought he smelled smoke near the passenger lounge. Upon further investigation he found smoke coming from the writing room (a small lounge used by passengers for writing messages or letters, or just to relax) adjacent to it. He notified the bridge and an officer was immediately dispatched to find the source of he smoke. A few moments later he opened a closet and found the interior engulfed in flames.
Upon finding the fire the crew made the first of many mistakes. Instead of seizing all available nearby fire extinguishers and immediately fighting the fire, they reported back to the bridge and wasted precious seconds. By the time they began attacking the fire, it had spread too far. They then made their second mistake by not closing the fire proof doors to isolate and at least slow down the fire’s spread. The bridge was notified of the crew at hand’s lack of progress with the flames and the fire alarm was sounded.
It must have seemed to Acting Captain Warms that all the fates were conspiring against him. First Captain Wilmott had died and now he had to worry about a fire as well as the storm. The untrained crew rushed as best they could to their fire stations and began to uncoil the hoses and open the valves of the fire hydrants. What they did not know, but would have had they been properly drilled, is that the ship was designed to provide maximum water pressure to only six hoses at a time. When the crew opened more hoses (some by accident), the water pressure dropped and the hoses proved useless in fighting the spreading conflagration. Warms, believing the fire was being brought under control, proceeded at top speed through the gale force winds which only helped to fan the flames and spread the fire which was being fed by the wood paneling, carpets and the flammable décor throughout the passenger areas.
In a matter of minutes Warms knew he had a serious problem on his hands. He ordered the passengers awakened and ordered to their respective lifeboats. However, the lack of drills, sleepiness, and in some cases intoxication caused confusion, and the quickly spreading fire and blinding, choking smoke prevented people from reaching the center of ship where most of the lifeboats were located. Most of the passengers, or at least those who could escape the rapidly burning cabins, were forced to the rear of the Morro Castle where they watched with apprehension the approaching flames.
George Alanga, who was on duty in the radio room, smelled the smoke and immediately wakened George White Rogers. Rogers took command of the radio and ordered Alanga to the bridge to see if Warms wanted him to transmit an SOS. Alanga fought through the smoke and flames and finally made his way to the bridge where confusion reigned. The wheel had stopped responding and the ship was now at the mercy of the waves and wind. Warms was shouting at Chief Engineer Abbott to go below and keep the boilers running to provide water pressure to the hoses as his duties dictated. Abbott kept muttering, over and over, “It’s too late now!” Alanga tried to get Warms’ attention, but the acting captain seemed to not recognize him. Finally Alanga gave up and made his way back to the radio room.
The fire was now spreading towards the radio room and the metal floor was becoming too hot for Rogers’ feet. He was forced to keep them elevated while he awaited Alanga. When the assistant finally arrived he reported, “They’re all crazy up there,” but Rogers sent him to the bridge again. On his second trip Warms finally acknowledged him and asked if an SOS could be sent. Alanga just shook his head in disgust and headed back to Rogers.
By now the radio room was beginning to fill with smoke and the heat was becoming unbearable. It was now past 3:15am and the fire had been raging for over 25 minutes and still no SOS had been sent. Rogers could hear other ships in the area radioing the Coast Guard on the Jersey shore to ask if a ship was on fire because they could see the glow. Batteries which powered the receiver exploded, spilling sulfuric acid onto the floor. The transmitter still was functional and Rogers held his ground. Finally Alanga arrived with Warms okay and Rogers began to transmit the call for help. When a wire became disconnected from the generator which powered the transmitter Rogers calmly felt his way across the room through the smoke and ignoring his blistering hands reattached it and continued transmitting. Even Alanga, who distrusted and disliked the creepy chief, was impressed by his calmness and devotion to duty. However, a full half-hour was wasted waiting for the order to transmit. That half-hour delay would prove deadly to many passengers as they awaited rescue.
Acting Captain Warms now realized the fire was beyond control and tried to use the engines to steer the Morro Castle closer to the Jersey shore so the passengers would have a better chance of survival. When the engine room reported the smoke was too heavy for them to continue to man their post, he ordered the engines stopped and ordered the anchor dropped. The ship was still about five miles off the coast of Manasquan, New Jersey.
By now the fire was spreading to where the remaining passengers were huddled at the rear of the ship. The heat and smoke were unbearable as the flaming deck began to blister their feet through their melting shoe soles. Shrapnel from exploding windows and port holes was a constant danger. Finally those on board could wait no longer and they began to jump. Warms for the first time made his way towards the back of the ship to see how far the fire had spread. He was dumbfounded to see blackened figures going over the side. “They’re jumping back there,” he told his fellow officers on the foredeck, unable to believe his own eyes.
In times of disaster and crisis the best and worst is revealed in human nature. The same was true as the Morro Castle burned in the night. For every hero there was a villain. For every brave man or woman there was a coward. Most of the crew abandoned their posts when they saw that continuing to fight the fire was useless. Instead of aiding the passengers and seeing to their safety, they either manned and lowered the lifeboats or donned lifejackets and jumped overboard. However, other crew members gave up their lifejackets and belts to elderly passengers and children so that they had a chance for rescue. Other crew members sought items that would float and tossed them in the water in case the passengers had to abandon ship. Many passengers lost precious minutes searching for loved ones, either their own or on behalf of tearful strangers. Some lost their lives.
If the crew, poorly paid and trained and with no loyalty to the Ward Line or its passengers, could be forgiven for their conduct, the behavior of a few officers could not. Some, such as Cruise Director Smith, were the ideal, with conduct becoming officers and gentlemen. Using his calming voice and influence he stayed with the passengers at the rear of the ship and implored them not to go over the side until the ship stopped moving, knowing many would be pulled into the rotating propellers. He bandaged their wounds, adjusted their lifejackets and belts, and was the voice of reason in an insane world. When it was finally time to abandon ship Smith took an injured woman with him and kept her afloat for hours until they were rescued.
Unlike Smith, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott’s base conduct was the most shocking among the officers on board, even to his own shipmates. After not reporting to the engine room as his position required, and cowering on the bridge unable to follow orders, he jumped into a lifeboat and ordered it lowered. As Warms shouted for them to not lower the boat Abbott kept ordering it lowered. It went down the lines and into the water. The lifeboat held sixty-three, but only thirty were aboard. Twenty-seven were crew members. “It was a moment of shame for all those who believe in the tradition of the sea,” Warms said later. The lifeboat commandeered by Abbott immediately made its way to shore, not bothering to pick up any of the many people helplessly floating and drowning in the water. He ripped off his epaulets and gold braid identifying him as an officer and mumbled, “I’ll go to jail for this.”
By the time Acting Captain Abbott gave the official order to abandon ship, almost everyone still alive was gone. Following the tradition of the seas, he stayed aboard along with thirteen other crew members including Rogers and Alanga until the very end. The ship floated as helpless as the people below struggling to survive in the high waves and chilly Atlantic waters. Only six of the Morro Castle’s twelve lifeboats made it into the ocean, and with a total capacity of 408, only eighty-five seats were filled, most by crew members. The unfortunate people left to founder for themselves waited helplessly for aid to arrive. For many it never would.
The first rescue ship to arrive was the Andrea S. Lukenbach, a freighter with only two lifeboats to send out for the rescue effort. It was quickly followed by the Monarch of Bermuda, a British passenger liner, and the City of Savannah, another liner, whose crews acted with incredible bravery and efficiency to save as many of those still living as possible. As the magnitude of the disaster became known to those on shore, dozens of private fishing and pleasure vessels joined Coast Guard boats and battled the rough seas and high waves of the storm to pluck from the water both the living and the dead. Those they were unable to rescue washed up onshore. The living were treated in rescue stations set up in numerous towns from Manasquan to Sandy Hook. The dead were brought to a makeshift morgue assembled at Camp Moore, the National Guard Training Center. The final death toll was eight-six passengers (29%) and forty-nine crewmembers (18%).
The Morro Castle was still not ready to join many of its unfortunate passengers in death. It continued to drift northward along the Jersey shore, its anchor unable to hold it against the gale force winds. An effort to tow the still burning craft into New York harbor failed when the tow line broke. The disaster was a media sensation as every newspaper and radio station rushed reporters, cameramen and soundmen to the scene. Radio led the coverage and thousands of people drove to the area after listening to the reports and followed the smoking wreck north along the old Shore Highway as it drifted. At about 7:30pm, Tom Burley of radio station WCAP broadcasting from Convention Hall in Asbury made a startling announcement, “She’s here! The Morro Castle’s coming right toward the studio!”
The Morro Castle ran aground less than three hundred feet from where Tom Burley sat. The public and journalists followed in the thousands. Entrepreneurs charged the curious twenty-five cents for good viewing spots. The local fire department charged reporters and VIP’s five dollars for transportation to what remained of the twisted and burnt liner. Serious consideration was given to staking a claim to the once great liner to keep the remains in Asbury Park as a tourist attraction, but more judicious and sober thoughts prevailed. Eventually she was towed south and converted to scrap.