Fire on the Morro Castle

by R. Cohen | Nov 9, 2015
Fire on the Morro Castle

In an historic tale of things gone wrong, the cruise ship Morro Castle caught fire. Her captain had mysteriously died and his replacement had turned the ship into the wind in such a way as to help spread the flames until the whole ship was ablaze--full of passengers. The burned out hulk was beached next to a hotel in New Jersey, providing a tourist attraction visited by many of the locals.

Morro Castle was a small steamer that made headlines only though a tragic series of errors that took the lives of 137 passengers and crew on September 8th, 1934. While en-route to New York from Cuba carrying American vacationers, luxury-liner Morro Castle caught fire six miles off the coast of New Jersey, near Asbury Park. Thousands of people lined the Jersey shore to stare out at the burning hulk. Of the 455 passengers and crew members on board, 133 persons, mostly passengers, were either drowned or burned to death. The ship eventually washed up on the beach and stayed there for some time before being removed from the beach directly behind Convention Hall in March, 1935.

Stories were heard of panic stricken passengers unable to board lifeboats because the boats were not properly stowed; fire hydrants that had been capped to prevent their leaking onto the deck and causing passenger falls; crew that had allegedly abandoned their obligation to the passengers and fled the ship in the few accessible lifeboats; and no evacuation drill had been conducted during the voyage.

While it was obvious why once the fire started it became such a tragedy, the question remains—why did the fire start in the first place?

Captain Wilmott tried to run a safe and respectable ship. However, aboard the Morrow Castle was a crew who were paid terribly low wages, and given unfit food, while passengers dined on the best. Smuggling was rampant. Narcotics were hidden everywhere; Cuban rum was also smuggled into New York in large quantities. The Morro Castle also was a veritable haven for political refugees and illegal aliens attempting to sneak into the United States. Gambling was everywhere--crew members often lost their wages in secret games. Wilmott not only faced an angry, resentful crew on the last voyage of the Morro Castle, but he also had to contend with officers he distrusted and feared and who, in return, thought he was an ill-tempered, sickly, unbalanced man. The captain was inexplicably afraid of chief radioman George Rogers. Chief mate William F. Warms was also a curious specimen.

The first sign of trouble that last night at sea occurred when Captain Wilmott declined to dine with his guests at the captain's table as he usually did. Later that night, after calling the ship’s doctor for help, he was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Chief mate Warms took over the ship. Bad luck accumulated for the Morro Castle hour by hour as she made her way up the Atlantic coastline at about 18 knots, running into a howling gale that sent huge breakers over her bow. Warms, nervous, his hands fidgeting over jittery instruments on the bridge, looked ahead into a swirling storm.

As the storm increased throughout the night, passengers became ill and staggered to their cabins. As many as six women over-celebrated and were carried dead drunk to their rooms. A group of men, also drunk, sat in the writing room and flipped lighted cigarettes into a basket to amuse themselves. After starting a small fire on a rug, the group was chastized by watchman Art Bagley. He quickly put out the fire and inspected the writing room for more damage. There was none, although almost everything on board the Morro Castle was highly flammable, even her steel plates, which were caked with no less than fourteen coats of paint. Throughout the cabins, dining room, ballroom, saloon and writing room were overstuffed chairs, carpets and thick wooden paneling.

At about 2:15am, passenger Paul Arneth, dressed only in bathrobe and pajamas, stumbled into the writing room and noticed billowing smoke rushing from beneath the double doors of an immense locker where 150 extra blankets were stored. The blankets, highly combustible because of the fluids used to clean them, rested against a wall that faced one of the smokestacks which, it was later deduced, were hot enough from overheating to become the source of the great fire that was to gut the liner. A steward threw open the locker doors, causing a giant wall of flames to leap outward, instantly igniting the wooden paneling, carpets, and furniture in the writing room.

Some officers and crew members came running with a hose a few minutes later, but there was little pressure and only a trickle of water came out. This was because Warms, when hearing of the fire, had ordered all the hydrants on board opened up, lessening the individual pressure and effectiveness of each. Warms was so preoccupied by the hurricane battering his ship that he did not notice smoke drifting out of a small ventilator on the bridge until another officer pointed it out. He then became dumbfounded and acted like a man who had lost his senses.

The fire spread rapidly through the ship. Passengers were alerted and told to stand by. Warms was suddenly a man without direction. He ordered the ship to continue at top speed with the screaming wind, which forced the fire to the stern. The smoke became so thick on the decks that no one could see more than a few feet. People were burning to death in their cabins, their shrieks, for the most part, ignored by crew members scurrying topside to save their own lives.

Warms told the crew to drop anchor about six or seven miles off Atlantic City. An SOS finally went out. Several ships picked up the signals and immediately responded. Warms gave the order to abandon ship, and the wholesale desertion of the crew took place. In one lifeboat that reached shore, there were thirty-one crew members and one passenger. In another nineteen crew members and one passenger rowed to the sandy beaches of Atlantic City. Many passengers had to swim miles to save themselves.

The Morro Castle drifted to shore later that morning, thousands lining the beaches to view her awful gutted hulk, smoke still streaming from her burning holds, 133 persons dead, either still on board and charred beyond recognition, or in death-floats somewhere in the violent sea.

Warms was charged, along with four others, with negligence, and was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to jail for two years. The sentence was reversed by higher courts, and none of those responsible for the disaster ever served a day in jail.

One man not charged eventually did go to jail. Rogers, first hailed as one of the rare heroic figures on board the Morro Castle, was found to be responsible not only for setting the ship on fire, but for poisoning the captain as well. There was no evidence other than Rogers's sordid background, however, to indicate that he indeed did start the tragic blaze that ended the Morro Castle that storm-tossed night in 1934. He was later involved in several murders and went to prison.

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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Author: R. Cohen

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