SS Morro Castle Disaster
SS Morro Castle. Source: (pinterest.com)
The SS Morro Castle was a cruise ship that sailed between New York and Havana during the early 1930s. Despite existing during the Prohibition and therefore offering only alcohol-free entertainment, it was a successful enterprise until its tragic final voyage in September of 1934.
The 508-foot ship was named for the fortress guarding Havana Bay and could accommodate up to 489 paying guests in addition to the crew. When it departed Havana on September 5, 1934, it was carrying a total of 549 passengers on board. The ship encountered high winds on the journey but it wasn’t a storm that would be the ship’s undoing.
On the evening of September 7, the ship’s captain, Robert Wilmott, skipped dinner, complaining of an upset stomach. He was found dead later that evening of a heart attack allegedly caused by “acute indigestion.” Chief Officer William Warms took command of the ship as acting captain and they continued on their way to New York.
At around 2:50 a.m. on September 8, a fire broke out on B deck. The crew attempted to extinguish the fire, but several factors were working against them. For one, the high winds were fanning the flames and funneling them through pipes which were used to cool the ship as there was no air conditioning at that time. The fire doors were not activated, and the ship’s wood-paneled, lacquered walls fueled the fire. To make matters worse, there was gunpowder on board which exploded.
The crew was unprepared to deal with the situation and it was nearly 40 minutes before a distress signal was transmitted. When they failed to contain the fire, many of the crew abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. While there were enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board, half of them were damaged by fire and could not be launched. The ones that did launch left with several empty seats and many carried more crew than passengers. Frightened passengers leaped from the ship to escape the fire only to be fatally injured upon impact with the water due to not being trained to hold onto the life vests when jumping.
Rescue ships eventually responded to the distress call but were impeded by the rough waters. By the time it was over, 86 passengers and 49 crew had died. The ship itself eventually ran aground at Asbury Park, New Jersey, where it would remain for the next six months, becoming something of a tourist attraction. Captain Warms and other employees of the cruise line were initially convicted on charges of negligence and misconduct on January 23, 1936; however, their convictions were overturned by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the following April.
The cause of the fire remains unknown, though many suspect it to have been arson. The prime suspect was the chief radio engineer, George W. Rogers, who would later be convicted of killing his boss at the Bayonne Police Department where he worked as a radio assistant. There was no evidence proving he started the fire, but many speculate that he first murdered the captain and started the fire to cover his crime. Regardless of how it came about, the only positive result of the tragedy was the adoption of stricter maritime safety standards.
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