Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Morro Castle

By Cornelia

On March 5, 1930, my grandmother Ruth Mooney christened an ocean liner in Newport News, Virginia. This ship, named the S.S. Morro Castle, was the newest addition to the fleet of the Ward Line.

Designed for the popular New York to Havana route, the Morro Castle and her sister ship, the Oriente, were the largest and most luxurious Ward Liners ever built. They measured 11,520 tons gross and 508 feet in length, and boasted lavishly decorated public rooms, staterooms and suites for the use of 437 first-class and 95 tourist-class passengers, with quarters for an additional 240 crew members and officers. The construction cost of each ship was estimated at approximately $5 million.

After the launch, the shipyard hosted a gala dinner at the Chamberlain-Vanderbilt Hotel at Old Point Comfort, Virginia. The guest list for the festivities included representatives from the New York Times, Evening Journal, Evening Sun, World, and American newspapers, not to mention Havana's El Mundo, Fox News, and two newsreel companies, along with assorted dignitaries from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.

According to

Reporters hailed the liner for her technical innovations and her safety.... She produced 21 knots on her sea trials, a speed that would shave off 13 hours of voyage between New York and Havana, Cuba. The MORRO CASTLE arrived at Pier 13 in New York on August 17, where the large part of her furniture, silver, china, and linens was brought aboard. She departed on her maiden voyage on August 23, 1930-- the "most lavish American coastwise vessel" ever produced for the Atlantic coast.

The finished MORRO CASTLE boasted a Louis XVI-style Lounge, an Empire-style Writing Room...

and an Italian Renaissance-style Smoking Room. Her public rooms were among the finest ever produced in America. Newspapers called her and her sister ORIENTE "the Millionaire's Yachts."

Tragically, it was these very same lavish decor that would seal her fate--especially the expensive hardwood-veneered paneling, varnished to perfection, which was used throughout the ship's interior.

On September 5, 1934, the Morro Castle set out from Havana for its final voyage. The following afternoon, as it travelled parallel to the southeastern coast of the United States, it entered the start of developing Nor'easter, with winds and rain increasing during the course of the following day and evening, to such an extent that many passengers retired early.

That night, ship's Captain Robert Willmott had dinner delivered to his quarters. Shortly thereafter, he complained of stomach trouble. By ten p.m. he was dead of an apparent heart attack. Chief Officer William Warms took over as acting captain, piloting the Morro Castle through rough seas and winds of 30 knots per hour.

Just before 3 a.m., fire broke out in a storage locker outside the First Class Writing Room. It spread quickly--especially since acting captain Warms attempted to beach the vessel by heading directly into the easterly gale, only increasing the intensity and volume of the flames.

By 3:10 a.m., the main electric cable burned through, plunging the ship into darkness. Hydraulic lines to the wheelhouse were severed by the fire as well, rendering the ship's rudders useless.

Cut off by the fire amidship, passengers moved back toward the stern, while the crew moved toward the forward deck. Only half of the ship's dozen lifeboats were launched. Despite a capacity of 408, these six vessels contained a mere 85 people, most of them crew members.

Chief engineer Abbott, the ship's second-in-command after Captain Warms, responded to the emergency by putting on his dress uniform and stepping into a lifeboat. It was one of the first to reach the beach--with Abbott, thirty crewmen, and one passenger aboard.

Few passengers knew how to put on the cork-filled life preservers, as no safety drills had ever been held. When they began leaping from the burning deck into the storm-churned Atlantic, scores were knocked unconscious or killed instantly when their necks were broken by the jackets that should have saved them.

The first rescue ship to arrive on the scene was the SS Luckenbach. Two other ships -- the SS Monarch of Bermuda and the SS Savannah -- responded slowly to the SOS. The large storm swells made it very difficult to see victims needing rescue. A fourth ship, the SS President Cleveland, left the scene after the crew of its motor boat reported seeing no one in the water.

Coast Guard vessels Tampa and Cahoone, positioned too far away to see the drowning victims, rendered little assistance. The Coast Guard's aerial station at Cape May, New Jersey, only launched its float planes when local radio stations began reporting that dead bodies were washing ashore on the state's beaches, from Point Pleasant Beach to Spring Lake.

As news of the disaster spread up and down the state, local citizens assembled on the coastline to help retrieve the dead, nurse the wounded, and re-unite families scattered among the different rescue boats landing on New Jersey's beaches.

By mid-morning, the ship was totally abandoned, its still-burning hull wallowing in the Atlantic after a Coast-Guard towline broke.

The Morro Castle finally ran aground in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey. The fire smoldered for another two days, and local hucksters started leading tours--at twenty-five cents a head--through its ruined decks before all the bodies had been removed.

135 passengers and crew died, out of the 549 who'd boarded in Havana. The ship was declared a total loss, and on March 14, 1935, its charred hulk was finally towed away from the Asbury Park shoreline toward Baltimore, where it was sold for scrap.

Last summer, while visiting my Aunt Julie in Vermont, I got to see a box of memoribilia from the day of the ship's christening, saved all these years by a woman named Essie Cruikshank, who'd been one of my grandmother's "maids of honor" at the ceremony.

I'd written about a similar tragedy at sea in A Field of Darkness, calling the ship the Glamis Castle, and placing my protagonist's great-grandparents, Dodie and Jake Townsend, aboard:

When she was two weeks pregnant with her last child, Dodie saw Jake blown up on the bridge of Townsend’s newest liner, the Glamis Castle. The next explosion threw her clear.

A fire at sea is a terrible thing, because fuel will continue to burn as it spreads out over the surface of the water. Dodie was hospitalized for over a month. I remember overhearing, as a child, that it was there she’d become an addict, that Jimmy the chauffeur had then kept her in drugs for decades.

I'd read a book about the Morro Castle when I was twelve years old, but had never researched the full impact of the fire until Julie showed me the souvenir programs and photographs Mrs. Cruikshank had saved from the day it was first launched.

When I came home to Berkeley the following week, I started Googling, more and more horrified as I read reports about design flaws that had exacerbated the disaster:

* Fire doors throughout the ship had wood-lined, six-inch openings between its wooden ceilings and steel bulkheads.

* The ship was equipped with electric fire sensors, but only in staterooms, crew quarters, the cargo hold, and the engine room. There were none in the lounges, ballroom, writing room, library, tea room, or dining room.

* There were 42 water hydrants on board, but its designers assumed no more than six would ever be used at one time. The Morro Castle's crew opened all of them, reducing the water pressure to unusable levels throughout the ship.

* Captain Warms refused at first to authorize an SOS—in order to save the Ward Line, run by my great-grandfather Franklin Mooney, the expense of a salvage fee.

Add to this the lack of safety drills--not yet legally required:

The second International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London on April 16, 1929.... Because of the fear in the United States Senate as a result of ambiguities in Article 54 dealing with control, the 1929 convention was not ratified by the United States until 1936, and even then the ratification was accompanied by three reservations.


It is now widely believed that the fire was intentionally set by George Rogers, the liner's radio officer, who claimed to have "sat with wet towels around his head as he tapped out SOS messages while the radio room exploded and sulfuric acid burned his feet...." (from David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace's book, The People's Almanac):

...After the disaster, George Rogers briefly made a living recounting his heroism in lecture halls. He subsequently opened a radio repair shop, which burned to the ground, but Rogers collected the insurance money. In 1936 he joined the Bayonne, N.J., Police Force and worked in the radio department. Coveting his superior's job, Rogers tried to murder him with a bomb made from a fish-tank heater. Before he was sent to prison, Rogers was questioned about the Morro Castle and suggested the suspiciously imaginative idea that the fire was started by an incendiary fountain pen, rigged with a delayed-action device, which had been left in the writing room. He refused to say anything else, and the disaster of the Morro Castle remains a mystery. (In 1942 Rogers was paroled, but in 1954 he was convicted of murdering an elderly couple. Four years later he died in the New Jersey State Penitentiary.

Even popular culture was affected by the tragedy. Cole Porter's lighthearted musical comedy Anything Goes, starring Ethel Merman as the "devilishly saucy Reno," was originally about a shipwreck. Due to open on Broadway in November of 1934, it was completely re-written in the wake of the Morro Castle fire, ensuring the entire story took place aboard a ship which remained happily afloat throughout all three acts.

On May 3rd, 2003, Capt. Jeffrey Monroe, Director of Ports and Transportation Portland, Maine, gave the following speech at the opening of a new exhibition on the Morro Castle disaster at the Maritime Industry Museum in the Bronx, New York. (Captain Monroe's father served as a crew member on the ship's final voyage):

It can be said that the burning of the MORRO CASTLE stunned the nation. Measured against the sinking of the TITANIC, the explosion of the Hindenburg or the recent World Trade Center attack, it may not be as easily recognized in history, but from that one incident on September 8th, 1934, came the some of the most sweeping changes that were ever undertaken in the shipping industry, and still impact us today....

I will always remember something my father told me about the moment he came out on deck after being called out just minutes after the fire had been discovered. He remembered the wind, the pelting rain and the silhouette of the glowing superstructure against the black night. A rolling wall of flames ran down the decks and engulfed everything in its path and the deck crew struggled to get to the upper decks to try to fight the fire. Nothing they should have done or could have done, would have changed the outcome.

While I have always held that the fire started spontaneously, there is real conjecture that it may have been deliberately set. No matter, the end result would have been the same. Any ship of that era would have faced the same fate. Our industry was just not mature enough to understand the threats that faced us at the time. It had only been less than a hundred years since the first steam passenger ship had crossed the Atlantic. This was still a very young industry and while the designers were very proud of the new and innovative ideas that had gone into ship safety, things really had not changed all that much....

The end result is that because of the MORRO CASTLE, hundreds of thousands of people cruise annually on some of the safest ships ever conceived. We ask ourselves constantly if we can make it better and the industry has been put to the test. Fires aboard modern cruise ships have been easily contained and extinguished with no loss of life. If you look at the modern cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and 1,500 crew, the MORRO CASTLE with 500 passengers and crew, was pale in comparison. Yet this little ship has set the stage for how modern ships are built, manned and operated. That is the legacy of this disaster, this ship, her crew and her passengers....

In the wake of the MORRO CASTLE rest the lives of those who died that night and those who lived. It is a testament to all of them that we are better off for what they went through and a tribute to them, that we are safer today for their sacrifice. In that knowledge, may they all find peace. Thank you.

The Morro Castle fire, remains the most deadly domestic maritime disaster ever to occur aboard a U.S.-flag merchant vessel. According to the U.S. Coast Guard:

Public outcry from the incident led to the creation of a special Senate subcommittee and subsequent US ratification on August 7, 1936, of the 1929 SOLAS Convention. The subcommittee included a Fireproofing and Fire Prevention group set up to consider measures to avoid the rapid spread up and down stairways and along corridors and through accommodation spaces that occurred on the MORRO CASTLE.

Only two members of the Morro Castle's crew, , ever faced trial, however. Acting Captain Warms and Chief Engineer Abbott were charged before a federal grand jury with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty. Prison terms were imposed on both men, but their convictions were set aside on appeal. Ultimately, Captain Warms had his Masters Certificate restored, whereupon he got work as a second officer aboard a freighter.

Sorry to post this so late in the day--I had to fax emergency medical treatment forms to my daughter's sleepaway camp in the Adirondacks this morning, which took forever as I don't have a fax machine. The camp hadn't put them in the original paperwork packet.

Thankfully, they finally received the forms after three runs down to the mailing service office here in Berkeley--a good thing since Grace was hit in the face with a boom on a camp sailboat this afternoon, and had to be taken to the emergency room in Saranac Lake.

When the camp first called, they said they didn't think her nose was broken, as she wasn't upset when they applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Camp just called back to tell me that the ER doc says her nose IS broken and she had a cut that required glue in lieu of stitches, so won't be able to go in the lake for another five days. Tomorrow they take her back to a specialist for a consult on the break....... Poor kid!!!

It is freaking me out quite a bit that I was writing about maritime disasters while all this was happening back east.

So... am not going to proofread this. Have to call Kaiser...

Grace just called and sounds fine...


  1. Kinda wondered where that was going... hope the kid is ok. xx

  2. I had no idea that's where it was going, but my conclusion was cut off by the phone call.

  3. Poor kid! I hope the doctors fix her up good. What a crummy way to spend your time at summer camp.

    (Oh, and thanks a lot for posting this a week before I leave for my cruise. Really appreciate that one.)

  4. Oh, man... I am so sorry Daisy! And sorry to miss writing group, too. Totally screwed up the date, but couldn't have come even if I'd remembered, as Intrepid Spouse is in Phoenix for the week doing IT training.

    At least you know you'll have a fire drill on the cruise?.

  5. Great story, and I'm so sorry about Grace....hope the medicos are taking great care of her......

  6. They apparently glued her back together. She sounded amazingly chipper on the phone. I think we're both still in shock.

  7. Yeow! Glad Grace is okay and in good spirits. How scary for you, though.

  8. Grace with a broken nose will be just as beautiful. And I love the idea of a glue-stitch.

    Thanks for the sad story of the ship. Instead of its aftermath, I'm savoring the idea of "a First Class Writing Room."

  9. Fascinating post, and glad to hear that Grace is on the mend. Very hard to be so far away when one of the kids gets bruised and battered.

    I never knew the arson angle in the Morro Castle story. Incredible.

    And funny, like Louise, I just love that term, "First Class Writing Room." On our recent cruise down the Baja, the ship had an "Internet Cafe," which I suppose is the modern equivalent. At any rate, we didn't see anyone with fountain pens and fine linen stationery.

  10. You know, I think some of your writing is about atonement for the past.

    So glad to hear Grace is okay.

  11. Sandra, only SOME? I'm all about the angst.

  12. I'm so sorry about Grace.

    This is a very interesting story, Cornelia. Thanks for posting it.

  13. I wonder why shipwrecks, though horrible, are somehow so fascinating. Look at all the books and movies about the Titanic, and ol' Gordon Lightfoot's ten minute song about the Edmund Fitzgerald. Cornelia, now someone is going to option your blog post and make a movie about the Morro Castle.

  14. Well, I thought there was a nanosecond when it might have been about revenge.

    But just a nanosecond.

  15. Thanks for the complete story on The Morro. As it happens, I mention it, in passing, in my book Pushing Up Daisies which comes out in '08. It'sd the reason two sisters have to return from Italy - both parents were on The Morro. Rosemary Harris

  16. Nice try, BUT....

  17. I was preparing an article on the Morro Castle for my blog -- part of an on-again-off-again series called "This Date in Fire History" -- when I found your piece. A great piece of writing! In fact, your piece is so good, I'm just going to steer my readers over here for it.

  18. My father Ike Norris and uncle Lew Norris participated in rescuing survivors of the Morro Castle off Spring lake N.J.
    I donated quite a few letters and pictures to Captain Jeffery Monroe for the Maritime Industry Museum in the Bronx.
    I have duplicates of the letters and pictures I donated if you would like to see them?
    My name is C.V (Bud) Norris
    and my email is: