The Incredible Morro Castle Disaster
By James Donahue
The strange chain of events that led to the
fire that destroyed the four-year-old Ward Line cruise ship Morro Castle and killed 137 passengers and crew members was so
incredible a writer of contemporary horror stories may not have conceived of them all.
It happened in the early morning hours of
Saturday, September 8, 1934, the final day of the cruise, as the popular liner was completing a trip to and from Havana, Cuba,
and back to New York.
The prior evening Captain Robert Willmott
went to his cabin complaining of stomach cramps. That night he was found dead. Thus the command of the ship passed to Chief
Officer William Warms, and all of the other officers moved up one notch in rank and duty. The change came so fast there was
no time for anyone to be trained for their new roles.
Also that night, the Morro Castle was steaming
directly into the path of a severe storm that brought high seas and winds of more than 30 miles per hour.
As the crew struggled against the storm,
someone reported smoke on B Deck. Crew members searching for the source of the smoke found a storage locker in the First Class
Writing Room aflame. Instead of grabbing fire extinguishers and snuffing out the flames, which would probably have been successful,
the crew members ran off to report the fire to the bridge. Precious time was thus wasted. By the time Warms dispatched officers
to the scene to fight the blaze it was rapidly spreading through the ship’s superstructure.
The crew of the Morro Castle was untrained
for what was occurring. As the story is told, Captain Willmott made the decision a year or two earlier to stop holding fire
drills at sea after a passenger was accidentally injured in a drill and sued the Ward Line. Thus the would-be fire fighters
uncoiled various fire hoses and opened the valves of the fire hydrants, only to find that the water pressure was too low to
be of any use. The ship had been designed to provide maximum water pressure to only six hoses at a time.
In the meantime, Warms, believing that the
fire was small and being quickly brought under control, kept the ship running at full speed through the gale force winds.
This helped fan and spread the flames which were being fed by wood paneling, carpet and flammable décor throughout the passenger
Although the ship had fire doors and was
promoted as among the safest vessels afloat, it was constructed with a fatal flaw in its design. There was a wood-lined six-inch
opening between the wooden ceilings and the steel bulkheads that gave the fire a perfect pathway that by-passed the fire doors
and allowed the fire to quickly spread throughout the ship.
As soon as Warms realized how serious the
fire was, he ordered the alarm sounded and told officers to wake all the passengers and get to the lifeboats. He also attempted
to turn the ship toward shore, some five miles off, but had to give up the effort when the engine room crew fled the smoke
and flames below and the ship went dead in the water.
Because of the lack of drills and the fact
that it was the middle of the night and the fire was burning amidships, where the lifeboats were located, the order to get
in the lifeboats led to mass confusion. Most of the passengers escaped to the stern of the ship where they eventually were
forced to jump overboard and try to stay afloat until a rescue ship arrived.
Help was delayed because Warms overlooked
the task of ordering the radio room to send an S.O.S. Radio operator George Alanga told of fighting his way through smoke
and all of the confusion twice to reach the bridge in an effort to get that order. The first time he got to the bridge he
found Warms in an argument with Chief Engineer Eban Abbott, who Warms wanted to return to the engine room to restart the pumps
to fight the fire. Abbott not only refused, but he and a handful of other crew members commandeered a lifeboat and escaped
to the New Jersey coast, some five miles away. They said they didn’t even bother to pick up any of the people already
struggling in the water.
By the time Alanga managed to get an order
from Warms to send an S.O.S. radio signal, it was almost too late. Chief radio operator George Rogers remained at his post
in the heated smoke-filled radio room to send the signal. The transmitter was still functional but batteries, that powered
the receiver had exploded spilling sulfuric acid on the floor. To send the signal, Rogers had to attach a wire that had become
disconnected from a generator, but he was successful.
The delay in getting a call out for help
probably contributed to the high loss of life. Even before the S.O.S. was sent, people on shore were observing an orange glow
in the sky and were asking if a ship was burning.
The first ship to arrive was the Luckenbach,
followed by the Monarch of Bermuda and the City of Savannah. The Coast Guard cutters Tampa and Cahoone stood by, and dozens
of private fishing and pleasure craft joined Coast Guard boats in fighting the high seas to pull bodies, both living and dead,
from the sea. In the end 86 passengers perished and 49 crew members.
The still burning wreck floated aground off
Ashbury, New Jersey where it burned itself out.