Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Morro Castle Disaster

The Morro Castle Disaster
Written by Lisa Lamb

On September 7, 1934 a nor’easter was brewing, and the luxury liner Morro Castle was headed to New York, carrying vacationers returning from a trip to Havana, Cuba.  Around 8 p.m., diners aboard the ship were greeted by the terrible news that the captain, Robert Wilmott, had died. The cause was reportedly a heart attack brought on by indigestion. With Captain Wilmott dead, first officer William Warms became acting captain, and he set about guiding the ship safely to port. A few hours later, around 2:50 a.m., the new captain would have to contend with an even greater challenge –a fire was discovered aboard the ship.

The fire spread quickly, fanned by stiff winds and fed by the ship’s wooden appointments covered in layers of flammable lacquer. Just one SOS was sent before the electrical lines were destroyed, and soon the fire burned through the ship’s hydraulic lines, rendering it unable to steer. By 4 a.m., nearly the entire ship was engulfed in flames. The Coast Guard cutter Tampa attempted to tow the Morro Castle to port, but she became stranded as well.

Though there were more than enough life boats for everyone on board the Morro Castle, only half were launched. There had been no lifeboat drills, so passengers and even some of the crew were not prepared to evacuate. To make matters worse, some of the lifeboats had been shellacked in place.  As the fire spread, the intense heat left many of the passengers with no choice but to jump overboard. Despite the storm, individuals up and down the Jersey shore volunteered to help rescue survivors and recover victims. A makeshift morgue was set up at Sea Girt to handle the victims, which ultimately totaled 134.

In the end, the Morro Castle drifted along the shore, coming to rest in the shallow water just 100 yards from Asbury Park’s Convention Hall. There were concerns that the ship would move and crash into the Convention Hall with the change of tides, but she remained in place, smoldering for days. Barges eventually extinguished the fire using high-powered pumps to send tons of water into the ship.

Though it would probably be considered in poor taste today, the carcass of the burned ship became quite a tourist attraction.  The draw was so great that local businesses used the Morro Castle in their promotional materials.  Making the ship a permanent attraction was proposed, but this idea was reconsidered in light of negative press and objections from local citizens. In 1935, the Morro Castle was towed away and sold for scrap.

The cause of the fire aboard the Morro Castle has never been satisfactorily determined, but suspicion largely rests on radio operator George Rogers. Though he was originally hailed as a hero for staying with the ship to man its radio transmitter, two years after the disaster Rogers was investigated for arson unrelated to the shipwreck. In 1938, Rogers was convicted of attempted murder after sending a bomb to a co-worker who suspected him of setting the Morro Castle fire. George Rogers was released in 1942, but was convicted of double murder in 1954, and he died in jail in 1958.

About the Book
When New York brush manufacturer James Bradley founded Asbury Park in the late 1800s, he could hardly have imagined the course his seaside resort would take. Named for Methodist Episcopal bishop Francis Asbury, it was originally a Christian resort awash in Victorian architecture. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Asbury Park’s beach, boardwalk, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and amusements attracted thousands of vacationers every year. Later, the town gained a reputation as a gritty music mecca, known for the clubs where Bruce Springsteen got his start. All along, Asbury Park has had a unique ability to draw people to it, evidenced by the thousands of postcards sent home from the town each year. 

About the Author
Lisa Lamb was born and raised in New Jersey, and has documented Asbury Park’s history for more than a decade at her site A graduate of Rutgers University, Lamb lives with her family five minutes from the beach at the Jersey Shore.

Purchase a copy of her book, Asbury Park Revisited, on Amazon or at your local retailer.

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