A short time after 3 in the morning on September 8, 1934, hysteria seemed to have gripped the Morro Castle as surely as the flames that were consuming the ships’s superstructure. Deck B, where the fire had originated in the ship’s Writing Room, was all but lost, while on Deck A, the flames were closing in on the lifeboats, radio room, and wheelhouse. Decks C and D fared little better, though at least the aft sections of both decks were–for the time being–clear of fire, if not of the bitter, acrid smoke given off by the ship’s wood furnishings and paneling, not to mention layer upon layer of highly inflammable paint, varnish, and polish.
The more passengers awoke, the greater the confusion in the ship’s smoke- and fire-choked passageways. Some passengers were roused by the smell of smoke, some when friends and family pounded on stateroom doors; still others woke to the sounds of stewards clattering pots and pans, or one of the ship’s musicians blowing reville. Nearly all were astonished to find that the fire had not, in fact, been raging for hours while they slept; it was nearly incomprehensible that so much of the vessel should burn so quickly.
The fire’s rapid spread, and accompanying smoke, quickly made the ship’s elevator impassible, and the stairways in public spaces fared no better. While the ship’s crew were aware of, and made use of, steel-sheathed companionways to move between decks, most passengers (save for a few who had been directed to the companionways by crew members) were unaware of their existance. Some passengers were also reluctant to brave the smoke and flames to reach the boats when the fire was less intense, only to find that the way was impassible when they’d finally mustered the courage to try for the lifeboats.
Consequently, most of the passengers, and many of the crew who had tried to help them, found themselves faced with a grim choice: jump–chancing the dark, churning waters in terrible weather conditions–or burn. Some of the crew had, when the fire first broke out, thrown anything bouyant that they could find overboard, in hopes of giving those who jumped over the rails something to cling to. Before the ship’s engines were shut down and the anchor dropped, however, this simply meant that the ship–moving at close to 20 knots into a headwind of about 20-30 miles per hour–left a long wake of flotsam as she moved up the Jersey shore. The fact that the ship was underway also meant certain death for many who jumped overboard and were sucked into her twin screws.
··· — — — ··· Read more