Morro Castle, Part 1: Fire at Sea

The Morro Castle in happier days

Captain Robert Wilmott could recite her vital statistics from memory, and often did as he gave passengers a tour of the T.E.L. Morro Castle’s bridge. 11,520 gross tons. 508 feet from stem to stern. 70 foot beam. Turboelectric motors capable of producing 16,000 horsepower, and driving the ship upwards of 20 knots.

As if this weren’t enough, advanced fire detection systems covered the ship’s staterooms and cargo holds, complementing an equally advanced set of fire supression measures; naval architecture had, it seemed, come a long way since the General Slocum fire claimed 1,100 lives scarcely thirty years before. And, in addition, enough lifeboats, life jackets, floats, and other paraphernalia were available to save well over three times the ship’s passengers and crew when the ship was travelling fully loaded–which, in the depths of the Great Depression, didn’t usually happen. Captain Wilmott could often be heard boasting to passengers that the Morro Castle was safer than crossing Times Square; in 1933, after all, she had weathered a hurricane off the Carolinas that had been severe enough to send waves nearly the height of the vessel’s bridge and knock out the ship’s radio system, suffering no more than a handful of wet blankets. When a passenger asked the captain what he would do if he ever had to give up command of the Morro Castle, he joked, “Well, in that case, I’ll take her with me.”

For their part, the ship’s owners, the Ward Line, boasted that this was the safest ship afloat. But a vessel–even one like the Morro Castle, whose design was the state of the art when it was launched in 1930–is only as good as the officers and seamen that staff it. For all the care put into the ship’s design and construction, for all the attention paid to its lavish interiors that called to mind a swanky hotel, not nearly as much effort was put into making sure that the ship’s crew were equal to the task of maintaining and sailing a safe ship.

While the ship’s officers, from her captain to her fourth officer, were all licensed to operate vessels of any tonnage anywhere in the world (and a number of other staff, like her watchman, held mate’s certificates), the Ward Line’s hiring practices were notoriously lax. Crew turnover, especially among the seamen who worked in the bowels of the ship and kept things running in good order, was astonishingly high, resulting in a lack of crew cohesion that would have disastrous consequences later.

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The last voyage of the Morro Castle, a run from New York to Havana during Labor Day weekend of 1934, would have started innocently enough for the passengers aboard. There was the usual whirl of shuffleboard, dances at tea and at dinner, sightseeing in Havana, and as much alcohol as one could afford, both on ship and on shore. Part of the allure of travelling on the Morro Castle and her sister ship, the Oriente, had been the opportunity to drink legally as soon as the ship crossed into international waters; while Prohibition had long been repealed by now, a reputation for alcohol-fueled abandon still clung to both ships, and stewards often found themselves having to escort–or carry–inebrieated passengers back to their berths. These same stewards, and many others in the crew, could only marvel when passengers who had already plunked down what amounted to a crewman’s wages for a month (or longer) for passage could win that amount again betting on the mechanical horses, only to spend it at the Tropicana or Sloppy Joe’s once the ship pulled into port in Havana.

Behind the ship’s sleek Art Deco lines, its decor and fixtures kept perpetually polished to a bright sheen, and its luxurious appointments there seethed an atmosphere of intrigue, mistrust, and paranoia. Labor troubles came from the Ward Line’s revolving door policy toward seamen, many of whom couldn’t read, write, or speak English (and many of whom carried false papers). They also appeared in the form of petitions circulated, and strikes called, by the ship’s hotheaded young radio operator, George Alagna. Captain Wilmott’s distrust of Alagna was reportedly such that he wanted to sack the radioman when the ship made port in New York.

He never got the chance. The Captain’s Dinner, a festive affair that was usually the end of a successful, happy voyage, was called off on this last voyage when Robert Wilmott was found slumped over the bathtub in his cabin, dead of an apparent heart attack. This thrust William Warms, the ship’s first officer, into the role of acting captain for what was arguably the shortest tenure on record.

Warms was the consummate “company man,” always willing to look out for the Ward Line’s bottom line. He wasn’t the gregarious old salt that Wilmott had been, and many of the crew thought that he would be replaced when the ship docked at Pier 13 in New York. The thought likely crossed Warms’s mind as well; although he had already worked his full shift, he was now determined to assert his authority and prove his worth to the Ward Line once and for all. He insisted that he would not leave the bridge.

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Two decks below, some passengers had decided to carry the party on into the early morning, dead captain or no dead captain. They continued drinking and talking in the B Deck lounge while two stewards cleaned and prepped for the ship’s arrival in New York later that day. When a passenger reported smelling smoke coming from one of the forward public rooms, the stewards didn’t think much of it; passengers often carelessly tossed lit cigarettes into wastebaskets, causing small fires that usually amounted to no more than a minor annoyance. What they found when they reached the Writing Room was of another order of magnitude altogether. When one of the stewards opened a small storage locker in the corner of the room, it was entirely engulfed in flames. He immediately slammed it shut and ran for a fire extinguisher. By the time he returned, his extinguisher was about as effective as spitting into a blaze that had already begun to consume the entire space. In a matter of minutes, not only the Writing Room, but also the Library, located across the hall, was ablaze. Almost immediately after that, the ship’s Derby fire detection system in the bridge began to glow like a Christmas tree; staterooms on all decks were now registering temperatures of 160 degrees farenheit or greater.

Acting Captain Warms sounded general quarters, mustering the crew to their stations and ordering the passengers roused and sent to the lifeboats. Initially thinking the fire a small, localized problem and wanting to get to New York Harbor as quickly as possible, Warms had ordered the ship sailed at 20 knots head-on into near gale-force winds. If this hadn’t been enough to fan the flames, broken portholes–some shattered by panicked passengers or crew members attempting to rescue those trapped in their cabins, others melted by the intense heat of the fire–fanned the flames still further, while another of the ship’s innovations, a ventilation system designed to cool the cabins by circulating tropical breezes, acted as a flue to a fireplace. The paint, varnish, and polish painstakingly applied on nearly every voyage added more fuel to a fire that had already fed ravenously on the wood paneling and wooden decking that covered nearly every surface of the ship. To make a bad situation worse, the ship’s Lyle gun (a device meant to fire a line to shore in case the ship was beached and needed to be evacuated) had been stored, along with a 5-gallon canister of gunpowder, in a false ceiling over the Writing Room. Once the ceiling gave way, the resultant explosion practically ensured that the fire would not be brought under control.

Water pressure had gone as crew members untrained in firefighting abandoned their posts without shutting the hydrants supplying the hoses. Passengers who had never been told their lifeboat stations, much less participated in drills, found themselves cut off from escape. Lifeboats burned in their davits, and the ones that were lauched–which could have carried 408 passengers and crew between them–made off with only 58 on board, most of them (including the ship’s engineer, Eban Abbott) crew members. When the ship’s electrical system–and with it, her winches, lighting, and steering–failed, she was literally at the mercy of the elements. Warms ordered the ship to drop anchor off Sea Girt. If the realization hadn’t come by now, he  likely realized at that moment that all was lost.

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At 3:24 AM, George Alagna returned to the radio room from the last of several trips to the bridge. Noting that the radio shack had already started to burn, he let a barely conscious George Rogers know that–thirty minutes after the fire’s discovery, when the ship was to all intents and purposes lost–permission had finally been given to transmit the SOS. Rogers transmitted, but with the receiver out, he could only hope that someone, anyone, would hear it and send help.

SOS de KGOV. SS Morro Castle afire 20 miles south of Scotland LV. Cannot work much longer. Fire directly under radio room, need assistance immediately.

The SOS was heard, but the intense heat from the blazing liner resulted in significant gaps in the message. Time would be lost as the ship’s position was confirmed in the desperate moments after the signal had been sent; further time lost as ships–some, by this point, close enough to pick up their pilots on the approach to the Hudson–turned back toward the scene of the disaster; and, finally, time lost as civilians ashore tried to make sense of conflicting reports (the ship had exploded, all hands lost; rescue ships had already made their way to the vessel, and all hands were saved) and decided whether they would–or could–brave winds of near-tropical storm intensity. The lost seconds that ticked into minutes and hours were literally a matter of life or death to those huddled aft on the liner’s C and D decks, watching the approach of the flames and deciding whether to brave the dark sea, to say nothing of those who had already decided that, faced with the option of possibly drowning or a near-definite death by fire, they would take their chances in the water.

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Tomorrow: Part 2: Rescue At Sea

Postscript: A page of links and information on the Morro Castle

2 thoughts on “Morro Castle, Part 1: Fire at Sea

  1. Kristy says:

    An emergency took place and there was not a readily available fire extinguisher and the crew had not had the necessary fire training. Kristy

  2. paul says:

    Technically, you’re half right. The testimony during the inquiry that followed the fire showed that there’d been equipment onhand — both fire extinguishers, and hoses that put out a fair amount of pressure. There were a series of larger problems:

    –The crew had not, as you mentioned, been trained properly. The equipment that was onhand wasn’t deployed effectively, and the hydrants, when abandoned, weren’t usually turned off or capped. At a certain point, abandoned hydrants were sapping pressure from the system as a whole. Water pressure, especially on decks A through C, was effectively reduced to that of a garden hose.
    –The extent of the fire upon its discovery was already, perhaps, larger than the ship’s firefighting equipment could handle in the hands of an untrained crew
    –Acting Captain Warms’s actions (namely, steering the ship head-on into a gale, fanning the flames) served to further worsen the situation.
    –Finally, the explosion of the black powder used as a propellant for the ship’s Lyle gun (which had been stored in a false ceiling over the fire’s probable point of origin) not only fed the flames, but also caused structural damage that served as a further source of oxygen for the fire.

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