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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Continue reading “Morro Castle, Part 1: Fire at Sea”