In “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast,” author Patrick McGilligan states that one of the director’s first projects upon coming to America was “Hell Afloat,” a story based on the 1934 Morro Castle fire. It was to have been a typically Langian scenario, full of spies, saboteurs, intrigue, and double-crossing. What the new arrival may not have realized at the time, but would become startlingly apparent over the course of an investigation launched while the linerstill burned on the beach off Asbury Park, is that the story of the S.S. Morro Castle already had intrigue to spare. The people involved could have been made to order by central casting, a motley assortment that included communists, dope smugglers, a haunted and suspicious captain dead under suspicious circumstances, one radio operator suspected of being an agitator and saboteur, and another–the disaster’s unlikely hero–a pedophile and psychopath beneath an unassuming exterior.
The investigation would stretch on for weeks, with passengers, crew, and experts being interviewed and cross-examined. Much as the disaster had been the first to be covered on the radio, so too would the investigation be brought into people’s living rooms. What unfolded may have struck some like a soap opera; passengers accusing seamen and officers of neglect of duty and gross incompetence, while the ship’s crew in turn blamed the passengers for panic and drunkenness and blamed one another for lack of foresight and dereliction of duty, just for good measure. The press, in the meantime, found no rumor or innuendo too small or far-fetched to report. The Morro Castle had run guns to Cuba, and this raised speculation that Communists had set the blaze; the commission also allowed that it might have been spontaneous combustion. Rumors also circulated of looters, stolen jewels, officers shooting sailors, and any number of other things. This is perhaps understandable, in a sense; when the “safest ship afloat” burns in sight of shore with the rapidity of celluloid, anything else must also have seemed possible. In the meantime, the ship’s radio operator George Rogers let slip–after a show of hesitation–that he suspected his assistant radio operator, George Alagna.
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