Morro Castle, Part 3: Aftermath

The Morro Castle off Asbury Park, courtesy of WikimediaIn “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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Morro Castle, Part 2: Rescue At Sea

The crew of the Paramount after the rescue, courtesy of www.mels-place.comA 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.

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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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