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.
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By the time Acting Captain Warms ordered the anchor dropped off Sea Girt, roughly half the ship’s lifeboats had burned in their davits. The boats that were launched, meantime, did not have enough people aboard to control them in such rough seas, meaning that they were at the mercy of the waters, and unable to rescue people who swam or floated around them, some individually, others in small groups.
The elements themselves seemed to conspire against those in the water. Even a strong swimmer would have found it difficult to make the six-mile swim to shore as he was battered by the waves. Those suffering from second- and third-degree burns and smoke inhalation would have found it more difficult still, if not well nigh impossible.
Against this backdrop–a group of officers huddled on the ship’s bow, clusters of passengers and crew far aft on C and D warily watching the approaching flames, and a collection of humanity in the water running the gamut from joking and singing to floating, dead–a small armada was making its way toward the burning ship. A coal-fired pilot boat steamed from New York Harbor. Picket boats from nearby Coast Guard stations set out, while the Coast Guard cutter Tampa was headed south from Staten Island. Pleasure craft and fishing boats struggled out of docks in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The Furness liner Monarch of Bermuda was steaming south at top speed, her captain having turned her about so quickly that passengers were nearly thrown from their bunks; and two workhorses, the Andrea Luckenbach and the City of Savannah were also under way.
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It’s likely that nothing could have prepared anyone for the sight they would encounter as they approached the scene. The Morro Castle was aglow like one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno, and the sea around her was dotted with those who had jumped, fallen, or been bodily thrown over the sides of the ship. The Luckenbach, first on the scene, lowered lifeboats into the water and began looking for survivors. This ritual would be repeated as the other, larger vessels arrived; seamen struggled to get as many of the survivors into their boats as possible.
In the meantime, help came from an unlikely source. New Jersey governor Harry Moore had taken to the air in a National Guard plane, acting as a welcome spotter to the sailors in the lifeboats, the crews of the fishing boats Paramount and Diana, and the host of other craft in the water. Many of the survivors, precariously balanced between life and death, found their hope renewed by this flamboyant, slightly reckless gesture. Lifeboats were nearly overturned in the rough seas, and more than one person found themselves pulled overboard as they tried to pull swimmers from the turbulent waters. Hundreds would be saved, often at no small risk to their rescuers.
As dawn broke, volunteers on shore–alerted by the radio coverage of the morning’s events–gathered on the beaches of a dozen shore towns, preparing clothes, food, and first aid for the survivors that were beginning to come ashore, as well as preparing for an as-yet unknown number of dead. Before long, the first of the Morro Castle’s lifeboats would come ashore in Spring Lake. If the sight of chief engineer Eban Abbott, in his dress whites, pulling off his rank insignia and tossing them aside, muttering to himself, “Surely I will be jailed for this,” went unnoticed among the volunteers, it didn’t escape the notice of those who had made the long journey to shore with him. Before long, those words, and much else that had surrounded the last strange voyage of the Morro Castle, would receive a very public airing.
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Tomorrow: Morro Castle, Part 3: Aftermath
Postscript: A page of links and information on the Morro Castle