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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This last fact would turn out to be one of the whole affair’s great ironies. Rogers would be hailed as the disaster’s hero, having stayed at his wireless set as the smoke and flames closed in; had anyone bothered to investigate his past, they would have uncovered a history of lies, petty theft, and arson stretching back nearly to childhood. While George Alagna was blacklisted, Rogers would not be taken seriously as a suspect by anyone with the authority to do anything about it. Indeed, not until he tried to murder a superior at the Bayonne Police Department a couple of years later, or succeeded in murdering his elderly neighbors nearly twenty years later, did anyone begin to doubt that the “hero” might not be all he’d cracked himself up to be.
But all of this was, in a sense, postscript. While the Hauptmann trial would shortly knock the story of the Morro Castle to the newspapers’ back pages, its impact would continue to be felt. For one thing, the hearings led to trials in 1936, which in turn led to the convictions of William Warms, Eban Abbott, and Henry Cabaud (the latter, of the Ward Line). The former found their convictions overturned a short time later; Warms, in particular, was said to have done the best he could under very trying circumstances, and had after all stayed on the bridge ’til it had burned out from under him. The courts were more circumspect about Abbott, and lamented the fact that statutes allowed such a paltry punishment against Cabaud and the Ward Line in the face of conduct that had cost 134 lives.
In addition, as had happened in the aftermath of the General Slocum fire 30 years before, the Morro Castle blaze led to an extensive overhaul of the maritime codes. The Morro Castle had, in some respects, been a wooden ship on a steel hull; going forward, this would not be possible. For example, designers of the Panama, built and launched in the late 1930’s, would boast that the only flammable thing on her was her fuel. The days of floating hotels with sumptuous cloth and wood appointments went up in smoke along with the Morro Castle.
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Was the fire set? The evidence, while damning, is nearly all circumstantial–as is the case against the purported arsonist, the disaster’s unlikely and subsequently fallen hero, George Rogers. Certainly, the man had the means, motive, and opportunity to have done so; this does not, however, mean that he did, in fact, start the fire. One fact that the histories of the Morro Castle up to this point seem to have omitted is that anyone who is a psychopath and inveterate liar–and George Rogers was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, both of these things–could easily have led investigators on a wild goose chase by claiming “knowledge” of the disaster that he simply did not have. Another, equally plausible, theory would be put forth some time after the fire by maritime authority William McFee.
In an essay appearing in The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941, McFee draws on an incident from his own time at sea, noting that the Morro Castle’s forward funnel–the one that actually worked and wasn’t just there as ornament–ran right behind the locker in the ship’s Writing Room. The place, in other words, where the fire was thought to have originated. The fire spread, remember, with such speed and ferocious intensity that passengers awakened mere minutes after its discovery thought it had been raging for hours. McFee says that it may well have been; few things conduct heat better than metal, and the funnel could easily have been heating the metal decks and bulkheads all through A and B decks for hours. Opening the door of the locker in the writing room may only have represented the tipping point at which everything began to go terribly wrong.
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In the end, of course, it won’t matter to disaster afficionados any more than the idea of a lone gunman does to those who, to this day, debate the JFK assassination. The cause of the Morro Castle fire are not likely to be solved in the fashion that the Hindenburg fire was; it will always, therefore, be a source of debate and speculation, fuel for conspiracy theories in the same way that the ship’s construction fueled the fire itself.
There’s something else at work here, as well. Many of us love a good conspiracy. Events before, and during, our lifetimes bear this out. Pearl Harbor, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the attacks on 9/11, the Kennedy assassinations, the Oklahoma City bombing, and a host of others have all been surrounded by myths and conspiracy theories for good reason. Myths, after all, are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the inexplicable. The greater the magnitude of the event–especially a catastrophic event–the greater the difficulty we have in ascribing it to a single individual, much less to natural causes. Some malevolent force or forces, some grand evil machinations, must have been at work for such a tragedy to play out; it’s difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that a constellation of human error, fallability, design flaws, nature, and coincidence can lead to such destructive ends. Perhaps this is also why we perpetually plan for the last disaster in much the same way that generals fight the last war, and why we’re caught flat-footed by the warnings all too often hidden in plain sight.
Postscript: A page of links and information on the Morro Castle