THE STRANGE TRAGEDY OF THE MORRO CASTLE
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The rain battered the New Jersey shore along southern Monmouth County in the early morning hours of September 8, 1934. With winds approaching 60 miles per hour, it would take a brave or foolhardy person to challenge the weather in a storm like this. Yet the few daring souls that did choose to go out in those pre-dawn hours were greeted by a sight they would never forget. Offshore in the distance, the clouds glowed an eerie red, as if lighted by some vast inferno.
Those more comfortable people who chose to remain inside that morning quickly learned of the source of the red glow as radio stations across the dial announced the news of a ship at sea embroiled in a tragedy in the making. What was truly astonishing to the radio listener that morning was the identity of the vessel. For it was not an old freighter or transport ship, but one of the newest and supposedly safest ships afloat, the passenger liner Morro Castle.
The Morro Castle had been launched just four years earlier with much fanfare. It had been built with help from the United States government in an effort to modernize our aging maritime fleet and to compete with the newer and more reliable foreign liners that American travelers preferred. Operated by the Ward Line, it immediately began making regular voyages from New York City to Cuba. The company's advertising brochure boasted, "During its 50 years of continuous service, the Ward line has lost but two ships, and it has never lost a passenger." They would not be so fortunate this time.
The round trip from New York to Havana, Cuba took the Morro Castle about a week, and it had made the voyage over a hundred times by 1934 with few problems. Most of the passengers were vacationers, but the ship also delivered mail and cargo. The fare was very inexpensive, even by those Depression standards. It cost just $75.00 for a round trip which included meals and a two night stay in Havana. The trips were often referred to as "whoopee cruises" because of the non-stop drinking that some passengers imbibed in once the ship was outside the three mile territorial limit of the still prohibition laden United States.
But drinking and revelry did not stop once the ship landed in Havana. It continued in this exotic port where things were so much more liberating and open than the vacationers' homes. Liquor was cheap and legal and there was a host of new experiences for the middle-class voyager. On the trip back the partying continued and often reached its zenith on the last night before the ship reached port in New York. After all, any liquor purchased legally in Cuba had to be dispensed of before the ship landed, so all night parties were the rule for many passengers. Not all of the travelers, of course, behaved like this. There were also many business travelers and social clubs that made the voyage.
The captain of the Morro Castle from its very first voyage was Robert Wilmott, a veteran old salt who had been with the Ward Line for over 25 years. After operating many older ships over the years he was thrilled to be put in command of the line's newest liner, which was built with both comfort and safety foremost in mind. Upon taking command of the ship Wilmott was asked what would happen if the Moro Castle was ever taken away from him. He answered jokingly that, "In that case, I'll take here with me." Those words would seem prophetic years later.
Captain Wilmott was a personable and respected officer. He liked to mingle with the passengers and was considered a fair boss, if not a bit stern, by the crew. His second-in-command, First Officer William Warms, though competent was the opposite of the captain in many respects. He was virtually unknown to the passengers and unfamiliar to many in the crew. Warms never initiated any actions on board, he simply followed orders. Like most of the officers on board, he was qualified to command a ship, but the Depression had made such opportunities rare, and officers had to sign on to whatever position was available.
In order to be profitable, the Morro Castle had to make as many voyages as possible. This allowed for almost no "down time" for the vessel. On a typical voyage the ship would arrive in New York on Saturday morning, discharge the passengers and cargo, take on new passengers and cargo, and depart that evening. Although the captain and some other senior officers were given regular vacations, the rest of the crew was held hostage by the schedule. If they wanted to take a break or visit family they needed to quit the crew and hope they could sign back on for a later voyage. The ship's timetable often led to a fifty percent turnover in crew on each cruise, assuring that few onboard would be familiar with the ship and its safety procedures and features. It also allowed for no loyalty between the crew and the company or its officers on board. Adding to safety concerns, Captain Wilmott, much to the chagrin of Warms, had ceased fire drills on the ship after a passenger slipped and fell during an earlier drill and had sued the Ward Line.
When the Morro Castle departed New York on September 1, 1934, few expected anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the voyages had become so routine that the ship was often referred to by sailors as the "Havana Ferryboat." Some of the crew did notice a change in Captain Wilmott's personality over the previous months. Perhaps it was overwork or stress, but he became less outgoing and gregarious. There was also a rumor that the ship was secretly smuggling arms to the Cuban dictatorship and had become a target to Communist insurgents on the island.
On this latest voyage the captain still ate dinner with the passengers, but was otherwise rarely seen by them. By the time the return trip started on September 6, 1934, he became even more hostile and suspicious. Some crew members blamed his demeanor on an upcoming storm, but others sensed a more serious cause. The captain had confided in some officers that he had was convinced that someone was out to murder him and damage or destroy the ship. Whether he suspected communist guerillas or a disgruntled employee, he did not say. However one crew member fit both descriptions in the mind of the Captain Wilmott. He confided in Warms and Chief Engineer Eban Abbott that he suspected George Alanga, an Assistant Radio Engineer, was, in his opinion, a "dangerous radical".
The radio operators aboard the Morro Castle, like all radio operators at the time, were not employees of the Ward Line, but were hired and assigned by the Radiomarine Corporation (now RCA). Each passenger ship was required to have three on board, one for each shift. On this cruise Bayonne resident George White Rogers was the Chief Engineer and George Alanga was one of the assistants. On an earlier voyage Alanga had tried to organize a strike against the shipping line for better conditions but was unsuccessful. He had earned the undying hatred of Captain Wilmott and the Ward Lines for his effort, and in fact had already been notified that he was being dismissed when the ship returned to New York.
On September 6th the Morro Castle was steaming full speed ahead to New York and expected to arrive two days later. Captain Wilmott seemed to recover his disposition enough to join the passengers and officers for dinner. He also spoke with George White Rogers about his assistant Alanga. Rogers, though seemingly friendly with Alanga, did little to defend him. He reported to the captain that he had found two vials of what he thought were the ingredients for a "stink bomb" in Alanga's locker. Inexplicably, Rogers had thrown the vials overboard instead of keeping them as evidence. The captain had his suspicions about Rogers too, as did many in the crew, but he needed an ally who was close to Alanga, so he chose to accept his story.
George White Rogers was someone who warranted suspicion. It was not just his unusual appearance (he was well over six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds), but his unusual demeanor. There were times Rogers could be a bundle of energy, and other times when he would nod off in mid-conversation. His rotund, flabby body and extremely pale face did not portray a seaman, and he had no friends on the crew. In fact, no one really knew much at all about the man, except that he exuded an air of discomfort to those around him.
The passengers awakened on the morning of September 7th to a miserable and wet day. The approaching storm had finally arrived and activities on the ship would be confined to indoors. Cruise Director Robert Smith would have his hands filled keeping the travelers entertained. As Cruise Director, Smith acted as the liaison between the crew and the passengers and he was very good at his job. Whatever the vacationers needed, Smith did his best to accommodate them. He was the representative of the line to most passengers and the only officer on the ship they would get to know during the cruise. One of the activities Smith was planning for the day was a new game he had thought up called "life boat". On a signal, all the passengers would rush to their cabins, put on their life jackets and report to their assigned lifeboats. The first team to accomplish this would be given prizes at the final dinner onboard that night. Smith, like First Officer Warms, was concerned by the lack of fire drills, and thought this might be a good way to practice without alarming the passengers. Captain Wilmott thought it was the silliest idea he had ever heard and refused permission.
Captain Wilmott, besides his growing paranoia, was now suffering from stomach cramps. He spent most of the day in his cabin as the weather worsened. His discomfort was matched by many of the passengers who were becoming seasick as the ocean waves became rougher and rougher. The final dinner onboard the Morro Castle before docking in New York was a highlight of the trip. Called the "Captain's Dinner", it was one of the few times when most of the officers, especially the captain, were present to entertain the guests. Therefore, it came as a shock to the passengers when Captain Wilmott did not make an appearance. What the guests did not know was that the commander of the ship had just been found dead in his cabin.
The ship's doctor made a perfunctory examination of the body, and declared the captain had died of a heart attack and "nervous stomach". Three other physicians traveling onboard concurred, but with reservations. An autopsy was impossible given the current situation, but one would be possible once the ship landed in New York. First Officer Warms assumed command and each officer below him advanced one grade. This may have been customary, but it put each man in a position he was unfamiliar with, a liability if an emergency situation occurred.
Warms assumed control of the bridge and began to plot a course to battle the now fierce storm. The rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was gusting to near hurricane force. The passengers were informed of Captain Wilmott's death, and assured that the current officers in charge were more than capable of bringing the ship home. They should feel sadness, not worry. Some of the passengers were not so sure. The captain was dead, they were battling a storm, and many now regretted the lack of fire and safety drills.
Just prior to 3:00am a crew member thought he smelled smoke near the passenger lounge. Upon further investigation he found smoke coming from the writing room (a small lounge used by passengers for writing messages or letters, or just to relax) adjacent to it. He notified the bridge and an officer was immediately dispatched to find the source of he smoke. A few moments later he opened a closet and found the interior engulfed in flames.
Upon finding the fire the crew made the first of many mistakes. Instead of seizing all available nearby fire extinguishers and immediately fighting the fire, they reported back to the bridge and wasted precious seconds. By the time they began attacking the fire, it had spread too far. They then made their second mistake by not closing the fire proof doors to isolate and at least slow down the fire's spread. The bridge was notified of the crew at hand's lack of progress with the flames and the fire alarm was sounded.
It must have seemed to Acting Captain Warms that all the fates were conspiring against him. First Captain Wilmott had died and now he had to worry about a fire as well as the storm. The untrained crew rushed as best they could to their fire stations and began to uncoil the hoses and open the valves of the fire hydrants. What they did not know, but would have had they been properly drilled, is that the ship was designed to provide maximum water pressure to only six hoses at a time. When the crew opened more hoses (some by accident), the water pressure dropped and the hoses proved useless in fighting the spreading conflagration. Warms, believing the fire was being brought under control, proceeded at top speed through the gale force winds which only helped to fan the flames and spread the fire which was being fed by the wood paneling, carpets and the flammable décor throughout the passenger areas.
In a matter of minutes Warms knew he had a serious problem on his hands. He ordered the passengers awakened and ordered to their respective lifeboats. However, the lack of drills, sleepiness, and in some cases intoxication caused confusion, and the quickly spreading fire and blinding, choking smoke prevented people from reaching the center of ship where most of the lifeboats were located. Most of the passengers, or at least those who could escape the rapidly burning cabins, were forced to the rear of the Morro Castle where they watched with apprehension the approaching flames.