My grandmother, Athalia Ogden Barker, was a marvelous storyteller, especially when it came to the escapades of family members and their brushes with notable events and personages. Today is the 72nd anniversary of one of these incidents, in which she and her family were eyewitnesses to a marine disaster. On September 8th, 1934, the Ward Line steamer SS Morro Castle caught fire in heavy seas off the coast on New Jersey. The Captain had died the evening before of an apparent heart attack and the chain of command broke down. The heavy varnish on the elegant paneling of this luxury liner fed the flames that started in a closet and spread to the library, and the fire safety features of the ship failed to contain them. When the charred hulk of the ship finally beached near Asbury Park, upwards of 137 passengers had lost their lives.
The story of the SS Morro Castle is a tale of needless tragedy, of confusion at sea, of dereliction of duty and suspected arson, but also the story of citizens all along the Jersey shore, my grandmother and her siblings among them, who went out that morning to tend to the injured, recover the drowned, and try to rescue any survivors who had been in the water overnight. My great Uncle Archie Ogden reportedly put a boat into the surf and tried to reach an exhausted swimmer, but she died before he got to her.
Though Prohibition had been repealed the previous December, liquor regulations remained tight in many places, and SS Morro Castle was still an opulent booze cruise, capitalizing on the less restrictive and exotic allure of Havana for its wealthy clientele. It was also the height of the Depression, and according to my grandmother several of the stewards drowned after they leaped into the water with their pockets filled with the ship's silver.
The fire amidships isolated many of the passengers in the stern while much of the crew and most of the lifeboats were located closer to the bow. The most egregious dereliction came from Chief Engineer Eben Abbott - as far as I know no relation to me - who donned his full dress uniform and stepped into a lifeboat with scores of crew and but a single passenger. Neither the crew nor the passengers knew how to respond to the disaster. Numbers of people had their necks broken or were knocked unconscious and drowned after hitting the water with improperly fastened cork life vests. The radio operator, thought at first to be a hero of the disaster, was later suspected of arson, and the cause of the fire remains hotly debated today.
You can read a survivor's account that aired on NOVA in the late 1990s here, and a detailed examination of the disaster on a blog of talented crime and mystery writers at The Naked Truth. One of the most comprehensive sites on the disaster is at Gare Maritime, which has lists of victims, survivor stories, and analysis of the decadent vessels of the Ward Line, the SS Morro Castle and her sister ships on the Havana run:
"(T)here was a dark undercurrent beneath the glamorous and placid surface presented by Ward Line publicists: rumors abounded regarding drug and alcohol smuggling; illegal alien importation; gun running and gambling. The "Havana Ferryboats" were referred to, not affectionately, by longshoremen and NYC waterfront police as "The Floating Whorehouses" because of the alleged presence of not-on-the-passenger-list call girls who worked the liners during peak convention and charter season. Particularly during her final year, enough of the Morro Castle's misadventures appeared in the press to make the other rumors seem plausible."
According to the Wikipedia entry for this disaster,
"Despite its cause, the fire aboard the SS Morro Castle served to improve fire safety for future ships. The use of fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, the necessity of emergency generators, mandatory crew training in fire fighting procedures, and greater attention to fire drills and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster."
My grandfather came courting my grandmother the week after the disaster and to meet her family at Point Pleasant for the first time. They all went down to the boardwalk at Asbury Park to view the wreck. It remains, nearly three quarters of a century later, one of the most costly marine disasters along the East Coast of the United States, and families up and down the Jersey shore have letters, scrapbooks and elderly relatives that recall the night that there was fear and fire afloat and days with the smoking hulk of the SS Morro Castle ashore.
More: (6/7/2007): A list of the dead and missing from the Morro Castle disaster is available here.