The Horrific SS Morro Castle Disaster
ranwhenparked last edited by ranwhenparked
The US merchant shipping and shipbuilding industries have long been dependent on the largess of the federal government for survival, and it was no different in the 1920s. In 1928, President Herbert Hoover's administration pushed through a $250 million ($3.9 billion today) package to provide low interest, long-term financing to American shipping companies ordering vessels from US yards, with full government guarantees backstopping the debt. The idea at the time was to encourage the renewal of the US merchant fleet, which, at the time, had one of the oldest average ages in the world, and was still powered mostly by inefficient, smoke belching coal boilers, as the rest of the world was transitioning to mostly cleaner, thriftier oil.
One of the companies taking advantage of the loan program was the New York & Cuba Mail Steamship Company (doing business as the Ward Line), which, since 1841, had been the largest carrier of passengers, cargo, and mail between the United States and Cuba (which itself was a protectorate of the United States from the Spanish-American War until achieving full sovereignty in 1934).
Ward Line received loans for two new sister ships, and placed orders with the famous Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Virginia in late 1928, with construction beginning in January 1929. The two ships were delivered a few months apart in 1930 – Morro Castle (named for the fortress in Havana harbor) in March, and Oriente (named after the Oriente Province in Cuba) in May. Both were largely identical in design. In the case of Morro Castle, she measured 11,520 gross tons and 508 ft. long, and featured a 14,000hp General Electric steam turboelectric powerplant driving twin screws for a speed of 20 knots.
Although tiny by the standards of the hotly competitive transatlantic trade, for the less densely trafficked US-Cuba route, the ships were considered impressively large, and the luxury of their passenger accommodations easily rivaled the best on the Atlantic, bringing a new standard of comfort and service to the Cuban route. Morro Castle carried just 489 passengers – 394 in First Class, plus 95 in budget-oriented Tourist Class, plus a crew of 240. She featured richly paneled public rooms, with finely carved woods, with gold leaf detailing, expensive rugs and tapestries, and elegant furniture.
The spacious First Class Main Lounge and Dining Room were both two decks in height, encircled by elegant balconies, and the Smoking Room featured dark walnut paneling with a vaulted ceiling covered in frescoes depicting the Age of Sail. The ship also featured what was thought to be the latest in modern safety features – with electronic heat sensors, an automatic fire alarm system, and electrically operated fire doors.
From 1930-1934, Morro Castle worked the New York-Havana run, taking about 2 days, 10 hours to complete the 1100 mile trip. Despite the ongoing Great Depression, she and her sister were highly popular and profitable, sailing at or near capacity on nearly every voyage throughout the year.
But, that all came to an end at 2:50am on September 8th, 1934. While sailing off the coast of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, inbound from Havana, fire was discovered in a storage locker connected to the First Class Writing Room. Despite the ship's apparent safety measures, it spread rapidly, feeding off the heavily varnished wood furnishings and paneling, and spreading through the gaps in-between decks and bulkheads. To make matters worse, the captain had died of a heart attack at dinner several hours earlier, leaving the First Officer in charge, and, as events would prove, he wasn't totally ready for the job.
The automatic fire alarms sounded as they were supposed to, but were too quiet – most of the sleeping passengers didn't hear them, and many of those who did assumed the noise was for something else, since a proper alarm would be louder. By 3:10am, the fire had burned through the ship's main electrical cables and hydraulic lines, rendering Morro Castle completely powerless and un-navigable, with no communications capability. Due to the way in which the fire spread, crew members, whose quarters were mainly toward the bow, clustered forward, cut off from the rest of the ship by the flames, while passengers, whose quarters were in the midships and stern sections, gathered aft. The separation of the ship and the speed of the flames made an orderly evacuation difficult, only 6 of 12 lifeboats were launched successfully, and with only 85 total people aboard, despite seats for 408 (and most of those were crew members).
As the ship's structure absorbed the heat from the flames, the decks even in unburned areas became too hot to stand on, and passengers began leaping over the side, with or without life jackets – the latter case, inadequate instructions during the voyage lead to a considerable number of deaths, when people's necks snapped on hitting the water.
Fortunately, the fire did occur in heavily traveled sea lanes on the approach to New York, so, after some delay, four other merchant vessels did eventually respond for help, followed later by two Coast Guard cutters, with the Governor of New Jersey taking to the air in his private plane to follow the burning ship's course and alert rescue vessels to the locations of bodies and survivors in the water. By the time it was all over, 135 passengers and crew, out of the 549 on board, had died.
Later that morning, the now totally abandoned hulk of Morro Castle washed up on the beach of Asbury Park, New Jersey, coming close enough to the Convention Hall for those standing on the boardwalk to reach out and touch the blistered hull. The ruins of the ship smoldered for two more days, before the fire completely died out on September 10th. For the next 6 months, the wreck of Morro Castle sat as a macabre tourist attraction on the beach of Asbury Park, with crowds coming to town to view the beached liner, and boardwalk vendors selling Morro Castle-themed souvenirs.
One of those who made the trip down from New York was William Francis Gibbs, America's foremost naval architect and co-founder of the firm of Gibbs & Cox. Gibbs had always been obsessed with safety, but, until then, had focused mainly on structural redundancy against flooding or collision damage, but the sight of Morro Castle caused him to reevaluate priorities in favor of a recognition of the much greater danger of fire on board ship. For the rest of his career, fire safety became his preoccupation, culminating in his masterpiece, the almost ridiculously strong, heavily overbuilt and fastidiously fireproofed SS United States of 1952.
The hulk of Morro Castle, obviously damaged beyond repair, was eventually refloated and towed away for scrap in March of 1935.
The official inquiry, released in 1937, faulted the acting captain, First Officer Warms, for not leaving the bridge to personally investigate the severity of the fire, maintaining full speed ahead for some time after the fire was known, for taking too long to call for assistance, and not making any effort to activate the emergency lighting systems, or move himself and his officers to the emergency steering station, even as systems failed throughout the ship. The crew in general were faulted for not organizing any significant firefighting efforts, not manually closing fire-doors as the automatic servo mechanisms failed, and not making any coordinated effort to evacuate passengers.
The design of the ship was also noted for worsening the crisis, only 6 out of 42 firefighting stations could be used at a time, due to inadequate water pressure to run all of them, some had been taken out of use due to some nuisance vandalism by passengers on an earlier voyage, and a 6-inch gap above the finished overheads and behind wood paneling allowed fire to bypass the fire doors and spread throughout the ship. In addition, the modern, electronic heat sensors were only installed in passenger cabins and crew spaces, not in the public rooms, such as the Writing Room where this fire broke out. The cause of the fire remains unknown, as the damage at the origin point was too extensive to make a determination. Theories range from an electrical fault, to spontaneous combustion of used shop rags, to arson by a disgruntled crew member.
The loss of Morro Castle was the worst tragedy to befall Ward Line, which had had a mostly sterling safety reputation over the previous 93 years in business, and was only the start of a series of difficulties for them – it was followed over the next few months by another of their liners grounding in Havana harbor, and then by the ship chartered to replace Morro Castle sinking on its maiden voyage. The negative publicity caused the company to rebrand as Cuba Mail Line in 1935, and ultimately ceased operations in 1942, when its entire fleet was requisitioned by the US Navy and not returned after the war. Postwar, the famous Ward Line trademark was revived twice by two separate sets of investors, with the last incarnation, Cuban-based Ward-Garcia Line, shutting down in 1959.
Morro Castle's identical sister ship, Oriente, remained in service until requisitioned to become the troop transport vessel Thomas H. Barry in 1941, and was used throughout US involvement in World War II and for several years after, until being decommissioned and placed in the reserve fleet in 1949, ultimately being sold for scrap as surplus property in 1957.
WhoIsTheLeader last edited by
@ranwhenparked What are the odds of the captain dying of a heart attack hours before the fire? That's something NO ONE plans for. You have to wonder if events would have transpired differently if he had lived.
Woah! Greetings from Asbury Park, my dude! I’ve spent probably a decent measurable chunk of my life on that boardwalk, having grown up there, and the Morro Castle is a really interesting piece of local history. The locally dreaded asbury circle roundabout was actually created to mitigate the boom of traffic and tourism the smoldering wreck caused. Today there is a granite...tombstone, for lack of a better word outside of convention hall dedicated to the victims of the disaster. I work on the boardwalk, so I’ll have to get a pic of it next time I go in.
@your-boy-bjr Wow, I knew it was a big attraction, but didn't realize it was enough to force a change in the street grid. I suppose there was a major demand for cheap (free) entertainment at the time
@ranwhenparked Yeah it actually helped jump start tourism to the area again after the crash of ‘29, where it remained a hugely popular resort town throughout much of the mid century. Also- the Morro Castle was a bit further than touching distance, as fire crews needed to use zip lines to get from Convention Hall to the decks of the ship after it came to a rest. It was a short swim from the low tide water line, though.
@your-boy-bjr Yeah, that's how it looks in the pictures, but I've also come across that statement in a couple sources. I kind of wonder if it drifted closer early on and then slid out further, or maybe the people on the pier at the time were just trying to get in the news.
@ranwhenparked I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an exaggeration. There used to be a radio station based above the paramount theatre (part of the convention hall building) that was broadcasting at the time, with the DJ who was broadcasting famously saying something along the lines of “The Morro Castle is heading towards our studio now!” (I forget the exact wording, but you get the picture)
chan last edited by
What a read! Thanks for sharing.
Shop-Teacher last edited by
@shop-teacher Apparently, trading conditions became challenging
ttyymmnn last edited by
O/T: I came across this and thought you might find it interesting. Might make a good write up.
Be sure you have your adblocker turned on. I like many of the photos this site posts, but they usually just steal material from other sites verbatim and often without citation.
@ttyymmnn Crap that's a tight fit, almost doesn't look possible. I remember starting work at Wrigley just after they sold and vacated the old building, a lot of career people at corporate were pissed. Especially since the new building was completely open concept, for everyone.