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The Fate of the Morro Castle


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Fire and storm at sea were whipped and woven together into an orgy of calamity and death when the proud luxury liner Morro Castle broke into a fury of flame a few miles from the sanctuary of her home port, and rode the gale, a drifting, glowing beacon, like some mighty funeral barque of a viking of legend.

Of the 558 passengers and crew aboard her, 134 perished. Some were burned to death, trapped like rats in their cabins below the red-hot decks. Some were drowned when, driven by pain to desperation, choosing only between two manners of death, they jumped into the churning waters. The lives of many of them were battered into oblivion by the heavy, angry sea, as they clung to rafts, or attempted to swim to the shore. Fate struck hard and quick and often in the darkest hours before the dawn, lit only by the flare of this devil's carnival, off the Atlantic coast of America.

It was more than one of the worst disasters the sea has known, more than a dark chapter in the story of ships and the men who sail in them. It was a scandal that will stain that proud story for ever. Human passions have rarely been so profligate, or the best traditions of the sea brought into such disrepute. Much, however, that could have been forgiven in the throes of a calamity so devastating and cruel was ventilated and magnified through a chain of incredible inquiries that were the aftermath, and the shadow of prison and disgrace, the whip of public scorn, fell across the lives and careers of men who had been the guardians of honour and discipline and good conduct on the high seas.

The Morro Castle was a beautiful oil-burning vessel of 11,520 tons, four years old, and built at a cost of 1,100,000. She was owned by the Ward Line. Ostensibly a "ferry" for freight and passengers between New York and Havana, she had gradually become a favourite cruising liner among many of those who sought, not only change, fresh air and sunshine, but a joyful and sometimes debauched escape from the restricted opportunities of a land dominated by Prohibition.

On Friday, September 7, 1934, the Morro Castle was nearing home. As is usual on such a cruise, the passengers were gay, excited, anticipant of a last night at sea that would be bright and stimulating and memorable. A splendid dinner and elaborate festivities had been planned. The social rooms of the ship were gay with decorations and bright with lights. As her great steel bows sliced through the sea, the gentle motion of her smooth engines was in tune with light and happy hearts. And already some had fuelled their joy with wine.

But before nine o'clock that night, before the revelry could rise to a crescendo, tragedy came aboard - a sad, sudden premonitory pilot who was to guide the ship and so many aboard that night to destruction. A whisper stirred, a rumour grew. The captain was dead! Dead in his cabin.

That rumour was true. Shortly before dinner Captain Robert R. Willmott, a man of fifty-five, had suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure. But not before he had sent for his second-in-command and friend, Chief-Officer William F. Warms, and had entrusted the ship to his charge. By a curious coincidence both these officers were Englishmen who had become naturalised Americans, a fact that evoked considerable publicity in the days that followed.

When the news of the captain's death was confirmed the passengers sank into a lethargy of depression. The decorations were taken down, many of the lights were dimmed, the gay music from the radio ended, and dancing was abandoned. The mood of the sea changed too. A sleepy swell awakened to the call of a rising gale. The driven rain stung the faces of those who ventured on to the decks. In the lounges and bars men and women sat huddled and fuddled over drinks of false compensation, until the motions of the ship, increasing with the minutes, drove more of them to their cabins to suffer in seclusion.

On the bridge Acting-Captain Warms studied the ripening storm. Around midnight the thunder rolled and crashed. The lightning flashed strange patterns over the tormented waves. It was his first command - and no sea captain, whatever was said of Warms afterwards and however wrongly or rightly he was judged, has ever faced such crisis in the infant hours of his authority.

The Morro Castle was now in waters in which disaster had often before played out its dread game with human life. It was near this stretch of the Atlantic that the airship Akron crashed and sank with a loss of 73 lives. A little farther down the coast occurred the Vestris calamity, in which 100 souls perished.

It was at 2.30 a.m. on the Saturday morning, when only six or eight miles from the shore - the ship being due in port at 8 a.m. - that a night watchman discovered an outbreak of fire in the ship's library, and gave an immediate alarm. It was only a small fire, a fire similar to one which had occurred earlier in the voyage and which had been extinguished with expedition. What the watchman did not know, and what Acting-Captain Warms did not know, was that flames were also licking and crawling around one of the holds.

Warms confidently believed that he could master the blaze, but in a few minutes the blaze was potential master of the ship. It raced in all directions, above and below, challenging and devouring all before it. Soon the corridors below decks were tunnels of smoke and flame. So fierce and avengeful were they that stewards and sailors had but little time to rush around with warning and relief. They cried until they were hoarse, smashed in doors and windows.

The awful awakening of a typical cabin passenger to all this threat and havoc is best told in the words of Miss Nan Helm, a New Jersey school teacher. "I was awakened by smoke, and I crawled out of my bed, and when I opened my state-room door great billows of smoke rolled before me. Then came flames, and some of them set fire to my bedclothes. There was only one thing to do. I opened my porthole and jumped. I swam around a bit to get my bearings. Sparks and embers were dropping all around me. Finally I saw a raft in the darkness and swam to it. There were lots of other persons, men and women, already on it. Women were sobbing and praying. The men seemed like little children, bewildered and confused. I could see their strength gradually ebbing. One by one they gave up and slipped into the ocean." When daylight came Miss Helm and one man were alone, both encouraging each other to hold on. Both were saved.

But all who attempted to jump through the port-holes were not so fortunate. Some became wedged in the apertures, unable to move backward or forward, tortured by the thought of the flames that were creeping upon them from behind, and which eventually enveloped them in livid sheets of death.

The G Q, ("stand by") signal was flashed soon after the discovery of the fire, but for some tragic reason the more vital and compelling SOS that would have sent all the ships in the vicinity speeding to the rescue was not sent out for at least forty minutes after the ship was in flames. It may have been that Acting-Captain Warms believed that he could get the flames under control, or at least "beach" his ship; it may have been due to the reprehensible neglect that was afterwards alleged against him - but whatever the reason, those forty precious minutes were lost.

Meanwhile, the vessel was becoming a furnace. The fire hose failed. And it is a sorry reflection on the Morro Castle's safety measures that only twenty-five passengers had attended the boat drill held on the previous day, and that the crew had gone nonchalantly through their routine. From all the evidence available, the men quickly abandoned hope of any sort of measure of control over the fire and, in addition, were far from efficient in any other service to the passengers whose lives were in their hands.

Nevertheless, many of the crew declared afterwards that the panic of the passengers was such that they could not be made to help themselves. In justice to this view it must be said that the circumstances were in many ways overwhelming. It was impossible, for instance, to do anything for those in the cabins deepest down. No living soul could reach them, and their fate, it can only be hoped, was quick and merciful incineration. Again, amidships, where the lifeboats hung from their davits, the flame and smoke was almost impenetrable. Many of the passengers who might have been saved feared to come forward, crowding to other parts of the decks where the smoke and fire were less perilous. "At last," said a sailor, "we were forced to leave them, as sparks and cinders were burning the ropes." That may be true, but the percentage of crew taking off in the boats, in view of the number of passengers left behind, was no credit to their courage or their sense of duty as seamen.

The scenes on deck, on which rained sparks and cinders, were of incomparable chaos and incomprehensible tragedy. Women, young and old, stood screaming in the pouring rain and glow of the blaze, in flimsy nightgowns, just as they ha i sprung from their beds. Others, who had not yet retired, were wearing gorgeous evening gowns, their gems and jewels sparkling in the macabre light that was never meant to shine on such beauty, their white arms raised in apprehension. Now and then, as their clothes caught fire and began to blaze around their bodies, these women threw themselves, screaming, into the sea. A beautiful young girl who had been in the cocktail bar stripped and dived gracefully overboard, unbelievably calm and poised at such an hour of crisis. A naked, demented man sprang from some dark corner, only to vanish in a screen of belching smoke. Men dragged terrorised women towards the boats, hoping that they would be in time. A husband, taking out his wallet, gave it to his wife. "You'll need this, dear." She never saw him again. One brave mother, dry-eyed and strangely dignified, said to her son and to her husband, "If we get separated we will meet again in New York." Later, in hospital, the little boy remembered her words, but his parents were not there.

Those awful minutes were aglow with camoes of courage, of fear, of faith and hysteria. One gallant and spectacular figure was Father Raymond Egan. He could have reached a lifeboat, but he rejected the opportunity. Instead, he went among the passengers, calming and comforting them. Many dropped on to their knees on the hot deck before him, and to these he gave absolution. To a screaming, hysterical woman who clasped his knees in terror he gave the Rosary from around his neck. With a cry of inarticulate gratitude she plunged over the side - and was never seen again. It is good to know that this fine and human priest was ultimately rescued.

Among the passengers were several honeymoon couples. They dived into the sea together. Some reached safety; others were divided before their life together had really begun. When one such newly-married pair were washed ashore on the mainland, clasped in each other's arms, the wife heard the coastguards shout that they could not bring in dead persons. Only then did she see that her husband had perished, and as she released him a big wave carried him back to the deep. Similarly, a mother with a baby clasped to her breast, realised suddenly that the infant had long ceased to live. In a frenzy of despair she threw it back again into the sea.

The plight of the Morro Castle grew steadily worse. The lights failed. The steering gear would not work. "Change her course! Beach her!" In vain Warms yelled his orders. Fire and storm were now in sole command.

Down in the wireless cabin Chief Operator Rogers was still tapping out the SOS, the keyboard lit only by the thin, pale gleam of a pocket flashlamp. The flames were creeping under his cabin door. The atmosphere was unbearably oppressive. He had pulled a wet towel around his face to mitigate the smoke fumes. Not until he was satisfied that the tragic fate of the Morro Castle was known to ships near and far, not until he was on the point of collapse, did Rogers leave his post. The last message he sent out was:

SOS Cannot work much longer, fire directly under radio cabin SOS

There was pitiful irony in the fact that one radio station inland, when it picked up Rogers's message, ordered him to delay signalling again until three-eighteen, as until then the air was to be kept silent! Still, scores of vessels were already racing to the rescue, among them the British liner, the Monarch of Bermuda. This vessel, commanded by Captain Albert Francis, ventured within sixty yards of the blazing wreck, launched several boats, and saved many lives.

A passenger on the Monarch of Bermuda said afterwards that people could be plainly seen with their heads sticking out of the port-holes of the Morro Castle, while flames struck at them from the back. "It was so hot alongside that we were afraid that we would sizzle. The grimaces made by the people in agony at the port-holes was something that I shall never forget. On the deck we saw a young fellow with his wife. She fainted in his arms, and a huge tongue of flame popped out from the wall and sucked them in. We saw a man in pyjamas go up like a torch. A woman, tied to a rope, was flapping against the Morro Castle's side."

The crew that had remained aboard with Acting-Captain Warms were in the bows. Most of the passengers remaining who could do so had fled astern. If they could have joined the crew, however, many more of them would have been saved. In the water men and women were struggling, dead bodies floated, and sharks could be seen hovering around, grim scavengers that feared not even the proximity of fire. Sailors could be seen swimming with children on their backs. One of the stewardesses of the Morro Castle lifted a child into a lifeboat, then vanished.

In vivid contrast with the gallant rescue work of the Monarch of Bermuda was the performance of the President Cleveland, which had also answered the call. So long was this ship in giving practical help that the officers asked to be relieved from serving under a captain who had lost their respect. Such was another lamentable feature of a disaster that was so many sided.

Amid the rain and wind, thunder and lightning that accompanied the dawn, the Monarch of Bermuda, the Andrea F. Luckenbach, the City of Savannah, and many other vessels, including a small fleet of coastguard boats, worked feverishly to collect the survivors. An attempt was made to take the ship in tow, but the heavy seas and the flames that attacked the cables made this for the time being impossible.

Thousands on the shore could see this drama of life and death being enacted before their eyes. So dense became the crowds that military was ordered out to drive back the mob with their rifles. At the Ward Line dock relations of the passengers and crew waited with trepidation in their hearts.

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