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The Fate of the Morro Castle page 2


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Ten hours after the fire had broken out the Morro Castle was beached, a charred and shattered hulk, at Asbury Park, one of the "Southends" of New York. Fifteen of the crew, including Acting-Captain Warms, were huddled on the poop deck. Below decks lay the incinerated bodies of many passengers who had been trapped.

The public made the tragic spectacle an "occasion." Over 200,000 sightseers turned out to stare and stare again. Hot dog and ice cream stalls grew mushroom-like at the waterside. On the pleasure pier the receipts soared to 500 in a day. Hawkers were soon selling what purported to be relics of the Morro Castle at absurd prices. Everywhere enterprise thrived on the morbid curiosity of the people. A suggestion was even made that the wreck should be retained at Asbury Park as a permanent attraction!

Eventually a United States cutter removed the remnants of the crew-and took the Morro Castle in tow. Acting-Captain Warms refused for hours to leave the ship. In vain they pleaded with him. Not until he was threatened with force did he at last yield.

Along the coast survivors and bodies were being brought ashore. The ship's pet, a mongrel puppy, was the first to reach land. It had swum all the way. So had a number of passengers, among them several women. They had battled with the heavy seas for between six and eight hours, and when they were dragged from the waves, more dead than alive, they were immediately rushed to hospital.

When the black shell of the Morro Castle was explored there were revelations that broke the iron nerve of men who had seen death in many forms and disaster in many guises. The silent evidence of the charred cabins showed that many had died in their beds. Others had fought with fury to escape. Amid the debris of wood, metal and ashes taken from one state-room they found the tiny bones of a baby. Yet no baby on the passenger list was unaccounted for! On the mutilated decks were found hundreds of pathetic relics that told of the panic of that night of fear. Shoes lay everywhere. Vanity cases and even charred powder puffs. They found the burnt and blackened remains of frocks that had once been so colourful and lovely, pyjamas and dressing-gowns.

And the sequel to this unprecedented tragedy of the sea? It led to weeks, months and years of controversy and inquiry. There was appalling plain-speaking, much of which must have been lies and prejudice, but underneath it all lay the truth - that the best traditions of the sea had been broken. Many passengers alleged that scarcely anything was done to save them, that members of the crew deserted their posts, that even when they were struggling in the water sailors in the lifeboats refused to take them in. On the other hand, there were those who declared that both captain and crew had behaved splendidly. For those officers concerned it was a dreadful ordeal. Acting-Captain Warms and others actually went grey within a month.

The report of the United States Steamboat Inspection Service Board was sensational. It alleged that there had been lack of discipline, control and initiative. The SOS was not sent out in time. The liner was mishandled after the fire broke out, continuing at full speed into a twenty-mile breeze for some distance. Passengers were left to their fate, and lifeboats were sent away half-empty. One of the most staggering of all the allegations was that the six lifeboats lowered had a capacity of 408, but held only 85, mostly crew.

Second Wireless Officer George Alagna gave evidence against Warms that was almost vicious. He declared that he went several times to the bridge after the outbreak, asking in vain for authority for Rogers to send out the SOS. Only when the plight of the ship was hopeless did Warms give it. He was "behaving like a madman," said Alagna.

Warms, in his turn, rounded on Alagna, who, he said, had caused trouble and discontent in the ship. Actually on the day of the fire he had wanted to put Alagna in irons, as he had threatened to throw sulphuric acid in the face of Captain Willmott. Bitterness, suspicion and anger had characterised the whole inquiry, and the report was one of the most terrible indictments in the history of the sea. As a result Warms and others were suspended.

But there was worse to come. The scandal had not yet reached the peak of its pain and disgrace. Arrests were made. Criminal charges were framed by a Grand Jury, and Acting-Captain William F. Warms, Chief-Engineer Eben Abbott, in charge of the ship's engine-room, and Henry E. Cabaud, the company's executive vice-president, appeared in court to face a battery of deadly accusation.

The charges against Warms were that he failed to divide the sailors into equal watches; keep himself advised as to the extent of the fire; manoeuvre or slow down the vessel; have the passengers aroused; provide the passengers with lifebelts; take steps for the protection of lives; organise the crew properly to fight the fire; send out the SOS and other signals promptly; see the passengers put into the lifeboats; control or direct the crew in the boats after they had been lowered.

It was alleged against the Chief-Engineer that, although he knew the water pressure of the hoses was insufficient, he failed to improve it, and that, instead of helping the passengers to escape, he left the Morro Castle in the first lifeboat, and remained inactive until he safely reached the shore. And the charge against Cabaud was that he knew the regulations were not being enforced in the Morro Castle, and that this knowledge, without corrective action, amounted to "fraud, neglect and connivance in violation of the law."

The defence was that the ship contained a constructional defect which human ingenuity was powerless to detect. Warms, for his part, claimed that his seamanship had been criticised by "a jury of landlubbers."

After an absence of ten hours the jury found the men guilty of criminal negligence, which meant that they were liable to fines of 2,000 and ten years imprisonment. Actually, however, Warms was sentenced to two years in jail, Abbott to four, and Cabaud to a year, the sentence remitted on payment of a 2,000 fine. In April, 1937, however, the sentences were set aside by the Court of Appeal, on the grounds that the Judge had erred in his summing up.

There were other amazing sequels to the disaster. The widow of Captain Willmott claimed 40,000 damages from the Cuba Mail Steamer Company (formerly the Ward Line), alleging that an incompetent crew aggravated her husband's weak heart and brought about his collapse. And Second Wireless Officer Alagna sued the company for 20,000, on the grounds that he had been black-listed as a trouble-maker and could not obtain work. His case failed, and he was subsequently found nearly dead by gas poisoning in his apartments at Jackson Heights, New York.

Now the curtain has fallen. The drama is played out. But in the history of the sea the Morro Castle will for ever have a vivid if a somewhat inglorious place.

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