Remembering the Tragic SS Morro Castle Fire
It was on September 8th, 1934, that the ocean liner, SS Morro Castle, caught fire and burned off the New Jersey coast, killing 137 people. The ship traveled between Havana, Cuba, and New York City and left Cuba on September 5th, encountering rough seas as it made its way up the coast.
As Mashable writes, on the evening of the 7th, Captain Robert Wilmott complained of stomach trouble, and shortly thereafter was found dead in his cabin of an apparent heart attack. Early on the 8th, the ship was about eight miles off Long Beach Island when a fire started in a storage locker. Within minutes, high winds sent flames racing through the ship. The Morro Castle had “ornate wooden interiors” that provided fuel for the conflagration. The acting captain, realizing the severity of the emergency, tried to beach the ship, unsuccessfully.
Within thirty minutes, the flames had burned through the main electrical wiring, plunging the ship into darkness. Also, without electricity, there was no radio transmission, although one SOS distress call had gone out before power was lost. Hydraulic lines were also destroyed, making the ship un-steerable. Passengers and crew members started to panic. As the flames spread, many people jumped overboard into the choppy sea, some with life preservers, some without. Of the ship’s twelve lifeboats, only six were used, and, reportedly, held more crew members than passengers.
As Mashable explained, “Rescue ships were slow to respond to the SOS and struggled to reach the survivors in the stormy seas. As news spread of the calamity, people gathered up and down the Jersey Shore to receive lifeboats and retrieve survivors and victims from the surf. The next morning, the empty, burning ship ran aground on the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, just a few hundred feet from the Convention Hall pier.” An inquiry was launched after the disaster, but no specific cause of the fire was ever convincingly determined. The radio operator, George Rogers, was suspected of arson, as were other disgruntled crew members, but there was no proof that the fire was anything other than an accident.