The Morro Castle Catastrophe

BACK TRACKS ~

November 10, 1991|By FRED RASMUSSEN

The crowds gathered in the early-morning light along the shores of the lower Chesapeake Bay to catch a glimpse of the luxury liner Morro Castle.

In the waters where the Ward Line turboelectric ship had first felt the crisp bite of the sea, and where it had completed sea trials in 1930, it was now returning, a burned-out hulk that had claimed 134 lives when it caught fire off the coast of New Jersey in September 1934.

Slowly moving up the bay to Baltimore and its final docking place that morning in April 1935, the Morro Castle was far removed from the gay and opulent liner that plied the waters from New York to Havana, offering weekly sailings advertised as "Get Away From the Depression Cruises." (Others called them "booze cruises.")

The cruises were filled with young fun-seekers who could find every temptation known to mankind within the confines of Havana -- and have a blast en route as well.

The frenetic pace and mood were maintained by the ship's band, which played endless rumbas while the ship's bartenders attempted to keep up with the demands of the crowd.

FTC The night before the fire occurred, an unrelated tragedy rocked the Morro Castle. The ship's captain, Robert R. Willmott, was found dead in his cabin -- of natural causes. All shipboard activities were canceled. Groups drifted around the ship or gathered in cabins, still determined to wring the last ounce of pleasure from the few hours before the ship's docking in New York early the next morning.

For many it would be their last drink or their last kiss or their last night with friends, husbands or wives.

In the early hours of Sept. 8, a watchman discovered a fire in a closet in the liner's writing room. Though efforts were made to contain it, the fire quickly spread.

Panic broke out as the 500 or so passengers attempted to flee the burning liner, which continued to move toward New York in the face of one of the worst northeasters to hit the Jersey coast in years.

Abandoned by many of the crew, who went over the side, and forced aft by the fire, passengers huddled on the stern and then jumped into the stormy seas. Many were chopped to death by the ship's still-turning propellers.

By dawn, the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast was littered with the dead and the dying. Local fishermen attempted to save the living.

A tow line was finally put aboard the Morro Castle, but as it was being towed to New York by the Coast Guard cutter Tampa the hawser snapped and the Morro Castle broke loose. It came to rest next door to Asbury Park's Convention Hall. Crowds jammed the highways and packed trains heading for Asbury Park to catch a glimpse of the still-burning vessel.

Baltimorean Camilla E. Conroy, who was secretary to Herbert R. O'Conor, state's attorney and later governor, perished in the fire. O'Conor rushed to New Jersey and identified Conroy's body in a morgue.

Two other Baltimoreans, Dr. Charles W. Maxson and Dr. Thomas R. Chambers, physicians who were vacationing at Manasquan, N.J., rushed to the beach to aid the survivors who were struggling out of the pounding surf.

The ship, built for $4.8 million in 1930, eventually was sold for scrap to the Union Shipbuilding Co. of Baltimore, for $33,000. Thus it came to make its last voyage that morning in April 1935, towed by the salvage tugs Resolute and Willet.

But the Morro Castle had more surprises in store for Baltimoreans.

There was such a local interest in viewing the hulk that the shipyard's general manager, G. J. McVicar, offered to place the Morro Castle at the disposal of the Community Fund, which could then charge the curious to see the ship. After considering raising money off the macabre spectacle, the Community Fund turned down Mr. McVicar's offer.

Even then the Morro Castle's story was not over. In late June, fire trucks raced through South Baltimore to Fairfield, where Union Shipbuilding's yards were situated. The ship had caught fire once again. It took firefighters and the fireboat Torrent three hours to put out a stubborn blaze in the forward hold. The fire attracted hundreds of spectators.

Official explanations said the fire was caused by a workman's torch igniting some of the ship's bilge oil.

As for the Morro Castle's final destiny: "Gradually the steel will be torn apart," wrote a reporter for The Sun, "and soon the craft which sailed from Havana last autumn on her final pleasure voyage will only be a memory."

Carleton Jones is on vacation. He will resume writing this column when he returns.

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