The mystery of the Morro Castle

Frederick N. Rasmussen

December 07, 1992|By Frederick N. Rasmussen

I HAD a friend on the ship. I don't know what happened to her. I hope she got out."

The speaker was Ruth Prince. She and her sister, Agnes, had just survived the burning of the luxury liner Morro Castle off the coast of New Jersey on Sept. 8, 1934, and now she was being interviewed.

These two devoted sisters, natives of Pottstown, Pa., had decided to take one of the Ward Line's "Get Away From the Depression" cruises to Havana.

The Morro Castle party began the moment the ship pulled away from its East River pier in New York. This wasn't some stuffy North Atlantic liner, but rather one catering to a crowd of young people -- much like the "fun ships" of today's Carnival Cruise Lines. The ships of the Ward Line -- the Atlantic Gulf & West Indies Steamship Co. -- were known as the "Havana ferries;" they linked New York with Tampico, Vera Cruz and Havana, carrying not only freight but passengers bent on escaping the cares of Depression life.

The frenzy was maintained by the ship's bartenders and band, which played endless rumbas as the voyage got under way. Havana was a romantic destination, and the week-long voyage promised several days ashore for exploration of the old city and numerous visits to Sloppy Joe's Bar.

The time in Cuba passed quickly. The passengers embarked again, and the Morro Castle steamed past its namesake outer harbor fortress and turned northward to New York.

It never made it. On the last night of the return trip, Robert Smith, the ship's cruise director, announced that the captain, Robert R. Willmott, had been found dead in his cabin.

Out of respect for Willmott, Smith canceled the evening's remaining social events. Passengers drifted off to their staterooms, where private parties continued. Others prepared for an early debarkation the next day.

In the wee hours of Sept. 8, a night watchman discovered a fire in a locker located in the ship's writing room. Within minutes, the ship was a raging inferno.

The acting captain, William F. Warms, decided to keep the Morro Castle on its course for New York at full speed, even though it was being lashed by one of the worst Nor'easters to pound the New Jersey coast in years. As his ship was being overcome by flames, Warms refused to send the SOS until it was too late.

Awakened in their cabin by the confusion and the smell of smoke, the Prince sisters quickly dressed and went to the ship's stern. There, with the other passengers, they waited for help from the officers and crew. It never came.

Many passengers died in their cabins, overcome by smoke. Others were cut be shards of glass from exploding windows. Children were separated from parents, and chaos and panic prevailed.

With the flames coming nearer, the sisters jumped into the raging sea. Ruth jumped first and was followed by Agnes. Remarkably, they came to the surface near one another.

They were in the ocean for more than five hours, surrounded by debris and the dead (but the disaster had occurred at a time of year when the North Atlantic waters are warmest). They kept their spirits up by singing and telling jokes and were finally plucked from the sea by the Bogan family of Brielle, N.J., who had sailed their fishing boat, the Paramount, out to aid the Morro Castle's victims.

By day's end, the Morro Castle death toll would soar to 134. It was the nation's worst peacetime maritime disaster and there, on the beach, the newsreel reporters waited.

More than half a century later, mysteries surrounding the disaster are unsolved. How did Captain Willmott die? How did the fire start? How to explain the crew's behavior? And, perhaps most important, was the Morro Castle carrying a mysterious cargo for the U.S. government?

The Prince sisters returned home and resumed their lives, eventually marrying, raising families and entertaining occasional writers who came to ask about the Morro Castle's last voyage. They kept in touch with the Bogan family and other survivors.

Agnes Prince, now Agnes Margolis, of Coatesville, Pa., recently said, "Ruthie always said her life began after the Morro Castle."

Ruth Prince Coleman, 81, died last Sept. 2 in Philadelphia. A friend of hers, Robert J. McDonnell, went to the lonely beach at Sea Girt, N.J., at dawn the morning after he learned of her death. It was off Sea Girt Light, almost 58 years ago to the day that the Morro Castle had caught fire. And now he placed in the ocean a bouquet of flowers in her memory.

What the sea had been unable to claim all those years ago, it was finally taking as its own.

Frederick N. Rasmussen, a member of The Evening Sun staff, is writing a book with Mr. McDonnell about the Morro Castle disaster.

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