The Rescuer

June 16, 1995|By FRED RASMUSSEN

Capt. James F. Bogan slowly mounted the porch steps of the restored Sea Girt, N.J., Lighthouse on a warm September Saturday last year to attend a meeting of survivors and historians who had gathered to discuss the burning of the liner Morro Castle, which caught fire off the Jersey coast in 1934.

It was an event he had spent most of his life trying to forget, when out of the front parlor of the lighthouse stepped Agnes Prince Margolis, 89, holding the Morro Castle life preserver that she wore that fateful morning. She was anxious to met the deeply tanned and robust man who had saved her life and that of and her late sister Ruthie.

''Jim Bogan? I'm Agnes Prince. Did you pull me out of the `D water?'' said the former newspaper reporter and retired insurance executive who lives in Coatsville, Pennsylvania.

Captain Bogan gently smiled and held out his hand, embarrassed at all the fuss.

It was the first time in 60 years that the two -- the rescuer and the shipwrecked -- had met face to face, years away from the tragedy that would link them forever. And it was only at Mrs. Margolis' insistence coupled with a last-minute telephone call that Captain Bogan finally agreed to attend the reunion.

Captain Bogan died last Saturday; he was 82. In recent years he had refused to talk publicly about the events of that morning when he, along with his father and brother, gathered a volunteer crew of Manasquan Inlet captains and put to sea from Brielle, New Jersey, to aid the passengers of the Morro Castle,

The Paramount, a former rum runner once owned by gangster Dutch Schultz, now operated by the Bogans as a party boat, pounded through a gathering northeaster to come to the rescue of those who had jumped into the raging sea from the Morro Castle, which had caught fire in the early-morning hours of September 8 while returning to New York from a cruise to Havana.

What greeted Captain Bogan and his crew was a scene that was almost hypnotic in its horror. The Morro Castle glowed red while smoke poured forth from shattered portholes and clouds of steam vaporized off the ship's hull when hit with waves of the cold sea.

A crescendo of screams and calls for help came from those fighting for their lives. Carefully navigating between the dead, the Paramount's crew tried to persuade the living to let go of the dead in order to save themselves. The death toll would eventually reach 134.

In and out of the Manasquan Inlet the Bogans' vessel dashed until by day's end they had managed to save the lives of 67 passengers -- more than any other lifeboat, Coast Guard picket boat or pleasure or charter boat.

The Bogans modestly accepted the accolades that followed their heroic efforts, but simply wanted to go back operating their party-boat business, which today still operates out of Bogan's Basin in Brielle.

They are proud Irishman and devout Catholics who became heroes among Jersey-coast mariners for their actions in the Morro Castle disaster and for their kindness and charity to

others.

Jim Bogan was the last survivor of the Bogans who went to sea that morning. His father, John Sr., and brother, John Jr., died some years ago.

''Some captains talk about the charity work they do. My father never would,'' said Ray Bogan, a son, the other day at his father's wake in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

Always interested in children, he went out of his way to entertain disadvantaged and handicapped children aboard his boats and enjoyed helping them learn how to fish until he retired in 1988. As the evening was ending in the lighthouse, Jim Bogan approached Mrs. Margolis' table and as she attempted to slide from a chair into another, she gently fell to the floor.

''That's all right,'' Captain Bogan said as he extended his hand to Mrs. Margolis. ''We Bogans are always picking you up.''

Fred Rasmussen is a Sun staff writer.

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