Updated: May 11
Some pages in cruise history beg to be read not for their satisfying resolution or long-lasting contributions to the evolution of the concept, but for their dramatic spectacle and baffling circumstance. The wreck of the Costa Concordia did not teach the industry anything it did not already know: it is still a bad idea to captain on a cocktail of machismo, libido and Amaretto (paraphrasing the findings of the wreck inquiry)! There was no industry-wide reckoning with navigation or emergency procedures, other than re-emphasizing the importance of disciplined adherence to them and the Costa Concordia did not become the story of how ‘a tragic accident led to revised and improved safety rules’ but rather the story of how ‘failure to heed existing safety rules led to a tragic accident’. But there is no denying that the event captivated the public with its drama, baffling circumstance and shocking visuals. But that was not the first time a cruise ship wreck caught the public attention with equal amounts shock, horror and astonishment – there was another almost 90 years ago.
Saturday, September 8, 1934
It’s daybreak in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a small oceanside community some 53 km / 33 mi. due south of New York. A hazy sky and wet surfaces are all that’s left from last night’s Nor’easter and the morning air is damp and chilly. Down on the North Beach boardwalk by the Convention Hall a crowd is gathering in the early hours, transfixed by the horrifying view of a charred, smoldering ocean liner, towering over them mere yards from the water’s edge. The great twin-funneled ship is beached almost parallel to the shore, at a pronounced starboard list - its bow propped up against the breakwater, its stern mere feet away from the stilted Convention Hall Pier. The Coast Guard cutter Tampa and a smaller flotilla of private boats are patrolling the seaside flank of the wreck in the vain hope of picking up more survivors or bodies, but the red-hot hull of the ship is impossible to get alongside. The heat coming off the hull is so powerful it can be felt by the spectators standing on the boardwalk and the billowing smoke carries ashore the smell of burnt wood, hot metal, chemical fumes and for those with the life experience to discern it; of death.
The spectators were drawn from afar by morning radio broadcasts that covered the unfolding disaster, especially those of WCAP AM radio station whose studio inside the Asbury Park Convention Hall Pier provided the reporters a front row view (and running commentary) of the final beaching. But now the crowd just stands around, shocked and horrified, realizing that they are no longer looking at an unfolding disaster, but at the aftermath of one. There are no passengers to be seen anywhere on deck or along the railings, beckoning to be rescued – whoever is left onboard is very likely as dead as the ship itself and almost certainly died a horrible death. The shock was palpable but little did the spectators know that an even more shocking and murderous mystery was hiding behind the gruesome spectacle.
The name of the beached and burned-out ocean liner was the SS Morro Castle.
The SS Morro Castle
Launched in March of 1930 from the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. the Morro Castle was the first of a pair of passenger liners built for the New York & Cuba Mail Steam Ship Company (more informally known as Ward Line, estbl. 1841) with heavy funding from the Merchant Marine Act of 1928 construction fund (providing a ticket out of an impending bankruptcy for Ward Line). She was an 11.530 GRT twin-screw steamship with turbo-electric transmission – 155 m / 508 ft long, 21,6 m / 70 ft 9 in wide with 7 decks accommodating 489 passengers in first and tourist class and a crew of 240. She was named Morro Castle for the stone fortress guarding the entrance to Havana harbor – her primary destination.
Though technically a shipping line with regular scheduled liner passage between New York and Havana, Nassau and Mexican Gulf Ports (e.g. Progreso, Vera Cruz, Tampico), the Ward Line would frequently also advertise their sailings as ‘Cruises’ or ‘Vacation Trips’ and for good commercial reason. Many shipping lines plying long distance liner routes to exotic and popular destinations (e.g. Bermuda or Hawaii) tried to borrow some feathers from the world of cruising to style the tedious sea passages into something more fun and attractive. By the 1930’s mid-size ocean liners were routinely built as dual-purpose vessels, able to switch seamlessly between liner and leisure use, so any difference in the standards of ocean liners vs cruise ships was negligible. So if a straight shot passage could be made to sound every bit as alluring and exciting as a cruise, why would you not market it as such?
They likely also realized that if they could pass their liner schedule off as an itinerary and get cruise guests sailing, that equaled a booked cabin going out and coming back, i.e. more revenue. To hype the holiday vibe of the Ward Line sailings, the emphasis in marketing and in onboard experience was placed on leisure, fun and enjoyment, rather than the mundane and practical sea passage from A to B. The onboard activities were styled more like cruise ship entertain-ment programs and they even offered shore excursions in port for in-transit cruise guests. So in spirit they were arguably more akin to cruise ships than passenger liners.
Of vice and men
The Ward Line ships had another attractive quality that complemented the leisure role well. The Morro Castle and her sister ship, the Oriente were launched at the tail end of American prohibition and became, whether by design or by circumstance, instant Booze Cruisers – vehicles to transport thirsty Americans beyond the 3-mile limit for a good time (read Booze Cruises). How exactly the Ward Line ships managed to serve alcohol onboard, when all sources indicate they were American-flagged, registered in New York, and thus by rights should have been ‘dry ships’, I honestly don’t know. But they managed and this added an extra incentive to cruise holidays for thirsty Americans and gave the Ward Line ships a popular reputation as ‘party ships’! The ships may also have featured even more seductive qualities. Among Port of New York longshoremen and waterfront police, the duo was (unaffectionally) known as the ‘Havana Whorehouses’ due to the alleged presence of certain unlisted young female passengers who worked very hard to ensure a ‘pleasurable’ experience for many male guests.
Operating out of New York and with a top speed of 20 knots, the Morro Castle would take 2½ days to reach Havana (making her the fastest liner on the Havana run), spend 2 days there to turn around and afford guests a destination experience, then another 2½ days to return to New York, making her an ideal week-long holiday package. Prices ran from $65 p.p. for a round-trip in tourist class (roughly the equivalent of $1.050 in 2022) to about $200 p.p. for first class (about $3.300 in 2022). The effects of the Great Depression in 1929 were still reverberating through American society, but thanks to the varied price range and broad appeal Ward line always managed to sail with decent to good occupancy numbers.
Shady dealings and shortcuts
Ward Line was by no means a budget outfit but they had a couple of other things going for them that boosted their profitability. First and foremost, Ward Line held the lucrative government contract to carry US mail and cargo to Cuba which likely financed a solid chunk of operations (and remember the US government actually paid for the bulk of construction costs in the first place). The renowned party atmosphere and the associated bar revenues probably also helped Ward Line stay well in the black throughout the Prohibition Era. Finally, the ships may also have earned considerable off-the-books revenues in hauling contraband – that is, if even just half the rumors of smuggling operations turn out to be true (drugs, alcohol, illegal aliens, gun running, you name it).
And if you are now thinking ‘Wow, that’s a lot of shady stuff going down on these ships! Was there no government oversight or maritime authority to answer to in those days?’. Well, yes there was but if you count the US government among your smuggling clientele for running guns and ammunition to Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (allegedly), you may find yourself able to get away with more than most. Ward Line was also good at bolstering their profit margin by managing costs and cutting corners; ships would re-supply in foreign ports, employ unqualified crew for a pittance (cheap labor was abundant during the Depression) and skimp on the maintenance schedule. The Morro Castle did not go in for regular maintenance or dry dock once in her 4½ year life span. You could not tell by looking at her, though - she still looked like new, mostly by virtue of Captain Robert Wilmott having his crew paint her again and again whenever she showed any signs of wear.
But shady reputations aside, they were unquestionably beautiful ships. American merchant shipping in the interwar years suffered a bit of an inferiority complex towards their British cousins. While they could not rival the famed British liners in size or legacy, they seemed intent on doing it in luxury. The interiors were decorated with fine oak paneling, Corinthian columns, mother-of-pearl-inlays, plush upholstery, Jacobean linen curtains, murals and oil paintings and elegant lacquered Old English furniture in an overall pastel color scheme – designed to emulate the palatial and luxurious feel of famous ocean liners, rather than your pedestrian intercoastal mail liner, and that of course became a large part of their appeal as vessels of leisure. They featured modern installations like telephones, elevators, state of the art heating and ventilation and fire suppression systems. Apart from the usual collection of lounges and bars, as well as an impressive two-story dining room, the ships also featured a barber shop, a general shop, a gymnasium, a day-care and a library. Their dual purpose nature notwithstanding, the Ward Line ships really were some of the most popular, elegant and progressive cruise ships of the early 1930's.
But for the Morro Castle all this was about to come to a sudden and horrific end.
Friday, September 7, 1934
The day before that ghastly scene in Asbury Park, the Morro Castle had been on the return leg from a 6½ day cruise / passage to Havana with less than a day to go until New York when captain Wilmott, suddenly and mysteriously died. He had been complaining of stomach pains and retired early from dinner to rest up for the traditional Captain’s Ball that marked the festive end to the cruise for the guests. When a steward later went to check on him, he found him dead in his cabin. The ship’s doctor was unable to ascertain an exact cause of death and declared it a likely heart attack – the go-to diagnosis for any immediately unidentifiable cause of death.
As the body was laid out in the cabin for a later autopsy in New York, command passed to Chief Officer William Warms. But ahead of the ship, the first major crisis of Warms’ captaincy was looming already. A Nor’easter – the East Coast version of a hurricane – was bearing down on the hapless ship and before long the Morro Castle was battling huge waves and gale-force winds. Though the Captain’s Ball had been cancelled for obvious reasons, scattered groups of guests were still trying to make a festive last evening of the cruise for themselves in various bars and lounges, but as the ship started to roll heavily from side to side, most of this soon found an organic and queasy end with people retiring to their cabins.
A fire starts
Shortly before 3 AM when most of the ship was soundly sleeping, a steward on duty discovered a small fire in a storage locker in the first-class writing room on B Deck but before he could raise the alarm, the fire burst out of the locker and into the writing room with surprising speed. Crew summoned to fight the fire were too slow and disorganized and in addition much of the firefighting gear suffered strange malfunctions - soon the blaze was raging out of control. By the time the fire alarms were sounded throughout the ship, a wall of fire and a suffocating blanket of smoke was already preventing many guests from exiting their cabins or finding their way outside. The first deaths likely occurred within 15-20 minutes of the discovery of the fire, and likely from smoke inhalation.
The emergency completely exposed the inexperience and incompetence of the newly-appointed Captain Warms – paralyzed by fear and indecision he failed to assume authoritative control of the emergency, failed to keep his inexperienced crew from panicking, failed to instruct the passengers on emergency / evacuation procedures, delayed the transmission of an SOS until 30 minutes into the disaster and instead of turning toward the nearby Jersey shore a mere eight miles away or even just maneuvering the ship around to let the wind blow the fire away from the ship, he kept the ship at speed into the wind, which only resulted in feeding the fire oxygen and fanning it down the length of the ship to trap the passengers in the stern. Attempts to launch the 12 life boats dissolved into even more panic when sailors realized that Captain Wilmott’s penchant for constant cosmetic paint jobs had ‘sealed’ the winches and pulleys under layers and layers of paint and locked them into place. Half the boats never came off their davits and the other half only got away with around 100 people, most of whom were crew. In the stern, the remaining passengers devolved into a state of sheer terror. Faced with a choice of burning alive or drowning in the churning sea, many chose the latter and threw themselves off the stern 10 m / 32 feet above the monstrous waves – very few survived and some were never even seen again.
Not all crew turned tail and ran away. At considerable risk to his own life Cruise director Bob Smith roamed the ship hallways just ahead of the roaring fire, desperately trying to rouse and alert passengers to the danger. Probably the most consequential act of individual bravery and selfless action seemed to come from radio engineer George W. Rogers, who got fed up with the captain’s inaction and went against regulation to initiate the first SOS call himself. From that point on he stayed on the radio to alert the Coast Guard and nearby ships and coordinate rescue efforts until his radio set literally burst into flames in front of him and exploding battery acid singed his hand on the morse key.
About 30 minutes into the disaster fire and smoke forced the evacuation of the engine room and burned through power cables, cutting the lights out, disabling the steering and leaving the ship drifting helplessly in the storm. Nearby ships had started to come to the rescue, incl. the US Coast Guard cutter Tampa, but attempts to get anywhere near the Morro Castle or get a towing line onboard failed in the heaving seas. All they could do was watch the floating inferno in horror and try to help those lucky few that got off the ship alive. A small group of survivors, mostly crew and officers (incl. acting Captain Warms) managed to survive unscathed on the forecastle – the only part of the ship superstructure which was never touched by the flames. Throughout the night the Nor’easter winds relentlessly pushed the flaming inferno towards the coast until she finally beached in Asbury Park in the early hours of September 8, 1934.
In the following days fire fighters, rescue workers and investigators swarmed all over the ship, trying to make the ship safe, collect the bodies and piece together the evidence. The final death toll of the disaster came to 114 identified victims (84 passengers and 30 crew) and 10 people reported missing (6 passengers and 4 crew), but if rumors of unlisted passengers or Cuban stowaways were to be believed there may well have been many more. For comparison the Morro Castle was carrying 318 passengers and 230 crew on that tragic final voyage. But as soon as the disaster turned to tragic aftermath, urgent questions started to arise. What caused the fire in the first-class writing room? Why did it spread like wildfire on a modern and supposedly safe ship with state-of-the-art fire suppression equipment? Why did the chain of command break down completely, with a completely ineffectual captain and crew bailing in all directions with no care for their passengers?
Assigning blame and tracing suspicion
It quickly turned out that much of the blame could be laid at Ward Line’s feet for cutting corners on safety procedures, maintenance and qualified crew. Many of the crew were not trained sailors but just hired hands from the multitudes of unemployed Depression-era workers, who had received no proper training. They would do what they were ordered to but had no idea about real seamanship or emergency protocol. That particular corruption of competency went as high as officers rank too, with William Warms as the most prominent example of someone who should never have been granted command authority. The late Captain Wilmott did not fare much better either. It turned out that he had consistently failed to conduct mandatory emergency drills with his guests in an effort to coddle the easy-going guests and keep the party atmosphere going. So when disaster eventually struck, none of the guests knew what to do in an emergency either.
The captain had also failed to conduct regular maintenance and safety drills that would have revealed the issues that would eventually exacerbate the disaster: the fire proof doors that either malfunctioned or were blocked, unsafe storage of flammable cleaning fluids or alcohol, the fire hose fittings that had been removed after complaints from passengers tripping over them, the underpressurized fire hydrant system that basically became useless if you tried to use more than 6 of the 42 hydrants at any one time, fire alarms so randomly placed and wrongly adjusted, that they were basically inaudible in some sections of the ship, the lifeboats that had been ‘painted into place’ and much more. Another issue, perhaps not as easily preempted by the captain, was the sheer amount of flammable materials onboard: the copious amounts of wood paneling, heavily lacquered furniture and plush textiles that were basically just kindling to the fire – not to mention the oil-based paint used to treat many outside decks that served as a major accelerant to the fire.
The ensuing inquiry quickly determined why things had gone as wrong as they did when the fire started but the most important question went unanswered! What started it? Arson was on everyone’s mind, as the fire had started in a place with no obvious or likely source of ignition, yet a place of maximum potential for an uncontrollable blaze. And while on the subject of criminal intent; what caused the mysterious death of Captain Wilmott? The 56-year-old captain had no history of heart disease or any other health issue that might cause him to fall over dead. So, was he poisoned maybe? Wild and conspiratorial theories abounded, - especially after the inexplicable Circuit Court of Appeal exoneration of Captain Warms and his commanding officers from charges of negligence in 1937 - but no perpetrator was ever identified conclusively. It would take an astonishing 20 years before unrelated events caused the mystery to finally unravel.. at least partially, and suspicion would land on a man who had at first been named a hero of the disaster; radio engineer George W. Rogers.
The Rogers rap sheet
Had anyone bothered to check the criminal history of George Rogers prior to hiring him, or even just after the disaster, it should have been fairly obvious that George was not hero material, but rather a rapist, a thief and a man who had poisoned his ex-wife’s dog out of spite. They might also have noticed that George’s previous place of employment before the Ward Line, a New York electric company, had burned to the ground mysteriously (though George was a suspect here, there was never enough evidence to charge him with anything). And if that did not clue them into George’s character, his post-disaster career certainly should have. George opened a radio shop in New Jersey but struggled to make it profitable – shortly after the shop burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Moving on to a job as radio assistant at the Bayonne, New Jersey Police Department, George enjoyed regaling his new colleagues with chillingly detailed accounts of how the fire on the Morro Castle could have been set, that seemed to suggest much more than just idle speculation. One detective, Vincent Doyle, grew suspicious of George and tried to probe him, only to find himself the target of a home-made explosive device that nearly killed him. The evidence in the bomb assassination plot all pointed to George and he was arrested and sentenced to 10-15 years.
What should have ended George Roger’s crime spree turned out to be just a short interlude, as he was released from prison at the outbreak of World War II to serve his country. He tried to enlist in the Navy but the Navy took one look at his rap sheet and decided they would be better off fighting the axis powers without his help. George then disappeared to Australia for a few years to remove himself from police focus, but returned to Bayonne in 1945 and opened another radio repair shop. Once again struggling to run a profitable business, he borrowed substantial amounts of money from his neighbor, William Hummel, until Hummel started to pressure him to repay the loans in 1953. Shortly after, Hummel and his unmarried daughter were found savagely bludgeoned to death in their home. Suspicion immediately fell on George and in 1954 he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Lone nut v. conspiracy
George Rogers was never officially (or definitively) identified as the perpetrator of the arson aboard the Morro Castle (or the potential poisoning of the captain either) but his criminal history and apparent familiarity with arson and poisoning certainly made him a prime suspect once the full scope of his misdeeds became apparent after his sentence. George had been known to have open and hostile disagreements with Captain Wilmott before his death and had been one of the last people to see him alive, so it was speculated that he may have killed the captain and set the ship ablaze to cover up his crime. We shall never know for sure - he never confessed to anything himself and died in prison from a brain hemorrhage in 1954. But there are those who see the baffling acquittal of acting Captain Warms and other crew members, the complete exoneration of Ward Line management as well as the FBI’s blatant negligence in investigating George Rogers (and all his disturbing backstory) as evidence of a deeper conspiracy – one in which the government arranged for the coverup of the disaster to hide the fact that they had been using the Morro Castle to illegally run guns and ammunitions to Cuban president Batista, but that has never been proven … hence the conspiratorial nature of that theory.
Safety at sea
I did initially compare Morro Castle to Costa Concordia in that it provided more spectacle than constructive industry lessons, but that is not entirely true. The disaster did in fact result in major changes to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention to address the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, fire alarms, and mandatory firefighting drills, so the Morro Castle disaster did become an important step towards better onboard fire safety protocol (though unfortunately not the definitive one, as later disaster fires on the Yarmouth Castle, Caronia, Prinsendam, Achille Lauro and many others would prove). Fires on cruise ships are rare today (though likely not as rare as you’d like to think) and have not led to a complete loss of vessel or substantial loss of life in decades but the price to get this far has been paid by the victims of the Morro Castle and many others.
Remember the Morro Castle
The wreck of the Morro Castle remained beached at Asbury Park for 6 months before it could be removed and – much like the capsized Costa Concordia on the rocks of Giglio – became a morbid point of interest and disaster tourism, one which entrepreneurial Asbury Park residents cashed in on in many creative but seldom tasteful or dignified ways. In March of 1935 she was refloated and towed away for scrapping in Baltimore. A memorial stone from 2009 (the 75th anniversary of the disaster) next to the convention hall on the beach boardwalk is now all that tells her story onsite.
This is the eighteenth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.