A 1934 Maritime Tragedy With Several Bizarre Twists

October 27, 2020

All of us are familiar with the famous Cruise Line disasters such as Titanic. But what about the stories that have been forgotten in the history books? Or the ones we never learn about in school.

Take the Morro Castle for example.

This luxury liner, named after a stone fortress and lighthouse at the entrance to Havana harbor, was the pride and joy of the Ward Line. With a 1930 price tag of $5 million, it was capable of carrying 489 passengers and 240 crew members.

The Morro Castle had a successful run for about four years, but met its fate on the evening of Sept. 7, 1934 on its way to New York.

And the circumstances surrounding this disaster may have you scratching your head in disbelief.

It started with the ship’s captain, Robert Willmott, who was not feeling well that evening. While attempting to rest in his quarters, he complained of severe stomach pains. Then without warning, he died of an apparent heart attack.

Command of the massive ship was then passed to Chief Officer William Warms. While this was happening, a nor’easter had begun to pick up steam, with winds reaching 30 knots. And the Morro Castle was headed straight for it.

Yet the storm wasn’t the only problem.

Shortly before 3:00 AM along the shores of Long Island, a fire was seen in the ship’s writing room (close to the bow of the Morro Castle). The new captain, Chief Office Warms, ordered that all of the ship’s fire hydrants be opened.

For unexplained reasons, many of the hydrants failed to open.

Warms then ordered the ship to continue full steam ahead, believing he could beat the storm to New York and stop the spread of the fire along the way. But the whipping wind from the nor’easter caused the blaze to flare.

Warms did not send out an S.O.S. until nearly 40 minutes after the fire had been reported. And by then, it was too late. The Morro Castle was engulfed in flames. The fire burned through the ship’s electrical cables, plunging it into darkness and making it impossible for the crew to see or steer.

Passengers started panicking as the flames and smoke overpowered the ship. Many of them drowned when they jumped into the raging sea to escape.

The Coast Guard was also slow to react to the disaster, but residents from up and down the Jersey Shore pitched in to rescue people from the waves, and to help reunite families who had been separated when they entered different lifeboats.

In one final twist, the Morro Castle was on a collision course with the Asbury, New Jersey Convention Hall. But it inexplicably turned at the last minute and beached itself nearby.

It would remain there until mid-March of the following year, becoming a kind of grisly tourist attraction.

Of the 549 passengers and crew aboard, 137 perished in the blaze or by jumping into the raging sea. And even after all this time, the cause of the fire that destroyed the Morro Castle remains a mystery.