Thoughts of war and disaster were far from the minds of the 549 passengers and crew of the Ward Liner Morro Castle on the morning of September 8, 1934, as she plowed her way toward New York. Most of the passengers were still asleep; others were up, making ready to disembark as soon as the ship docked. Storm warnings threatened bad weather up and down the coast and, around two‑thirty in the morning, the sea was making up rapidly. The Morro Castle, however, hoped to beat the storm, as she was making twenty knots and was due in New York within two hours.
George W. Rogers, chief radio operator, was in his cabin preparing to go to bed, when someone knocked hurriedly on the door and entered before Rogers could reply.
It was the third assistant radioman; his face was white and drawn, and he had difficulty in speaking coherently.
"Chief! You'd better come up to the radioroom! The whole ship's afire!"
p88 Leaping from his bunk, Rogers donned some clothes, and dashed for the passageway. The ship was in an uproar. Clad in nightclothes, a woman near the lounge door was screaming hysterically. Seeing Rogers, she lunged for him, clutching his arm desperately.
"It's not so, is it? Tell me, please? The ship's not on fire, is it?"
"Madam, I don't know. Perhaps, it's not as bad as it seems. You'd better go to your cabin and get your things. Try to be calm."
She glanced at him for a moment, seemed to gather courage from his face, then nodded and turned abruptly away.
Rogers shook his head and leaped for the stairs. On "B" deck, now, he ran into a wall of smoke, through which he could see the red flames licking and spitting. People bumped into him, screaming, pushing — praying. Men fought to keep their wives and children around them, strove to calm their loved ones with voices that shook and broke.
Suddenly, out of the smoke and flames, a boy and girl loomed, hands clasped. They were scarcely out of their teens, the boy dark and slender, the girl blonde and tiny. Each wore a life preserver.
The boy said calmly: "You're an officer, aren't you? We're going to jump. How far are we from the beach?"
p89 "•Five or six miles," Rogers said, "I don't know. Maybe eight. But you should wait for a boat."
"No," said the boy, "we're going together. In a boat we might become separated. We're not afraid, are we, Judith?"
The girl smiled. "No, we're not afraid — together."
They were gone in an instant.
Rogers made his way to the radioroom. The smoke was hanging in wreaths throughout the ship. Near the radioroom, in the lounge, the flames roared. The radioman knew that nothing could save the ship now; there remained but one thing to do — summon help without delay.
The radioroom was also on "B" deck, and Rogers knew that the fire would soon cut the cables that supplied the main transmitters with power. That would mean relying upon a small emergency transmitter for sending out a distress call.
The second assistant operator, Alagna, was on watch when Rogers came into the radioroom. Alagna said: "The nearest ship is the Luckenbach, chief. I heard him talking a few moments ago." He got up and handed the phones to Rogers.
Nodding tersely, Rogers pust the phones over his ears. Smoke was piling into the radioroom, the steel beneath their feet growing hot. The chief operator glanced beyond the doorway, where flames were crackling.
"Get a release on an SOS from the captain," he p90said to Alagna. "No time to waste! I must contact some ship!"
When Alagna had gone, Rogers heard the Luckenbach asking WSC, the Tuckerton, N. J., radio station, if he had received a report that a ship was on fire at sea. Evidently, someone had sighted the flames from the Morro Castle and had put a report on the air. Having received no such report, WSC informed the Luckenbach to that effect.
Rogers decided to send out a standby signal so that all ships and stations within range would be waiting for the distress call once authority was received from the captain to send one. Accordingly, he switched on his transmitter and pounded out the following:
CQ CQ de KGOV QRX QRX.
Within a few seconds after this signal went out, the air became still; the operators were obeying Rogers' instructions to stop sending and stand by.
At three twenty, Alagna returned from the bridge. Lips tight, he flashed a look at Rogers.
"Hell, chief! The captain refuses to send out a distress call at this time. Claims there's still time —"
As the second assistant spoke, the power went off, plunging the radioroom into darkness. The fire had reached the cables — all power was cut from the main transmitters!
Grabbing a flashlight Rogers whirled to the emergency transmitter. Installed for just such an emergency, this equipment was worked from a bank of p91batteries outside the radioroom. If the fire had not reached them, there might still be a chance —
"Here, Alagna!" Rogers snapped. "Hold this flashlight while I tune the transmitters!"
"Make it snappy, chief," Alagna whispered through tight lips. "We can't stay here long! Look at that paint on the bulkhead!"
Under the heat, the paint was peeling away from the steel; smoke and flames billowed through the door.
Feverishly, the radioman adjusted his transmitter, praying that the flames had not yet exploded the batteries. He pressed the key and was rewarded when he saw the antenna current meter flicker upward. He was on the air again.
Once more, he whipped out the standby signal. The heat was unbearable, the smoke stifling. He pushed Alagna to the door.
"Tell the captain I can't keep this equipment on the air very much longer. Tell him to release an SOS, or by God, I'll release it myself!"
Alagna made his way through the smoke and fire toward the bridge. The flames had gained such headway that he had considerable difficulty in finding his way. Finally, he located the captain on the bridge, and shouted in his ear that Rogers would be burned alive in the radioroom if the captain did not immediately release the distress call. His face white and drawn, the captain seemed to ponder; then suddenly he nodded. p92"Release an SOS. Our position's •twenty miles south of Scotland Lightvessel."
Fighting his way back to the radioroom, Alagna shouted over the roaring flames to Rogers: "All right, chief! Send the SOS! Position's twenty miles south of Scotland light!"
Rogers nodded grimly and turned to his key. He had wrapped a towel around his face so that he could breathe in the stifling smoke. He had propped his feet on the table, the steel deck being too hot to stand on. The curtains on the port side of the radioroom were now in flames, lending to the scene a ghastly red glow.
The distress message flicked out on the air: SOS SOS de KGOV on fire 20 miles south of Scotland Light need assistance.
As Rogers finished this transmission, the small generator went out. Eyes blank and hopeless, the two radiomen stared at each other.
"The batteries —" whispered Alagna.
Rogers shook his head. "No. They'll make plenty noise when they go."
He groped his way over to the panel where the leads from batteries were fastened to the switch. While Alagna held the flashlight, Rogers exploded the panel and found that the intense heat had melted the solder in the lugs, allowing the leads to slip out and break the connection. Having bent the lead around the lug to the best of his ability, he staggered back to the table.
p93 Again the small generator hummed and Rogers flung out his frantic call for help for the second time. But no more. With a terrific sound, the batteries exploded. The last means of communication was out of commission!
"Come on, Rogers!" Alagna husked through parched lips. "You can't do any more! Let's scram!"
But Rogers did not hear. He was slumped in his chair, unconscious; fumes from the exploding batteries having overpowered him.
Picking him up, Alagna struggled to the door. The steel was blistering the assistant radioman's feet. The heat and fumes were almost overpowering. Somehow, he managed to get out in the passageway. Here, the air was a trifle better, and Rogers revived somewhat. With Alagna supporting his chief, the two radiomen made their way to the bridge. It was deserted. Their job finished, they went down from the bridge to the forecastle head, and were subsequently rescued by a Coast Guard surf boat. They had done the best they could for the hundreds of passengers aboard the Morro Castle and had upheld the finest traditions of the sea. . . .
Apparently, the Morro Castle caught fire at about two thirty in the morning, the conflagration starting in the lounge room of "B" deck. It spread so rapidly that at four o'clock the entire ship from the bridge to the stern was a blazing inferno. Passengers had no choice but to throw themselves into the water and p94pray that rescue ships would arrive soon enough to save them.
On watch in the lookout tower of the Shark River Coast Guard Station at this time, Surfman Stephen M. Wilson sighted a red glow in the sky, and a few seconds later, made out the shape of a vessel in flames. He called the officer in charge of the station, Chief Boatswain's Mate M. M. Hymer, and reported the fire. Hymer immediately mustered his crew, and after reporting to the commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District, proceeded to sea in the station's motor surfboat. He had left orders for Surfman Leonard M. Eno to follow him at daylight in the picket boat CG 831.
Bringing his surfboat within •a quarter of a mile of the burning vessel, Hymer and his crew could feel the heat from the flames. "Good Heavens, chief," a surfman said hoarsely, "she's a passenger liner!"
Even as he spoke, a cry sounded from a point off the bow. An object was seen bobbing on the water. Nearer the ship and clearly visible in the glow from the flames, other objects dotted the sea.
The Coast Guardsman headed his boat in closer and ran up alongside the man in the water. The man, past middle age, was clad only in nightclothes, with a preserver fastened about his waist. Looking at his rescuers through glazed eyes, he said, "Thank God! p95you came! Hundreds of people are dying, burning to death!"
The Coast Guardsmen counted nearly two hundred persons in the water, some with life preservers on, others swimming desperately. The surfboat moved in among them, picking them up singly and sometimes in groups. People could be seen leaping from the ship, which was covered by flames from bridge to stern. Hymer loaded the surfboat to the danger point. Seeing the lights of a steamer about a mile away, he turned and headed for her.
She proved to be the Luckenbach and was already preparing to lower her boats when the Coast Guard surfboat drew alongside. Hymer transferred the survivors, at the same time requesting Luckenbach's captain to move in closer, so that no time might be lost in getting boats to the Morro Castle. Then wasting no time, the Coast Guardsman headed his craft back to the scene of horror.
At five o'clock the picket boat from Shark River station, Surfman Eno in charge, arrived and at once began to pick up survivors from the water. Handling his boat with superb skill in the rising seas the surfman rescued thirty people. Stephen M. Wilson, the surfman who had originally sighted the Morro Castle, dived time and time again from the picket boat. Swimming to survivors who were too weak to help themselves, he assisted many of them to the picket boat.
p96 The last person saved by the picket boat was a young girl who had been supported in the water by a youth. As the craft was now dangerously overloaded, the Coast Guardsman was obliged to proceed, telling the youth that he would have to wait for the surfboat which was even then approaching from the direction of the Luckenbach. Having a life preserver on, the youth was in no immediate danger.
"Right," he said, smiling. "Just take care of my wife. She's fainted."
As the picket boat moved away toward the Steamer City of Savannah, which was standing by taking survivors aboard, one of the surfmen bent to examine the girl.
"She's dead," he said quietly.
The surfboat under the command of Boatswain Hymer continued to pick up the Morro Castle's survivors, and in addition, towed the Luckenbach's lifeboats back and forth from the Morro Castle. All in all, the Shark River boat rescued eighty people, besides picking up numerous bodies.
In most instances the survivors were too shocked and stunned to voice opinions of the disaster. A few told how the fire had suddenly broken out; how, in a few moments, the flames had seemed to cover the entire ship. Others related stories of horror aboard the Morro Castle, how parents screamed for their children, and how a woman had dived back into the flames for her dog. They spoke in jagged voices p97about the utter madness that had reigned on deck; how the flames had whipped about, driving people to the rails, and then into the water to escape the searing blasts.
The surfboats from the Sandy Hook station, together with the pilot boat from New York harbor, had arrived at the Morro Castle just after daybreak, by which time the Coast Guard boats had already rescued more than one hundred and twenty persons, and were searching in ever widening circles around the burning vessel for additional survivors.
On duty •some thirty-five miles east of the Morro Castle's position, the Coast Guard patrol Boat Cahoone received the standby signal from the distressed vessel at three twenty‑one that morning, but due to trouble being experienced with the intermediate frequency receiver, failed to get the distress call at three twenty-eight. The operators worked feverishly on the receiver, and at three fifty, the Cahoone was back on the air.
Cape May Coast Guard Radio station contacted the Cahoone at 4 A.M. and notified her that the Morro Castle was afire off Asbury Park, N. J. The Cahoone proceeded immediately, and arriving at seven fifty-five, joined in the rescue work.
The Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, at the dock in Staten Island, did not receive the distress message direct because of the low power transmitter being used aboard the Morro Castle. At four thirty‑six, orders p98came for the Tampa to proceed, which she did, after having recalled the liberty crew, at five forty. Making about eighteen knots, she completed the run in a little over two hours, arriving at about seven fifty-seven, a few minutes after the Cahoone.
The Tampa, being the senior vessel present, took command and directed the Cahoone and all but one surfboat to work in toward shore, for it was hoped that survivors had themselves drifted or swum in that direction.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard surf stations along the beach were kept busy. A crew from the Monmouth Beach rescued sixteen people from the surf, the surfmen forming a life chain out in the water in order to bring the survivors in. Surfmen of the Squan Beach Station rescued four persons and picked up six bodies; Bay Head Station saved five people, but only after Surfmen Grayson J. Mears and Robert A. Gent had fought through the rolling surf to bring them in. These two men nearly lost their lives in the effort and afterwards required medical treatment.
Nearly thirty Coast Guard surf stations assisted in the Morro Castle rescue work, together rescuing one hundred and seventy-three persons, and recovering thirty-eight bodies. The Service itself was credited with saving a total of two hundred and fifty-nine survivors and recovering fifty‑six bodies.
Captain W. H. Shea, commanding the New York Division of the Coast Guard, stated in a letter to p99Headquarters:
"In the opinion of the division commander, Chief Boatswain's Mate (L) M. M. Hymer was the outstanding man in the Coast Guard in the performance of effective duty during the Morro Castle disaster. The fire was reported to him at 3:15 A.M., standard time, and he immediately started in action, as seen from his report. Going to sea in conditions that required and obtained great skill and seamanship in small boat handling, he and his crew in the motor surfboat should receive special commendation from Headquarters. Also, Surfman Leonard M. Eno and the crew of the CG 831 should be commended for their fine work. Special mention is made here of Surfman Stephen M. Wilson, who swam to various survivors and helped them into small boats. Signed, W. H. Shea, Commander, New York Division."
The forepart of the Morro Castle was comparatively untouched by the flames, the fire having confined itself to the middle and afterpart of the ship. Boatswain Morin, in charge of the Sandy Hook surfboat, informed the Tampa's commander that fourteen men were still aboard the burning liner, having taken refuge on the forecastle head. Boatswain Morin was directed to go as close as possible to the Morro Castle and take these men off.
After establishing communications with the liner's acting commander, Warms, Boatswain Morin reported to the Tampa that Warms had requested a line p100be put aboard the burning ship and a tow attempted to New York harbor, where fire boats could extinguish the conflagration.
The Tampa, with the aid of the New York pilot boat, finally managed to get a running line across to the Morro Castle, and now began a real struggle. As the latter's engine room had long since been abandoned and there was accordingly no steam on the winches, the men on the liner's forecastlehead had to pull in the hawser by hand. After an hour of struggle with the wet and heavy line, they managed to get it through the anchor eye and make it fast. Next, the anchors were let go and the Morro Castle swung round in the sea, the wind coming across her stern, bringing the smoke and heat down on the fourteen men on the forecastlehead. The Tampa immediately took up a strain on the hawser, and slowly, the Morro Castle's nose came a round. The wind was directly off the bow now, and a heavy pall of smoke clouded the sky behind the burning vessel. For the men on the forecastlehead, this was a welcome relief, the intense heat being thus alleviated.
There remained nothing more for these survivors to do. Realizing that the increasing gale might shift and drive the flames upon them, the Tampa's commander ordered the Sandy Hook surfboat to go alongside the Morro Castle and effect the rescue.
In charge of the surfboat, Boatswain Morin knew that here was a task that would try his seamanship to p101the limit. The Morro Castle, free from the weight of her anchors, was pitching heavily, yawing widely behind the Coast Guard cutter. It was absolutely necessary that the Coast Guardsman approach close enough to the burning ship's side to permit rescue of the survivors as they clambered down a Jacob's ladder.
Actually, there seemed very little chance of doing this without staving in the surfboat against the Morro Castle blistered side, and throwing the Coast Guard crew into the sea. Boatswain Morin was fully aware of these risks, but he had his orders. He maneuvered the surfboat closer and closer to the Morro Castle, while around him mingling smoke and spray dangerously limited visibility. The men on the forecastle watched breathlessly, for this might be their last chance of salvation.
The surfboat was close in now. But — suddenly — the Morro Castle, like a maddened sea monster, lunged directly at the surfboat. Desperately, Morin whipped his wheel over, his eyes pinned on the mass above him. The distance narrowed; collision seemed inevitable. Then, at the last moment, the Morro Castle listed suddenly away, and, as though disgruntled with its failure to crush the surfboat, rolled restlessly in the troughs.
Morin brought his craft around for a second attempt. This time, he was more successful, and in a few moments lay under the Morro Castle's rail. He held the surfboat there, with only a yard or so separating p102him from disaster, until the last one of the fourteen survivors were safe on board. It was nine o'clock — a gray morning with fine rain drifting in sheets before the increasing wind — when Morin headed away from the burning liner.
A storm, previously forecast, was making up in earnest and the seas were tossing angrily, when soon after Morin had rescued the last survivors, the hitherto mentioned Tampa got under way and steered for New York with her tow. She made little headway. The Morro Castle, without a rudder or any other means of guidance, kept yawing broadside behind the Tampa, stretching the hawser so tight that it droned like a reed in the wind. Anxious eyes aboard the Coast Guard cutter watched that line, waiting for the loud "crack!" that would come when it parted. Once that happened, all hopes of saving what was left of the palatial ocean liner would be lost, for there would be no chance whatever of placing another hawser aboard her.
The Tampa's commander requested the New York pilot boat to pick up a line which was dangling from the Morro Castle's stern, and in this manner act as a rudder, so that the vessel might be held as well as possible on the course.
This was done, and for a time it seemed that Coast Guard ingenuity and perseverance would bring the Morro Castle into the harbor, where fire boats could extinguish the fire. Such good fortune was not to be, p103however. After a day's struggle with the burning hulk, the pilot boat was forced by the now raging gale to abandon its post. Aboard the Coast Guard cutter, it was feared that the hawser would part at any moment, and precautions were therefore taken to prevent injury to the men in the event that the broken line should come hurtling back upon the Tampa.
Hardly had this been done, when the hawser snapped with a report like that of a three‑inch gun. The Tampa surged ahead, trembling throughout her frame. Destruction threatened her. Writhing through the air, the hawser struck her stern and fouled the churning screw. The cutter trembled. Bells jangled frantically in the engineroom, as the commander rang stop on telegraph.
Her screw now hopelessly fouled, the cutter took the seas broadside and at once began to drive toward the beach, from which sounded the thunder of the surf. Furthermore, a sand bar was known to bear a cable's length ahead.
In response to orders from the bridge, both anchors were let go in an effort to check the Tampa's headlong plunge to destruction. The men wondered: Will she hold?
Those were anxious moments. The anchors dragged. Then, suddenly, they bit, took solid hold, and the cutter lay within a few hundred feet of the beach.
p104 The Tampa flashed a call to Divisional Headquarters in New York, and the cutter Sebago, which had been undergoing repairs, was ordered to assist her into port. The Tampa's work was done. Along the beach, however, weary patrols from the Coast Guard surfstations continued to search for bodies. This work went on for days, until the surfmen were ready to drop from fatigue. Not until hope for the recovery of the rest of the bodies had been abandoned did these men get rest. Some of them had been on their feet for seventy‑six hours. The concerted efforts of the Coast Guard units resulted in the saving of two hundred and fifty-nine lives and the recovery of fifty‑six bodies.
Meanwhile, the Morro Castle had been driven ashore and had brought up near the pier at Asbury Park, N. J. The flames were dying now, but tremendous pillars of smoke still belched from the charred hull — a grim, blackened reminder of one of the worst tragedies in maritime history.
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