The Morro Castle: A Nautical Disaster To Be Remembered

What better first post than one about nautical disasters?

This summer, my family went on our yearly pilgrimage to Long Beach Island. We’ve been going there since I was little, and it’s always been a place of comfort to me. Swimming in the ocean, riding bikes along Long Beach Boulevard, and visiting the Chegg have always been a treat. This year, we took a small detour over to the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History, a relatively recent installation over in Beach Haven. What I would discover there was fascinating to me, and I still think quite a bit about it.

Enter the SS Morro Castle. (Wikipedia linked for your convenience!)

on September 5, 1934, the SS Morro Castle departed from Havana, Cuba on its way to New York City. This would be its final voyage. The ship was doomed from the start, it seemed, when its captain died of an apparent heart attack not even a day after it departed. Three days later, however, a massive fire ripped its way through the ship, located eight nautical miles off the coast of Long Beach Island. The acting captain had wanted to beach the ship, but the growing intensity of the fire rendered this impossible. The majority of the lifeboats were not deployed, and those that were contained mostly crew. Since the crew fled the ship, the general population of passengers were unsure as to how to leave. Passengers were left with the choice to either “jump or burn” in a vain attempt to save their lives. Many jumped overboard with life rings and other things found on the deck, but as they landed in the water, many hit their heads on the life preservers and such, rendering themselves unconscious and therefore left for dead.

The SS Morro Castle, stationed off the coast of Asbury Park, NJ.

The wreck of the Morro Castle would sit, still smoldering at first, off the coast of Asbury Park until early 1935, when it was dismantled. Of the 549 crew members and passengers on board, 135 passengers were lost in the wreck. This seems minor compared to some of today’s tragedies, but in perspective, it’s quite a lot. What came of the Morro Castle disaster was that lifeguarding and Coast Guard practices were vastly improved, as well as shipboard conditions that may have led to an increased tragedy.

To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened on board the Morro Castle. Rumors have abounded for years that the captain was poisoned, and that the fire was intentionally set. Some say that Chief Radio Operator George Rogers, the man pegged as a “hero” for sending a distress signal amidst life-threatening conditions, was actually the cause behind the disaster.

After visiting the exhibit, I was both terrified and enthralled. Terrified that something like this could happen, but also enthralled by the whole mystery surrounding it. I’d highly recommend reading Fire at Sea: The Mysterious Tragedy of the Morro Castle by Thomas Gallagher. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy myself.

3 responses to “The Morro Castle: A Nautical Disaster To Be Remembered

  1. That is a great museum and a good place to visit for anyone interested in the Jersey shore, disasters and history. I’m so glad you got something out of the whole deal. Museums aren’t usually that interesting to you, especially ones that deal with glass….

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