FATEFUL, FINAL CRUISE OF THE MORRO CASTLE:
SHORE TRAGEDY, INSPIRING RESCUE REMEMBERED
In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 8, 1934, the cruise ship Morro Castle on its 174th return voyage from Havana was only hours from docking in New York City but never reached her destination. A perfect storm of ominous developments, bad weather, the ship’s design and questionable decisions doomed the ship and would eventually claim 137 lives.
The ship was ravaged by fire of suspicious origin. The beacon of Sea Girt Lighthouse enabled the crew to fix their position before they dropped anchor three miles offshore. Then, as people went overboard, the blinking light guided them to shore and gave them hope as they fought for their lives.
While a tragedy and mystery, the Morro Castle remains to this day a gripping and inspiring story of heroism – the heroism of local people who risked their own lives to save others. In all, more than 400 people survived.
T.E.L. Morro Castle
T.E.L. Morro Castle, a sleek, fast liner, built in Newport News, Virginia and launched in 1930, was the queen of the Ward Line. The designation T.E.L. indicated she was a turbo-electric liner. Twin turbines propelled the ship, which held the speed record from Manhattan to Havana – 58 hours, 40 minutes. She was named for the fortress Morro Castle in Havana, built by the Spanish in 1589.
She made weekly trips to Havana. Despite the Depression, the Ward Line managed to attract passengers with low fares and the expectation of a week of fun. Fares ranged from $140 for an inside cabin, double occupancy, to around $240 for a Cabin de Luxe. Conditions and pay for crew members were typical for the industry and the era. Some complained and agitated for better pay and improved conditions, others were happy to have a job in the Depression.
Third Assistant Purser
Aboard the last several sailings of the Morro Castle was 17-year-old Third-Assistant Purser Thomas Torresson Jr., whose father was Marine Superintendent of the Ward Line. A New Jerseyan and a student at Xavier High School in New York City, Tom first sailed on the Morro Castle with his mother his senior year while recuperating from pneumonia. He fell in love with the ship and talked to his father about being a deck cadet – onboard training to become a licensed ship’s officer. There was a long waiting list.
But that summer, on a day’s notice, young Torresson became third assistant purser when a crewman became ill and the position opened up. Tom spent the summer of 1934 making the weekly cruise to Havana. Decades later, he jokingly recalled his qualifications for the job as third-assistant purser were that he was a touch typist, spoke passable Spanish and could dance. After his sailing days were over, Tom went to college and then made a career in the military. He entered the U.S. Army, served in the Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel.
On the final voyage, Captain Robert Wilmott tried to outrace a storm, which eventually caught up with the ship. The night before the scheduled docking, Wilmott not feeling well skipped the traditional dinner with invited guests at the Captain’s Table and went to his cabin. He was later found dead, having suffered a heart attack brought on by “acute indigestion,” according to the ship’s doctor. First Officer William Warms became acting captain.
In the early morning hours of September 8, fire was discovered in a closet in the Writing Room amidships on B Deck. The ship’s design and materials contributed to the fire’s rapid spread. The flames were fanned by the Nor’easter winds funneled throughout the ship by pipes designed to cool the ship in this era before air-conditioning. The ship was heading some 20 knots into 20 knot winds.[i]
None of the ship’s fire doors were activated. The walls of public rooms and the staterooms were wood paneled and lacquered, providing fuel for the fire, which grew in intensity with the explosion of gun powder used as a propellant for the Lyle gun, which were stored above the Writing Room. Fire hoses could not contain the fire. Some people were trapped in their staterooms.
Acting Captain Warms eventually gave the order to send SOS, the universal signal of distress. It was first transmitted some 39 minutes after a passenger first reported smelling smoke that led to the fire’s discovery a few minutes later.[ii] Why the initial SOS was not sent sooner became a matter of heated debate and a criticism of the Warms. The SOS was received by the radio marine station at Tuckerton, New Jersey, which alerted the Coast Guard station in New York and ships at sea.
As the fire rapidly spread outward, the order came from the acting captain to launch all 12 lifeboats plus several collapsible rafts to evacuate the ship. Their seating capacity was more than enough to accommodate everyone on the Morro Castle. But half of the lifeboats could not be launched – blocked by the fire, burning or stuck in their davits. The lifeboats that were successfully lowered, pushed off with many empty seats and carried more crewmen than passengers, a damning fact seized on by the press, investigators and prosecutors.[iii]
Communications with the engine room eventually failed. Then the engine died. The ship was powerless and rudderless, being driven by the winds. Acting Captain Warms issued the order to drop anchor with the ship some three miles offshore. Within an hour the fire had reached the bridge, where Warms and several other officers were stationed. He ordered the officers with him to move to the forecastle.
With and without lifejackets, people were forced to jump into the water to escape the advancing fire. The bulky, cotton twill lifejackets consisted of eight compartments, each containing a rectangular cork float positioned vertically. There were four cork floats across the back, two on the left front and two on the right front. The jacket was secured across the chest by tying the draw strings.
It was important to tightly grab the top edge of the lifejacket with both hands and hold it down when hitting the water. Many people who did not hold down the lifejackets slipped out of them on impact or were knocked out as the front cork panels jumped up and hit their chins.
Tom Torresson, the 17-year-old assistant purser, roused many passengers from their staterooms and guided them to the deck. Seeing the tall teenager in his white uniform, someone approached him and turned over a boy, Bobby, about age 12, who was alone and badly burned. Tom took off his lifejacket and attempted to put it on Bobby. But the boy resisted because the lifejacket hurt his burned skin. Tom put his lifejacket back on. He calmed the boy, told him they were going overboard and that once in the water the boy should get around Tom’s back and put his arms around his neck. They leapt into the water and then the boy grabbed onto Tom. They talked, prayed and sang.
The first ship on the scene was S.S. Andrea F. Luckenbach, followed by the S.S. Monarch of Bermuda and the S.S. City of Savannah. Also responding were the Coast Guard cutters Tampa and Cahoone.
People in coastal towns began calling the Coast Guard, police and fire departments to report a fire at sea. Many area residents woke that morning with foreboding to the sounds of blaring whistles and sirens as police, fire and first-aid squads responded.
Despite storm conditions, fishing boat captains and volunteers took boats out from the docks in Belmar, Brielle, Point Pleasant and other harbors. From Brielle, John Bogan, his sons John Jr. and Jim, captains all, and several of their mates and captains from other fishing boats boarded the Bogans’ 60-foot Paramount and headed to sea. Before the end of the day, the men of the Paramount rescued 67 people. Other fishing boats and the responding ships collectively rescued a few hundred more people.
Assistant purser Tom Torresson was spotted by mariners in a lifeboat from the City of Savannah. He was clinging to an oar to which he had secured Bobby, who had died sometime before. As a Savannah crewman reached toward Tom, he tried to lift up Bobby’s body to be pulled into the lifeboat. But the sailor said room was needed for the living and then pulled Tom aboard. The crowded lifeboat was eventually towed into Point Pleasant by a fishing boat.
As fishing boats were pulling people from the stormy waters, Morro Castle lifeboats began landing. The first lifeboat to reach land, Lifeboat No. 10, beached at the south end of Spring Lake around 6:15 a.m., carrying 30 people – 27 crewmen and only three passengers. In all, four Morro Castle lifeboats beached in Spring Lake. Two boats beached in Sea Girt.[iv]
The lifeboats and then people in the water came ashore in Spring Lake and Sea because that’s where the prevailing currents propelled them, according to Dr. Walter Judge. He had witnessed the unfolding events in his hometown of Spring Lake. Years later he co-wrote a book on the Morro Castle.
Another witness was Jack Geiger who with his sisters had followed the emergency vehicles to the beach. There they looked on in astonishment as a0 lifeboat beached and out stepped someone they knew, the cruise director of the Morro Castle, whom they had befriended on the Easter week cruise they and their parents took the previous April.
Thirteen-year-old Bobby Bossett watched as Lifeboat No. 1 beached at Sea Girt Inlet. He can be seen in a news photo with a few dozen other onlookers inspecting the lifeboat. Before he went home that day, he retrieved a discarded lifejacket as a souvenir.
Coming up the Sea Girt beach was John J. Farrell, executive editor of The Newark Evening News, who had been at the shore vacationing. He spotted a young man with a camera, taking photos. Editor Farrell bought the camera from the man and the undeveloped film inside it. He took some photos of his own and then drove to the newsroom to have the film developed.
Ambulance crews, police and fire departments – some from up north – arrived in Spring Lake and Sea Girt to join lifeguards and others there who were pulling people from the water.
In Sea Girt, lifeguard Tom Black was awakened by his sister who had been awakened by the sirens. Instinctively, Tom and Sea Girt’s other lifeguards still in town five days after Labor Day raced to the beach at Chicago Boulevard where their equipment was stored. By 7 a.m., Black was joined by head lifeguard Jack Holthusen, 24, Dick Tucker, youngest at age 18, George Braender, Jack Little, and Elvin (“Toots”) Lake, 20.
They tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to launch a lifeboat. But the waves were too high and powerful for them to get the lifeboat past the breakers. The guards would have to rely on themselves and each other in the coordinated rescues that followed.
Survivors, who were not picked up by other ships or fishing boats, came into sight off Sea Girt around 9 a.m. A guard would swim out, calm the person and get control. At that point the guard with a line attached to his leather-over-canvas lifeguard belt and the survivor were pulled back to shore by the other lifeguards and volunteers who joined the effort.
Head lifeguard Holthusen recalled the experience in the fall 1934 issue of his fraternity magazine, The Circle of Zeta Psi: “Our life guard crew including Tom Black (Chi Psi at Rutgers), ‘Toots’ Lake and Dick Tucker waited ’till swimmers were just outside the line of breakers and then swam out to get them. Two of us made it.
“The first were a man and wife and a girl whom they had met in the water. … about an hour later in almost the same spot we brought in the mother of the girl. After the first job they came in singly but even at that we had very few breathing spells.”
Tom Black told The Asbury Park Press: “Throughout the day we swam out to where the surf broke and pulled in 15 people, many of whom were near death. We had to get to them before they were thrown with force on the beach, which would have killed them in their weakened condition. In some cases, though we were too late.”
First Separate Battalion
At Camp Sea Girt, the New Jersey National Guard set up a temporary morgue. More than 100 bodies were brought there. Relatives arriving at the camp were guided through the morgue and comforted by soldiers of the First Separate Battalion, a black militia unit in training that week at the camp. The First Separate Battalion also assisted in recovery efforts at the beach.
Shore residents and innkeepers took survivors in. The first thing many survivors did was to telephone family and friends to let them know they survived. Restaurants provided food. Merchants offered clothes.
Tom Torresson Sr., Ward Line’s Marine Superintendent, found his son at a first-aid station at the Squan Inlet dock. That’s where the City of Savannah lifeboat, into which Tom Jr. was hauled, had been towed by a trawler. While the father remained behind to deal with the unfolding situation, young Tom was driven by a family friend to the Essex & Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake where he was reunited with his mother.
Final Stop: Asbury Park
Acting Captain Warms remained on board the Morro Castle with a handful of other officers until around 1 p.m. when the Coast Guard cutter Tampa was able to secure a tow line. The anchor chain was cut. With the Coast Guard now in control, Warms finally left the ship. The cutter began towing the powerless, rudderless Morro Castle back to New York. But for the second time in the same awful day, the ship did not reach its destination.
The towline snapped. The winds and current pushed the Morro Castle toward the beach at Asbury Park. Narrowly missing a collision with Convention Hall, the ship stopped abruptly as she dug into the sandy bottom of the shallow waters and beached within a few hundred yards of the boardwalk. There the burned-out wreck remained for six months, pointed northward to its missed destination of New York, attracting a few million people to town.
As early as the day after the Morro Castle fire, investigations began. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned Special Agent Francis X. Fay, head of the New York office, to lead the FBI probe. Fay, an electrical engineer by training, was legendary in the FBI for applying science to crime solving. He and several agents went to shore hospitals and hotels to interview survivors. Other investigations were launched by local police, the U.S. Attorney in the New York District, the Commerce Department and Congress. They, the press and the public were demanding answers.
Damning facts emerged and were detailed in official reports and in court. The firefighting system was inadequate. There were 42 hydrants throughout the ship. But fewer than one-quarter could be used simultaneously to maintain pressure. As crew fought the fire, they turned on over half the hydrants and water pressure quickly dropped. At least one hydrant was unusable because it had been capped to stop a leak that had caused a passenger to slip.
The attractive lacquered wood paneled walls were highly combustible and provided fuel for the fire that was fanned by the system of air ducts that cooled the ship’s interior with ocean breezes. There was confusion and lack of coordination among many crewmen and passengers on where to go and what to do.
The big question – what caused the fire – remained unanswered. There were many theories as to the cause, but no definitive conclusion because most of the evidence needed was destroyed – incinerated in the fire. There was the strong suspicion of arson. While suspicion eventually centered on one particular crewman, he was never charged. In fact, no one was ever charged with starting the fire.
There had been 549 people aboard the Morro Castle on its final cruise. The day of the disaster 134 people died – more than 30 percent of the passengers, but under 18 percent of the crew.[v] Three more people, according to various reports, died later of injuries sustained in the Morro Castle disaster.
There was much criticism of the officers and crew and their actions or inactions. But while there were numerous examples of questionable judgment, poor seamanship and disregard for duty, there were also officers and crewmen who did their duty, including young Tom Torresson. Even Acting Captain Warms, who would be indicted, remained with his stricken ship.
Acting Captain Warms as well as the chief engineer and a Ward Line vice-president were indicted on several charges including “misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty.” They were convicted January 23, 1936 on charges of negligence.[vi]
The three appealed their convictions. The convictions were overturned in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April 1937. Judge Augustus Hand wrote that the fire was so intense and spread so rapidly that the crew could not have extinguished it. He wrote that Acting Captain Warms “maintained the best tradition of the sea by staying on his ship until the bridge burned under him and no one else was aboard.” William Warms sailed again and later managed port operations for the Ward Line. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.[vii]
Senate Bill 1874 was introduced in the U.S. Senate to authorize the awarding of medals to the Morro Castle rescuers. While there was strong sentiment to honor the rescuers, controversy developed over just whom to award medals to.
The initial list included the Bogans and other fishermen who went out in their boats to save people. Other rescuers, including lifeguards, were subsequently added to the list. And still more names of rescuers were submitted. In the end no medals were awarded by Congress. But the many people involved were recognized and honored locally.
Some good came of the Morro Castle disaster. As a result of the tragedy and the investigations that followed, changes were made to shipboard procedures and ship design and materials that improved safety in ship travel.
Remembering the Morro Castle
On the 60th anniversary of the Morro Castle disaster and rescue, a memorial program at Sea Girt Lighthouse included the reunion of Captain Jim Bogan, a woman whose life he saved, and her two children, who would not have been there but for Captain Bogan’s heroism.
Col. Tom Torresson Jr., USAF (ret.), spoke at the 70th anniversary memorial at Sea Girt Lighthouse. In the audience was Brian Hicks, a reporter at The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, who had driven through the night to be there. The author of several books on maritime history, Hicks was fascinated by the Morro Castle story. He interviewed Col. Torresson that day and many times after that. Hicks went on to write the book When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of The Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake, published in 2006 by Free Press.
Speaking at the 75th Morro Castle memorial program at Sea Girt Lighthouse were: Jack Geiger, who as a boy with his family had been on the Morro Castle’s 1934 Easter cruise and five months later saw the lifeboats beaching in Spring Lake; Dr. Walter Judge, another witness who later wrote a Morro Castle book; Ray Bogan, whose father, uncle and grandfather were among the rescuers; Bill Mountfound, grandson of Sea Girt lifeguard Toots Lake who helped rescue people; and Francis X. Fay, newspaperman and son of the lead FBI investigator.
The Morro Castle story is kept alive at the Sea Girt Lighthouse, where tour guides recall the events as visitors view Morro Castle photos, documents and artifacts, including a lifeboat oar, two lifejackets and a copy of Senate Bill 1874.
[i] Hicks, Brian, When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of The Morro Castle and Its Deadly Wake (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 99.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 88, 110, 116.
[iii] Ibid., 114-115, 120-124, 184.
[iv] Judge, Dr. Walter and William W. Wingard, Tragedy Off Spring Lake: The Story of the Burning of the Morro Castle (Hoffman Press, 2003), pp. 17-18.
[v] Hicks, When the Dancing Stopped, p. 184.
[vi] Ibid., pp. 208-209, 218.
[vii] Ibid., p 227.