The cruise ship Morro Castle, heading north through local waters on her 174th return voyage from Havana to New York, never reached her destination, dropping anchor several miles offshore as a fire of suspicious origin raced through the ship September 8, 1934. By day’s end, 134 people were dead, three more would die weeks later. But more than 400 were saved, many by local people who risked their own lives to save others.
The tragic fire, those who lost their lives, the survivors and their heroic rescuers will be remembered at Sea Girt Lighthouse Monday, September 8 in a morning memorial and program to mark the 80th anniversary.
Presiding over the lighthouse program will be Bill Mountford, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, and the grandson of Elvin (Toots) Lake, one of six Sea Girt lifeguards who helped to save a dozen people that fateful day. Toots had grown up at Sea Girt Lighthouse, the son of William (Pappy) Lake, who had been keeper from 1917-31.
Pappy was succeeded by George Thomas, who was Sea Girt keeper during the Morro Castle disaster. Thomas had won a commendation while keeper at Fire Island Lighthouse in 1917 for rendering assistance “in rescuing from a dangerous position two aviators whose hydroplane had plunged into Great South Bay and partly sunk.”
Keeper Thomas took the initiative again in the Morro Castle disaster. The official keepers’ handbook titled Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service instructed keepers to extinguish their beacons at sunrise. However, it also advised: “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants … to give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”
There was a Nor’easter the morning of September 8, 1934 and visibility was reduced. It is believed that George Thomas kept Sea Girt’s beacon burning bright and flashing to provide navigational aid to the Morro Castle crew and rescue ships, and to give direction and hope to passengers and crew who went overboard when the order was given to abandon ship. One Morro Castle survivor credits the lighthouse beacon with saving her life.
Two of six lifeboats that could be launched beached in Sea Girt around 9 a.m. The other four beached in Spring Lake. People bobbing in the water in their bulky cork lifejackets were pushed to shore by the currents, reaching shore mid-morning and continuing into early afternoon. Many of those rescued were plucked from the water by the crews of fishing boats, including the John Bogan Sr., sons John and Jim and other volunteers aboard the Bogan fishing boat Paramount, who saved 67, and by the crews of cruise ships and freighters in the area that launched lifeboats. The crew of the Monarch of Bermuda rescued 71 people who were brought on board.
The afternoon of the fire, a towline was finally secured to the Morro Castle and the anchor chain cut. The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa began towing the charred wreck to New York. But the towline broke, the powerless and rudderless Morro Castle drifted toward shore, pushed by the strong winds, beaching in Asbury Park, where the charred ship remained for 6 months becoming a macabre tourist attraction.
The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined because forensic evidence was incinerated in the fire. There was a strong suspicion of arson, but other possible causes included an electrical short circuit, over-heating equipment, a carelessly discard cigarette or cigar, and spontaneous combustion of improperly stored cargo. The ship’s heavily lacquered paneling in staterooms and public areas provided fuel for the fire, while the air ducts that ran throughout the ship to circulate cooling ocean breeze fed the fire.
Lighthouse Memorial Program
The schedule of the Morro Castle memorial at Sea Girt Lighthouse is as follows:
· Sunrise: Tower kept lighted.
· 9:00 a.m.: Memorial wreath placed by the front steps of Sea Girt Lighthouse by Mr. Mountford and Jude Meehan, SGLCC vice-president. Brief remarks by Mr. Mountford.
· 9:05 a.m. to 11 a.m.:
o Mr. Mountford and Mr. Meehan and lighthouse historian Bill Dunn will lead tours of the Morro Castle collection and displays.
o Screening in the 1st floor community room of newsreels and home movies of the disaster, rescue and the beached ship.
o Tri-fold poster display and screening in the parlor of a 3-minute documentary, T.E.L. Morro Castle: New Jersey’s Titantic, by three middle school students who won regional and state honors in the 2013 National History Day competition.
The thesis of their documentary is that the Morro Castle disaster prompted reforms that made sea travel safer: establishment of the U.S. Maritime Commission and an expanded Coast Guard for closer monitoring and more frequent inspections, tougher regulations, better training for crew in emergency procedures and more safety features built into ships.
Among the Morro Castle artifacts that will be on display are: a miniature Morro Castle life preserver bought in the ship’s gift shop on the Easter cruise five months before the disaster, stationery, the cruise schedule and fares pamphlet, invitation to the captain’s masked ball, Ward Line publicity photo of the newly launched Morro Castle anchored by the Brooklyn Bridge, photos of the captain and executive officer.
Also, two canvas over cork lifejackets, a 14-foot-long lifeboat oar, front-page reports and dramatic news photos from newspapers across the country that published extra editions, eyewitness photos, forensic photos of the exterior and interior of the burned ship, a congressional report of its investigation findings, photos of various rescuers, including the Sea Girt lifeguards and the crew of the Paramount, a letter of gratitude sent by a young woman to Jim Bogan of the Paramount thanking him and the crew for rescuing her, a photo 60 years later where she and Mr. Bogan were reunited at Sea Girt Lighthouse, Senate Bill 1874, proposing the awarding of medals to the rescuers. While the bill passed the Senate, it got bogged down in the House and was never voted on. Medals never were issued.