The Mysterious Fate of the Morro Castle
In 1934 the Morro Castle Burned off the New Jersey Coast, Killing One Hundred and Thirty Five People. Was it a Terrible Accident, or Something More Sinister?
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.
Christened in 1930, the SS Morro Castle was one of a pair of passenger and cargo liners designed by Naval architects for the Ward Line. Both the Morro Castle and her sister ship the SS Oriente were designed to hold 489 passengers and 240 crew. Named for the stone fortress that stands vigil over Havana bay, the Morro Castle was built to carry passengers from New York to Havana, Cuba—which was a popular stop during Prohibition.
For four years, the Morro Castle made the voyage regularly. However, on September 5, 1934, the Morro Castle began what was to be her last return voyage from Cuba. She would never again reach harbour.
By the morning of September 7, the ship was sailing alongside the coast of the United States and encountering increasing clouds, intermittent rain, and wind—the beginning of a savage nor’easter. While the weather drove many passengers into their berths, the storm would prove to be the least of the dangers facing the Morro Castle.
On the evening of September 7, Captain Robert Wilmott, who had been the captain of the Morro Castle through all her years of voyaging, asked for his dinner to be served in his quarters. Shortly thereafter he complained of stomach trouble and died, leaving Chief Officer William Warms in charge of the ship.
Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning’s gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain’s chair at the captain’s table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.
Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colourful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The wait staff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.
Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously fox-trotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone’s attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore cancelled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.
The ship’s doctor had determined the captain’s cause of death as “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.” He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a “red” was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms—now Acting Captain Warms—was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain’s body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.
The Ward Line’s Morro Castle was named after the stone fortress that sits alongside Havana bay, Cuba, defending the harbour from raiders since 1589. The Morro Castle and her sister ship the Oriente were the darlings of the Ward Line, ideal specimens of ocean-going luxury and state-of-the-art technology. The 508-foot-long Morro Castle could accommodate 489 passengers and 240 crew on its weekly jaunt from New York to Havana, and despite the Great Depression and the very unsettled political climate in Cuba, in four years she had seldom sailed with many vacant berths. During the Prohibition the free-flowing legal alcohol was a big draw. Her regular cargo transport was also lucrative, particularly the contract to carry official US mail to and from the port in Cuba.
Deceased Captain and see-sawing decks notwithstanding, many of the Morro Castle’s passengers opted to remain awake late into the final night of their cruise, drinking and dancing and avoiding tomorrow. By 2:00am most had stumbled back to their cabins, but a few stubborn celebrators remained awake, most of them unsteady owing to intoxication and inertia. Daniel Campbell, a steward for the Morro Castle, would later recall that one particular passenger approached him sometime around half past two in the morning and asked him if he smelled smoke. They were, at that time, standing in the ship’s smoking room. Be that as it may, Campbell had little else to do at that dreary hour, so he humored the passenger and began to stroll around Deck B, peeking into various rooms to see what he might find. Small fires aboard ship were common—intoxicated passengers tended to toss still-burning cigarettes into wastebaskets, sometimes deliberately, setting the can’s contents aflame and initiating an impromptu episode of “watch the steward scramble for an extinguisher.”
Campbell found a few passengers loitering in the lounge sipping brandy, but they weren’t smoking, and they didn’t seem to be troubled by errant aromas. The ship’s library was likewise unremarkable. He poked his head into the writing room, which was vacant, but something caught the corner of his eye. A wisp of smoke curled from the edge of a concealed locker where supplies such as pens, paper, cleaning solution, and uniforms were stored. This had to be the source of the odor the passenger had reported. Campbell grabbed an extinguisher and toggled the locker latch. The door sprang open with a belch of bluish-white flames. He slammed the door shut again to deny it more oxygen, and pulled a fire switch which would discreetly alert the bridge. This ambitious-looking fire was bound to be a considerable distraction.
A breathless crewman arrived at the bridge to corroborate the fire alarm, and Acting Captain Warms sent Acting First Officer Ivan Freeman to oversee the snuffing of the blaze. The state-of-the-art fire detection readout on the bridge showed nothing out of the ordinary, but Warms knew there were several rooms in that area of the ship lacking fire sensors. When Acting First Officer Freeman arrived at the writing room, numerous crewmen were hurling pails of water into the locker, and spritzing the occasional extinguisher. A clutch of passengers stood watching from a safe distance. The fire seemed indifferent to their every effort as it began to spill out of the closet and onto the walls and floor of the writing room. More crewmen arrived dragging a fire hose whose other end was connected to a high pressure hydrant, but no one present knew how to operate the equipment and it took some time to get it flowing.
What none of the crew realized right away was that the fire was being fanned by one of Morro Castle’s oft-touted amenities: a rudimentary air conditioning system that used vents at the front of the vessel to draw in cool, refreshing sea air which was then funneled into inner passenger compartments via gaps behind the wall paneling. The Morro Castle was steaming at near-top-speed into a headwind, consequently the captive breeze was brisk. Furthermore, much of the luxury liner’s wood-paneled interior was glazed in layers of luxurious flammable varnish and fastened with comprehensively combustible adhesives. The fire feasted, spreading at an astonishing rate unlike any in the onlookers’ experience. Soon it was roaring, feeling its way upwards and sideways toward adjacent rooms with little regard for the crewmembers’ interventions.
At 2:56am, about fifteen minutes after the fire had first been reported, a bulb on the fire detection display on the bridge began to blink. Acting Captain Warms had thought that a few dozen crewmen could handle a little cigarette fire, but he began to grow concerned. Seconds later another indicator on the board blinked on. Then another. Within mere moments an inconceivable swath of the tiny incandescent bulbs were blinking in mute urgency, indicating fire in multiple areas on two decks. “My God,” gasped Warms. ‘The whole thing’s going.”
Assistant Radio Operator George Alagna was sleeping in his small crew cabin when he was awakened by a commotion outside his door. He emerged see a line of grim-looking crewmen pounding through the corridor. He smelled smoke. Sensing that his radio skills might soon be needed, he knocked on the door of his superior officer Chief Radio Operator George “Sparks” Rogers and the two headed for the radio room. Neither of the Georges knew the severity of the situation, so Rogers planted himself upon a stool at the radio and dispatched assistant Alagna to the bridge to seek orders. Alagna dutifully dashed down the passageway and emerged into pandemonium. Alagna asked the officers for orders, but his requests were smothered in the din of rain squalls, gusts of wind, and shouting among the officers and into phones. The lights of the eastern seaboard bobbed about eight miles aport. Acting Captain Warms, severely sleep-deprived and thrust into command under rapidly deteriorating circumstances, asked of no one in particular, “Is it real, or am I dreaming?”
Alagna returned to inform Chief Radio Operator Rogers of the condition of the bridge. It had become hot in the radio room, and smoke was beginning to accumulate. Rogers was adamant that they adhere to protocol, which dictated that only bridge officers could authorize an SOS transmission. The exasperated Alagna headed back to the bridge to try again.
George Rogers was somewhat accustomed to people finding him exasperating. He was a large man—”monstrously fat” by some descriptions—and he had no knack for social graces. He tended to wear the same set of clothing for days on end, he cracked jokes at inappropriate moments, and he was stubborn about the oddest things. But Rogers was unquestionably brilliant when it came to electronics in general and radios in particular. His eccentricities ordinarily might have prevented him from becoming Chief Radio Operator; in fact when the Morro Castle hired him the typical practice would have been to promote Alagna, who was already on board as Assistant Radio Operator, and make Rogers the new assistant. Captain Willmott, however, had detested Alagna. Alagna complained endlessly and loudly about pay and food. Alagna was openly disrespectful to officers. Alagna had recently tried to organize a worker strike for better conditions. So the late captain immediately installed the newcomer Rogers as Chief Radio Operator, typical practice and eccentricities be damned.
At about 3:00am the severity of the growing fire became unmistakable when there was a terrific, shattering bang amidships. One hundred pounds of gunpowder had detonated from inside its storage space above the writing room. Acting Captain Warms yanked a double blast on the ship’s whistle and flipped a switch that set fire alarm bells clanging from stem to stern. “Get all the passengers out,” he ordered his officers, and they sprang into action. Warms found it difficult to comprehend that he had gone from freshly-minted Acting Captain to ordering the abandonment of his ship in less than eight hours.
Many passengers remained stubbornly asleep despite the fire alarms, small explosions, and increasing smoke. Crew members ran through the corridors pounding upon stateroom doors. One roaming crewman, presumably from the kitchen staff, was clapping two large pots together in an effort to awaken everyone. Another, presumably a member of the ship’s orchestra, walked the hallways blasting songs from his trumpet. Bleary-eyed passengers shuffled from their cabins in various states of dress and sobriety. Men and women from the crew shouted, “Please get up, get dressed, put on your life jackets, and report to your boat station.” But passengers hadn’t the faintest idea where to find a life jacket, and no one recalled having been assigned a boat station.
In the aftermath of the Titanic disaster 22 years prior, the United States had enacted federal laws mandating thorough safety systems, sufficient lifeboats for all souls aboard, and safety drills for the crew. And indeed, the onboard lifeboats, life rafts, life preservers, and other anti-drowning apparatuses far exceeded the Morro Castle’s combined passenger and crew capacity. But the laws regarding safety drills did not apply to passengers, and those applicable to crews were not well enforced. Captain Willmott, like many of his contemporaries, had seldom subjected his crew to these exercises; much less imposed them upon passengers.
Throughout the ship, motley gangs of fire-fighters, made up of both crew and passengers, commandeered fire hydrants and hoses to dampen the growing blaze. After a few minutes, however, the water pressure fell dramatically. Unbeknownst to the crew, the Morro Castle’s fire fighting pump system was designed to provide pressure to only 5-6 hydrants at once. Many more than six had gone into disjointed operation from all sides, therefore despite the efforts of the improvisers, the fire raced across the lavish carpet from room to room. The fire gorged itself on wood furnishings, polished veneers, glued ply panelling, and other luxurious trappings. Flames rolled through the elegantly appointed corridors on B and C decks, pouring through companionways and staircases. The inferno soon spanned the beam of the Morro Castle, dividing the ocean liner in half crosswise.
On the bridge, Assistant Radio Operator George Alagna remained exasperated, and evidently invisible. He had returned to the radio room several times, only for Chief Radio Operator Rogers to send him back to seek the captain’s permission to send an SOS. But none of the bridge officers paid any mind to the pleading and gesticulating radio operator; their attention, like the water pressure in the fire hoses, was too divided. Acting Captain Warms dashed back and forth between the port to starboard windows trying to assess the extent of the fire. As he looked on, several unmanned lifeboats on the port side fell from their clips and plunged into the sea, their mechanisms twisted and buckled from the heat. This was distressing. The helmsman shortly reported that the Morro Castle was no longer answering her helm—the fire had ruptured the hydraulic lines. This was also distressing. The phones had gone down, so Warms shouted into the engine room speaking tube and ordered them to switch the portside propeller to full reverse. Turning the ship toward shore would improve survivors’ chances, and absent an operational rudder, reversing one engine was the only means of steering. Amid this chaos, Acting Captain Warms finally turned and looked directly at Alagna, saw his radio operator cap, and with a sudden look of recognition asked, “Can you send an SOS?”
By the time Alagna returned to the radio room, the lights all over the ship had gone out. Chief Radio Operator Rogers’ hulking frame still sat sweating in the chair at the radio. He had been listening to the wireless chatter regarding distant sightings of a possible ship afire in the storm eight miles off New Jersey. By this time the fire was directly beneath the radio room, and the steel-walled compartment had become a broiler. Alagna relayed the captain’s orders. The radiomen wrapped moistened towels around their noses and mouths to enable them to work in the choking smoke. By the tepid light of a flashlight Rogers broadcast Morro Castle’s first SOS. It had been approximately 45 minutes since the fire had been first discovered. After the first few transmissions the radio’s batteries burst from the heat, spewing acid and fumes. When the backup generator sputtered out, rather than abandon his post, Chief Radio Operator Rogers would later explain that he had strolled across the hot, smoky, acid-soaked radio room and made a slapdash repair to the generator so he could resume his radio coordination.
Most of the people aboard the Morro Castle had seen the conspicuous multitude of lifeboats secured on Decks A and B in the forward section, so passengers pressed in that general direction. Many of them were back in the stern half of the ship, however, and thus were unable to proceed when they encountered the increasingly spectacular fire. Groups of people scrambled to find a route around, over, or under the burning bulkheads, but none could be found. With the electricity out, the sections below were dark and hellish. Distant shouts reverberated through the smoke-choked corridors as passengers searched for an exit. The ship’s strained superstructure groaned as it softened and deformed from the heat. From somewhere in the smoke a voice shouted orders for everyone to join hands with nearby passengers. A flashlight-toting crewmember guided the resulting human chains to the nearest exit, which led people to the relative comfort of the storm-battered top deck. As passengers emerged one by one, so did each one’s awareness of the true scale of the disaster. The vast array of escape boats and life rafts they had all seen amidships and near the bow of the ship—enough to evacuate three Morro Castles—were all on the far side of a towering palisade of flames. The crowd of scantily-clad strangers stood shivering on the deck in the wind and rain, staring up at the fire, their shadows fox-trotting behind them.
In the forward section of the Morro Castle, Acting Second Officer Clarence Hackney directed crew efforts to fill and launch lifeboats. There were worryingly few evacuees arriving. Only about half of them were passengers rather than crew, and not all of them had their life jackets. Many of the boat clips were inoperable, shellacked in years of coats of gleaming white paint, so crew members applied percussive maintenance to the mechanisms as people scrambled aboard the boats. As lifeboats were loaded, their occupants were forced to either wait for more people, or launch at less than full capacity, and some of each occurred. When lowered into the water, some of the lifeboats capsized from the massive sea swells, spilling their occupants into the waves. Those lifeboats that stayed upright were unsteerable in the storm, adrift and unable to lend much assistance.
The large crowd trapped at the stern of the ship found themselves slowly giving up ground to the advancing fire. Hundreds of soggy, singed, soot-streaked strangers in pajamas, bathrobes, and underwear pressed closer together, coughing from smoke. Many of them were barefoot, and the deck was becoming a hot plate. They stood on one foot until it became intolerable, then switched to the other, and back again. It was a slow, macabre dance. They all had the same problem, but they couldn’t much help one another. In an effort to calm nerves, someone started singing “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here,” and a few others joined in. Crew members began throwing deck chairs, life rings, and other buoyant objects over the rail. Bob Smith, the cruise director of theMorro Castle, was also there, and he shouted warnings not to jump over the stern rail into the sea. The twin turbo-electric engines were still running at near top speed, and traumatic dismemberment was a near certainty. But those on the edge of the crowd nearest the fire were running out of ground to give. The thick coats of gleaming white oil paint were blistering from the heat, then bursting into flame, causing rivets to pop and portholes to shatter. Finally, a man was heard to scream, “Jump, jump! For God’s sake, jump! I am being burned.” And indeed, the poor fellow’s hair was afire. This sight was more than some could bear. A few clambered over the rail and fell some 60 feet into the churning sea, most of them dashed against the propellers.
On the bridge, Acting Captain Warms did his best to ignore the pain in his blistered feet and fractured hand. He had sprinted into the burning section of the ship in an effort to reach Captain Willmott’s cabin and save his dear friend’s remains. But the door was swollen shut from the heat and his desperate pounding had not dislodged it. So the captain would be cremated. Upon his return it soon became evident that both of the Morro Castle’s turbo-electric engines had powered down. There was no answer from the engineering room speaking tube. The engineers had been forced to evacuate. With no engines there was no water pressure for the fire hoses. The Morro Castle was hopelessly afire and adrift in the midst of a near-hurricane-strength storm. Dead in the water. Lest the powerful winds blow the powerless ship into further trouble, Acting Captain Warms gave the order to drop the starboard anchor, and it clamoured into the ocean.
At the stern of the ship, noticing that the engines had stopped, and passengers began to abandon belongings and heave themselves over the side to escape the heat and smoke. Passenger Rosario Comacho later described that she had to bite a man in the back to get him to move away from the rail to allow her to jump. But others—especially those lacking life jackets—were not yet willing to take the five-story drop into the dark, uneasy ocean. A group of male passengers misguided by the best of intentions began to take matters into their own hands. Charles O’Connor, a police officer on vacation, would later report that, “we had to heave a number of passengers overboard because they were too scared to jump.” These heavers of reluctant ladies, well-meaning as they may have been, had little regard for the women’s protests, resulting in numerous drownings. Passenger William Clark would later explain, “We brought our life preservers but did not know how to adjust them. Someone threw my wife off of the upper deck before I could intervene. If I could only have stayed with her she would have been saved. A rescue boat picked me up almost as soon as I got in the water.”
Soon the stern was abandoned, and the ocean sloshed human flotsam. Desperate survivors used anything on hand as a flotation device—bobbing chairs, planks of wood, and other persons, living or otherwise. Some people opted to linger and hope for help, while others leaned into the long six-mile swim toward the ribbon of lights to the west. Keeping one’s head above water in the heavy swells taxed even the strongest swimmers. Those who had made it onto one of the six launched lifeboats tried to pull others aboard, but visibility was poor, and their oars were inadequate for steering in the storm. Amidst the swimmers there were shouted fragments of rumors of sharks in the water. Occasionally screams of surprise and pain echoed from one of the Morro Castle’s portholes as some deep sleeper finally awoke, hopelessly boxed in by fire and smoke, their fists pounding on the inner hull.
Up in the wireless room, as dawn approached, radio operators Rogers and Alagna finally surrendered their posts. They had sent multiple distress calls and secured a number of rescue promises, but heat had overwhelmed the vacuum tubes in their transmitters. The antennae were silent. Assistant Radio Operator Alagna helped his portly superior to his feet, and the two men staggered forward toward the bridge, the soles of their shoes melting on the hot deck. At the bow of the ship they found Acting Captain Warms and several other officers. There was a distant vessel visible in the growing dawn light. “See if you can raise that fellow,” Warms ordered Rogers, handing him a flashlight. As he wheezed in pain, Rogers dutifully clicked out a Morse code SOS, and moments later a blinking light responded. “Do…you…need…assistance?” Rogers translated aloud. He clicked back: IMMEDIATELY. 540 PASSENGERS.
By 5:15am, several vessels had arrived to provide rescue. The freight ships Andrea Luckenbach and City of Savannah dropped motorized rescue boats into the water to gather sodden survivors. The Monarch of Bermuda, a cruise ship for a competing line, was also on the scene assisting. Upon receiving the distress call, her captain had reportedly changed course so quickly that sleeping passengers were nearly dumped from their bunks. Miscellaneous smaller vessels diverted to lend their deck space and supplies to the effort. A number of 2-seater biplanes braved the wind and rain to take aerial photos and help spot survivors in the choppy waters.
On the shore in New Jersey, residents and rescue workers were already aware of the unfolding catastrophe at sea. The news dominated the early morning radio broadcasts, and the bright pyre on the horizon had drawn attention overnight. In the increasingly blustery weather, residents constructed towering bonfires on the beach as a signal to the swimmers and rowers. First the lifeboats arrived, blown to shore by the high winds, and a row of awaiting ambulances shuttled their injured and exhausted occupants to nearby hospitals. Next the surviving swimmers arrived, having swum for over six hours to slosh onto the sand, burdened with burns, fatigue, hypothermia, smoke inhalation, salted wounds, and colossal hangovers. The corpses arrived last.
Sometime around 8:00am the Coast Guard arrived at the scene of the Morro Castle rescue operation. Warms, Rogers, Alagna, and eleven other officers were huddled together at the extreme bow of the vessel to escape the flames. The Coast Guard cutter Tampa signaled an offer to tow the ship to port, and Acting Captain Warms accepted. Unfortunately the anchor had been dropped, and there was no electricity to power the motor to reel it back in. Radio Operators Rogers and Alanga were once again called upon to save what remained of the Morro Castle. As the Coast Guard crew connected their twelve-inch-thick tow line, Rogers and Alagna took turns with a hacksaw, tediously chewing through a link in the thick anchor chain. After several hours of sawing and coughing, the weakened link finally bent and broke, sending the slack anchor chain clattering overboard and into the sea. The Coast Guard’s on-scene commander ordered the remaining men off the ship, and one by one they climbed down a rope into an awaiting rescue vessel. Warms offered a brief symbolic refusal to leave his ship—the ship he had commanded for less than a day—but he was ultimately persuaded to disembark.
The plucky Coast Guard cutter strained all afternoon dragging the massive smoking ruin toward port through deteriorating weather. The tow line groaned, and some of the outermost strands of the rope snapped. At approximately 6:00pm the line finally gave way, whipping into the water and becoming entangled in theTampa’s propellor. The disabled Coast Guard vessel was forced to drop anchor and await its own rescue.
Owing to the enormity of the tragedy, the story of the Morro Castle rapidly spread through national news. It was widely reported that a lightning bolt had struck an oil storage tank on the ship, thus igniting the inferno, but this assertion would later be discredited. Local radio stations provided frequent updates regarding survivors, deaths, and the status of the vessel and her crew. Once the Tampa tow line broke, however, the specific whereabouts of the abandoned luxury liner became unknown as it disappeared into the gray gloom.
In a 7:30pm update, station manager Thomas F. Burley Jr. at WCAP radio told his listeners, “The Morro Castle is adrift and heading for the shore.” Burley then gasped into the microphone, “My God.” The window of his broadcast booth faced out onto the Atlantic beach, and he watched as the charred, unmanned hulk of the Morro Castle emerged from the stormy twilight, smoke and embers still billowing from her pair of swept-back black smokestacks, on an apparent collision course with his broadcast booth. As Burley looked on, the immense ruined cruise ship glided up onto the beach just a hundred yards away, where it ground to a halt and tipped slightly askew. As night fell and onlookers braved the storm, the beach was dimly illuminated and slightly warmed by the still-glowing portions of the Morro Castle’s scorched steel superstructure. Raindrops hissed as they fell upon the hull.
Corpses from the disaster washed up onto the beach for the following three days. Boardwalks became makeshift morgues where survivors walked along long lines of bodies trying to identify missing friends and family. Firemen boarded the Morro Castle to search for survivors amid the warped and buckled bulkheads, but much of the wreck was still too hot to access. What few rooms rescuers were able to enter were not occupied by the living, but they contained a grim inventory—skulls, rib cages, pelvises, and teeth alongside melted keys and coins. All told, eighty-six passengers and forty-nine crew members perished in the incident.
The investigation into the disaster would ultimately be led by the Inspector General of the Steamboat Inspection Service, Dickerson N. Hoover, who happened to be the older brother of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. In light of the circumstances, investigators immediately suspected arson. The fire had started inside a shut closet in the middle of the night in one of the few rooms lacking fire detectors, and it had spread as if fueled by some accelerant. Furthermore, the captain had died mysteriously just prior to the fire, and he had recently claimed that someone on board meant him harm. Unfortunately, if it was a crime, it was the self-cleaning variety. All that the investigators had to go on was testimony from the surviving passengers and crew of the Morro Castle. George Alagna, the rabble-rousing, strike-organizing Assistant Radio Operator, became the prime suspect despite the fact that he had stayed on the ship sending distress calls and sawing anchor chains until the very end. During questioning Chief Radio Operator Rogers had reluctantly disclosed that he had found some suspicious chemicals in his assistant’s locker during the cruise, and he explained to investigators that Alagna was the “red” who the late Captain Willmott had feared. Federal marshals subsequently arrested Alagna as a “material witness,” but he claimed innocence and was set free due to lack of evidence against him.
In Person! All Shows! Radio Hero “Sparks” Rogers. Sensational, Startling Inside Story of the Morro Castle Disaster.
That was the headline on the advertisements for Chief Radio Operator George Rogers’ week-long engagement to speak to audiences at the Rialto theatre on Broadway shortly after the disaster. Each day all week Rogers stood before sold-out audiences in a white stage uniform and retold his incredible tale of survival and heroism. He told how he and his assistant sat firm in the radio room, pillars of strength fighting to keep the radios working and maintaining their stations to the very end. He received standing ovations and dispensed autographs. He was regarded as a hero in the national press, and he was awarded a medal by his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. He basked in the attention while it lasted. On the beach in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the husk of Morro Castle herself had also become a morbid attraction. Sightseers could step off the boardwalks and wade out into the water to touch the blackened beached ship with their own hands, and upon heading home their pockets were filled with souvenirs and postcards depicting the shipwreck. But its fame also faded, and one night in March 1935, about seven months after washing ashore, the new owners of the Morro Castle, a steel scrap company, towed her away to cut her to pieces.
Unable to find the source of the fire, man-made or otherwise, the incident was ultimately dismissed as “an act of God.” In January 1936, a federal jury convicted William Warms, two of his officers, and a Ward Line executive on charges of wilful negligence. All of the men appealed, and their sentences were soon overturned like lifeboats in rough waters. The rationale for the reversal was that new, unfamiliar responsibilities had been thrust upon these men mere hours before the fire, and they lacked the training and experience necessary for wilful negligence to be possible. They had done their best to rise to the occasion, but the occasion had a formidable head start.
In the months following the disaster, Assistant Radio Operator George Alagna sought new employment, but no one would hire him. His name was irrevocably entangled with the death of Captain Willmott and the burning of the Morro Castle. When he visited the offices of the American Radio Telegraphists Association looking for work, the secretary gave him a menacing anonymous note they had found in the organization’s mail: “Suggest Alagna leave town for his own good. He knows why.” Destitute and despondent, he would later try to commit suicide by closing all of the doors and windows in his apartment and opening the gas valves on the stove. Fortunately a neighbour smelled the concentrated gas and intervened.
After George Rogers’ successful and lucrative run on Broadway, his national fame faded, and bad luck seemed to stalk him. He established a small independent radio shop in Bayonne, New Jersey, but after struggling along for months it mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground. He then took a position as a radio assistant at the Bayonne Police Department. He was still a bit of a local celebrity, but most of his new co-workers were put off by his occasional boorishness and his insistence upon wearing the same pair of gray pants day after day. One exception was his commanding officer Lt. Vincent Doyle. Doyle was somewhat famous himself for having pioneered the use of radio for police communications. The two became fast friends, swapping stories, fishing together, joining one another for barbecues, and other wholesome activities. They were both gifted tinkerers and inventors, so much so that their co-workers would occasionally bring in broken electronics for one or the other to repair. In March 1938 such a repair request had been dropped off for Lt. Doyle—a faulty fish tank heater. When the lieutenant plugged it into the wall to test it, there was a tremendous explosion. The building shook to its bricks and all of the windows of the workshop were blown out. The other officers on duty ran upstairs and found Lt. Doyle gravely injured, his left hand mangled, his left leg bleeding profusely. George Rogers was there too, but he had stepped out of the room mere moments earlier, narrowly avoiding injury or death.
The subsequent police investigation found traces of TNT in the shattered, scattered remains of the false fish tank heater, indicating homicidal intent. Investigators also collected the paper the package had been wrapped in, and the note that had been attached. When they tracked down the brand of the packaging paper, it happened to be the exact same brand and variety the precinct kept stocked in their supply closet. When they compared the typewritten note to the precinct typewriters, the one on Lt. Doyle’s desk was an exact match. Further investigation revealed another abnormality: George Rogers had not been scheduled to be on duty at the time of the blast, yet there he was. In fact, it was Rogers who had handed Doyle the package in the first place, and it was Rogers who had made a hasty exit when Doyle prepared to plug the device into the wall. Detectives asked the apparently distraught Rogers whether they could search his home, and he allowed it. There they found paint, waterproof cement, wiring, and a section of tubing that all matched the components used to construct the counterfeit fish tank heater.
During the ensuing trial, the prosecution laid bare George Rogers’ shockingly delinquent past. At age 15 he had raped a younger boy at school. He had been caught stealing electronic equipment from several past employers, both directly and via staged break-ins. He had poisoned his wife’s dog when she went to a relative’s funeral against his wishes. Somehow Rogers had always escaped serious punishment. As for the motive in the attempted murder of Lt. Doyle, Rogers’ friend Preston Dillenbeck furnished one when he disclosed that Rogers had been ambiguously boasting that he was soon going to be promoted to Lieutenant. Vincent Doyle sat in the audience for the entire trial, a cane at his side and his damaged left hand still in bandages. Only two of the fingers had been saved.
Rogers had been involved in several inexplicable fires in his life, including his own failed electronics business in Bayonne, and, of course, the Morro Castle. According to Lt. Doyle, Rogers once described to him a very detailed and specific hypothesis for the cause of the Morro Castle fire: Perhaps, Rogers proffered, someone had inserted a fountain pen into the breast pocket of a waiter’s uniform in the writing room closet. This particular fountain pen had two compartments inside separated by a thin copper divider. One side had been filled with a specific acid, the other with a chemical powder that would burn violently if it were to come into direct contact with the acid. Once the acid was added it would gradually eat through the copper separator, acting as a crude sort of delay timer. Mightier than the sword.
Although the evidence against Rogers was circumstantial, it all assembled seamlessly with a perfect Rogers-shaped hole in the center. On 30 December 1938, the judge sentenced him to 12-20 years in a New Jersey prison for attempted murder. However he would only serve a quarter of his sentence. In less than four years he became eligible for a new early release program for skilled first-time offenders willing to volunteer for military duty. By this time the USA was fighting the Nazis and the Japanese, and experience was in higher demand than justice. Rogers wanted to serve his country. Vincent Doyle lodged a raft of official objections, nevertheless the parole request was approved and Rogers was released. But it turned out that no branch of the military wanted the overweight felonious miscreant, so Rogers was soon sent home to rejoin his wife and his cherished gray pants.
George Rogers eventually found a job at a local factory that was manufacturing static dischargers for US Army aircraft. He got along well with his superiors and he was a whiz with electronics, so he was soon promoted to foreman. Later he was promoted to supervisor over the 80 or so women working at the Brooklyn factory. Now aged 44, he flirted with the ladies on the assembly line, and became infatuated with one in particular. He regaled her with embellished stories of his own heroism aboard the Morro Castle, she listened politely. He invited her to dinner, she relented out of sympathy. He bought her gifts, she accepted them reluctantly. But when he proposed marriage, she discovered the boundaries of her politeness, and declined. Rogers was, after all, already married. Shortly thereafter she fell gravely ill, but she never returned to the factory even after making a recovery. She quit her job via telephone.
Rogers had been outraged by the rejection, but soon his attention was needed elsewhere. Company president Nathan Leonard was paying a visit to the Brooklyn plant to assess the cause of recent excess absenteeism. As Leonard and Rogers were walking through the factory, the company president paused for a refreshing sip from the water cooler. “Don’t drink that,” Rogers warned, “I think it’s been poisoned.” Leonard found this curiously menacing, so later in the day he paid a quiet visit to the company chemist and asked him to look into the problem. The chemist soon had a solution. He reported that he had detected an alarmingly high concentration of the alarmingly toxic chemical potassium thiocyanate. Nathan Leonard was alarmed. George Rogers had reported that the water tasted “funny,” but it turned out that potassium thiocyanate is odorless and tasteless in water. The FBI investigated at length, but the chemical had come from the company’s own lab storage, and no other evidence turned up, circumstantial or otherwise. The case was never solved. Perhaps it was those diabolical Nazis.
After the war ended, and the factory closed, George Rogers bought a panel truck and started doing odd electronics jobs around town. He had become infamous among locals, both for his colorful history and for his ever-present, ratty gray pants. But a few people around town felt that the “hero” of the Morro Castle was innocent, or merely a victim of misfortune, so they gave him a little work here and there. How he supported himself and his wife on such a pittance was a mystery.
On 01 July 1953, a police officer knocked on George and Edith Rogers’ front door. There was apparently some kind of commotion down the street. Neighbors were all standing on stoops watching a hive of police activity down the block, their attention having been drawn by sirens and flashing police lights. “George,” the officer asked, “do you know the Hummels?”
“Oh yes,” Rogers replied. “They were my dearest friends.” The police investigator took quiet notice that George Rogers spoke of them in the past tense. This was odd since their bodies had only just been discovered in their home—no one had yet been informed of the bludgeoning murder of the elderly William Hummel and his daughter. The police questioned Rogers about his recent contact with the Hummels, and he was affable and cooperative. He did not, however, bother to ask whether his “dearest friends” were alright. Perhaps most incriminating of all, George Rogers was wearing a new, clean pair of pants.
After searching the Hummels’ home and interviewing known associates, police detectives discovered that the Hummels and the Rogers had indeed been long-time friends, so much so that William Hummel had financed George Rogers by investing in a scheme to buy and resell surplus war equipment. Over the years Hummel had kept meticulous records of loans adding up to over $14,000, an amount equivalent to about $124,500 in today’s dollars. Several weeks before the murder Hummel had informed Rogers that he and his daughter would be retiring to Florida, and he would very much like to see the loans repaid before they moved away. The day of the murder Rogers had given William Hummel a ride to the bank to make a withdrawal, and that was the last time either Hummel had been seen alive. The murder weapon—a sledge hammer sticky with blood—was found hidden under the Hummels’ basement stairs.
Police detectives again visited the Rogers residence, this time while George was away, and spoke to his long-suffering wife Edith. One of the investigators walked with a cane. It was Lt. Vincent Doyle. Edith knew Doyle from their earlier friendship, and Doyle was quite familiar with the miserable existence Edith endured with George Rogers. The police searched the house and found several brand-new and expensive pieces of electronic equipment, along with an array of electronics that had belonged to William Hummel. They also found one pair of very familiar, well-worn gray pants. They were spattered with red stains. At first Edith insisted that it was paint, red paint, but Lt. Doyle convinced her that it was not in her best interest to protect the man who had poisoned her dog, murdered her friends, and was likely to murder her, too, now that she was a potential witness. She agreed to cooperate.
George Rogers once again found himself a defendant in a courtroom, this time opting for a trial by jury. The prosecution called 55 witnesses, the defense called none. The prosecution exhibited an all-you-can-eat buffet of circumstantial evidence, outlined a very convincing motive, and proved ample opportunity. Rogers himself did not take the stand, but outside of the courtroom he maintained that he was innocent. On the last day the jury went out for final deliberation, and upon their return three hours later they announced their verdict. It was the opinion of the jury that George Rogers’ ratty gray pants were, figuratively, on fire. He was found guilty of first degree murder.
The remaining days of George “Sparks” Rogers’ life were spent in the New Jersey State Prison, where wearing the same clothing every day was not at all frowned upon. He had been handed a life sentence, so he would not be taking a seat in “Old Smokey,” the prison’s electric chair. Instead he sat in the radio room, tinkering with the prison’s other electronics, ensuring that New Jersey State Prison had the best-maintained radio communications system in the country.
Whether or not George Rogers played any role in setting the Morro Castle fire or in the death of Captain Willmott is impossible to say. He had the opportunity and the inclination, but motive is difficult to identify. Regardless, all possibility of confession or closure perished on 10 January 1958. George Rogers was in the prison infirmary due to complications with his diabetes when he died suddenly of either a heart attack or a stroke—reports vary.
One alternative theory as to the cause of the Morro Castle fire was put forward by author William McFee in a 1949 essay. McFee noted that the ship’s engine exhaust funnel was directly behind the closet where the fire started, and it is possible that the exhaust line became dangerously overheated. This would also partially account for the fire’s rapid spread if the same defect caused the surrounding superstructure to become very hot. Whatever its cause, the Morro Castle fire prompted maritime safety regulators to install stiffer requirements for fire retardants, alarm systems, emergency generators, maximum oil paint thickness, and safety drills for the passengers and crew.
Vincent Doyle retired from the Bayonne police force in the 1960s, and he began writing a book to chronicle the multiple police investigations that had surrounded George Rogers. The result was a 300-page manuscript he entitled Beyond All Reasonable Doubt which was based on police and court records, and his recollections of conversations he’d had with Rogers during the time they were friends. Brian Hicks, author of the book When the Dancing Stopped, had the opportunity to read the manuscript, and in it Doyle claimed that George Rogers essentially confessed to causing the Morro Castle disaster. In a private conversation Doyle had asked him, “Why did you do it?” and Rogers replied, “The Ward Line stinks and the skipper was lousy.” Doyle was undeniably biased, but on the other hand, he had become intimately familiar with George Rogers’ machinations, probably more so than any other individual. Vincent Doyle’s book was never published, and he died in New Jersey in 1970. He believed to his last breath that George Rogers, the “hero” of the Morro Castle, murdered Captain Robert Willmott with poison, and then set fire to the ship, resulting in the deaths of 135 souls and the great distress of many more. But the evidence against Rogers is, as always, purely circumstantial.
Rogers died in prison in 1954, though sources are unclear on the cause of his death. Perhaps it was a heart attack; perhaps it was a brain haemorrhage. Either way, Rogers left quite a few unanswered questions behind when he shuffled off this mortal coil. Was it just a coincidence that Rogers was onboard the Morro Castle when it caught on fire? Was it just bad luck Captain Wilmott’s body was burned up before a coroner could examine the corpse? We’ll never know for sure.