The New York and Cuba Mail Steam Ship Company, more commonly known as the Ward Line, which had been carrying passengers, cargo and mail to and from Cuba since the mid 1800s, quickly availed itself of this opportunity. They ordered a pair of ships to be named the Morro Castle, after the stone fortress and lighthouse in Havana and the Oriente after a province in Cuba.
The fi rst of the sisters, the Morro Castle, was built at a cost of $5m by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia and launched in 1930. She was 508 feet long, 11,520 grt and had a service speed of 20 knots. Luxuriously finished, she could accommodate 489 passengers in first and tourist class, along with 240 officers and crew.
The company’s advertising brochure boasted, ‘During its 50 years of continuous service, the Ward Line has lost but two ships, and it has never lost a passenger.’ How things were to change.
Morro Castle’s maiden voyage, from New York to Havana, began on 23rd August 1930 and during the following four years she was rarely out of service.
This was the era of Prohibition, of Al Capone and Eliot Ness, of bootleggers and backstreet speakeasies. Morro Castle, along with her sister circumvented this, running weekly booze cruises between New York and Havana. After sailing from New York, she spent three days at sea, one day in Havana, leaving three days for the return trip. Known as the Havana ferry boats, the ships proved so popular with alcohol starved Americans that, even when Prohibition ended in 1933, the cruises continued unabated.
No expense had been spared in her furnishings, opulence oozed from every deck. The first class smoking room resembled a drawing room from the Palace of Versailles, the writing room featured the richness and splendour of the French Empire - Style and the smoking room was finished in the fashion of the Italian Renaissance. One newspaper referred to the ship as a ‘millionaire’s yacht.’ The fact that food and entertainment were generally very pretty poor didn’t seem to matter to most passengers. They were only there for a good time and cheap and plentiful drink. With the cost of a cruise starting at $75 for a round trip, including a two night stay in Havana and cut-price Cuban rum, there was no shortage of takers.
Despite outward appearances, however, the ship was a floating death trap. She spent the minimum of time in port; her last nine voyages showed an average of less than eight hours in New York every Saturday. As far as her owners were concerned, while she was tied up she wasn’t making money. The crew were a hotbed of discontent, badly paid, had poor food and were forbidden to go ashore in New York in case they deserted. Only a week before the fateful cruise a fire had been discovered in a hold. Her Captain, Robert Wilmott, was convinced it was arson although nothing was ever proved and a major disaster was only averted by the ship’s smoke detection equipment, the most modern available. This was the exception to the rule; the majority of the ship’s safety equipment was never tested.
Lifeboat drills were cancelled because, according to the Captain, they ‘upset the passengers’ who were on board to have a good time. A more likely reason was that, during the last drill held some months before, a passenger fell over a fire hose and sued the company. After that, Wilmott ordered deck fire hydrants to be capped and sealed and hoses locked away, to avoid a repeat.
The ship also carried a small amount of cargo, some of which was not what it seemed. Boxes marked ‘Sporting Goods’ were actually guns and ammunition for the Cuban Government in their fight against Communism, paid for by wealthy American businessmen.
It wasn’t only the ship’s safety equipment that caused concern. Some of her senior officers boasted very strange backgrounds. Robert Wilmott had been the captain of the Morro Castle from its very first voyage, a veteran who had been with the Ward Line for over 25 years. He was an ideal captain as far as the company was concerned. He enjoyed meeting people, was an excellent raconteur and was genuinely liked by passengers. Indeed some wouldn’t take a cruise unless he was on board. On this voyage however Wilmott was a changed man. He was afraid, convinced someone wanted to kill him and sink his ship. Only a few weeks before he’d been seriously ill with suspected food poisoning and, in August, there’d been a threatened strike organised by First Assistant Radio Officer George Alagna. Add to that the recent fire, and Wilmott was convinced disaster was just around the corner. A frightened, depressed, recluse, he stayed in his cabin for hours at a time, talking only to his senior officers by telephone.
Second-in-command, First Officer William Warms was the opposite of Wilmott in many respects. He rarely socialised with the passengers and despite his position, was unfamiliar to many of the crew. In 1926 he was made captain of his first passenger ship but was relieved of command for two years following complaints of poor safety standards. Two mysterious fires on board his next command resulted in him being demoted to First Officer. In the four years he’d been on the Morro Castle, there’d been a festering feud between him and Chief Engineer Eban Abbott which had deepened as the years passed. Warms referred to ‘that stuffed tailor’s dummy in the engine room’ while Abbott called Warms, ‘that worm on the bridge’.
The third major character in our story is Chief Radio Operator, George Rogers, a large, pear-shaped man who, unknown to anyone on board, had psychopathic tendencies and a criminal record. Born with a pituitary disorder that accounted for his enormous size and high pitched voice, as a child he’d been convicted for petty theft and throughout his life had been fascinated by explosives. In 1929 he was suspected of arson, but released through lack of evidence. Like the other two radio operators onboard, Rogers was employed by the Radiomarine Corporation and hired to Ward Line and this was going to be his final trip on the Morro Castle. Just before she sailed from New York, he’d been sacked following an investigation into his background.
Our story really begins with the ship on the homeward leg of her 174th cruise. Morro Castle sailed from Havana at 6pm on Wednesday, 5th September 1934 with 318 passengers and 230 crew.
As part of the cargo, a consignment of salted hides had been loaded in Havana which smelt revolting. In a baffling move, Wilmott had the ship’s smoke detectors, the one piece of safety equipment that did work, switched off to stop any unpleasant odours getting into public areas and upsetting the passengers.
The atmosphere on board was festive, passengers were happy; Entertainment Officer Robert Smith was doing a good job and the weather was fine. Over the next two days, however, conditions at sea and onboard worsened dramatically. The barometer dropped, winds increased and rain squalls saw the ship heading into a particularly severe tropical storm.
On the Thursday morning, Warms, worried at not seeing the captain at breakfast, went to his cabin. The door was locked but when he heard his First Officer’s voice, Wilmott opened the door a few inches. ‘Acid, that’s what they’ll use. Acid to destroy me!’ he whispered. Warms hurriedly left, convinced the Captain was having some sort of breakdown.
Wilmott later made one of his rare appearances on the bridge and after reading the weather report, ordered a reduction in speed. ‘I don’t feel so good.’ he said, ‘I’ll take an enema and lie down.’ In the early hours of Friday morning, the gale eased off and, through his cabin door, Wilmott ordered an increase in speed. 4am saw Cape Hatteras on the port bow. A few hours later, he complained to the ship’s surgeon, Dr Van Zile, that he was suffering from headaches and tiredness.
By Friday afternoon there was a deepening gloom over the passengers as rain, the cold grey sea and the whistling wind combined to make conditions onboard increasingly unpleasant. After dinner, Chief Engineer Abbott tried to telephone Wilmott. There was a blockage in number 3 boiler and it needed shutting down. There’d be a loss of speed and water pressure would be reduced for the rest of the voyage. There was no reply from the Captain’s cabin so Abbott rang the bridge and reported the problem to the officer of the watch. Warms had also been trying to contact Wilmott, to tell him about the worsening weather. He went down to the captain’s cabin and found him slumped, half dressed over the side of his bath - dead. Dr Van Zile diagnosed heart failure. Warms noticed the dead man’s skin was beginning to take on a blue tinge and insisted that several doctors, who were travelling as passengers, gave a second opinion. All agreed that the blueness of the skin, which by now was turning black, was the aftereffect of a severe heart attack.
The ship was now only a few hours from her destination and as news of the tragedy quickly fi ltered through the vessel, the usual last night farewell fancy dress ball proved something of a damp squib. Even the enthusiasm of Robert Smith couldn’t keep the party going.
At 2am on Saturday September 8th, the ship was 30 miles south of Scotland Light. After passing Barnegat Light, Warms altered course for Ambrose Light at the entrance to New York harbour. He was tired. It was raining, the sea was unpleasantly choppy and he’d been there continuously since the nightmare began but this was his chance to keep command of the Morro Castle and nothing was going to get in his way.
Around 2.50am steward, Daniel Campbell, noticed smoke coming from a locker in the writing room on the port side of the Promenade Deck. ‘I opened the door and what I once knew as a locker was a mass of flames; flames from top to bottom and from one side to the other.’ he said.
Almost at the same time, a deck watchman reported to the bridge that smoke was coming out of a ventilator on B Deck. Warms sent Third Officer Clarence Hackney to investigate. He telephoned the bridge. ‘It’s bad. We need water!’ Warms called the engine room to give him full pressure for the hoses but didn’t wait for the engineer to tell him it wasn’t possible. In the hectic moments surrounding Captain Wilmott’s death, he hadn’t heard Abbott’s message about the boiler.