Asbury Park, NJ The SS MORRO CASTLE Disaster, Sep 1934

Morro Castle Early in 1934 Morro Castle On Fire After the fire The wreckage Off Asbury Park NJ

SS Morro Castle was an ocean liner of the 1930s that was built for the Ward Line for voyages between New York City and Havana, Cuba. The ship was named for the Morro Castle fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay. On the morning of September 8, 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing 137 passengers and crew members. The ship eventually beached herself near Asbury Park, New Jersey, and remained there for several months until she was towed off and scrapped.

The devastating fire aboard the SS Morro Castle was a catalyst for improved shipboard fire safety. Today, the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater attention to fire drills and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster.

The final voyage of Morro Castle began in Havana on September 5, 1934. On the afternoon of the 6th, as the ship paralleled the southeastern coast of the United States, it began to encounter increasing clouds and wind. By the morning of the 7th, the clouds had thickened and the winds had shifted to easterly, the first indication of a developing nor'easter. Throughout that day, the winds increased and intermittent rains began, causing many to retire early to their berths.

Early that evening, Captain Robert Willmott had his dinner delivered to his quarters. Shortly thereafter, he complained of stomach trouble and, not long after that, died of an apparent heart attack. Command of the ship passed to the Chief Officer, William Warms. During the overnight hours, the winds increased to over 30 miles per hour as the Morro Castle plodded its way up the eastern seaboard.

At around 2:50 a.m. on September 8, while the ship was sailing around eight nautical miles off Long Beach Island, a fire was detected in a storage locker within the First Class Writing Room on B Deck. Within the next 30 minutes, the Morro Castle became engulfed in flames. As the fire grew in intensity, Acting Captain Warms attempted to beach the ship, but the growing need to launch lifeboats and abandon ship forced him to give up this strategy. Within 20 minutes of the fire's discovery (at about 3:10), the fire burned through the ship's main electrical cables, plunging the ship into darkness. As all power was lost, the radio stopped working as well, so that the crew were cut off from radio contact after issuing a single SOS transmission. At about the same time, the wheelhouse lost the ability to steer the ship, as those hydraulic lines were severed by the fire as well. Cut off by the fire amidships, passengers tended to gravitate toward the stern. Most crew members, on the other hand, moved to the forecastle.

On the ship, no one could see anything. In many places, the deck boards were hot to the touch, and it was hard to breathe through the thick smoke. As conditions grew steadily worse, the decision became either "jump or burn" for many passengers. However, jumping into the water was problematic as well. The sea, whipped by high winds, churned in great waves that made it extremely difficult to swim.

On the decks of the burning ship, the crew and passengers exhibited the full range of reactions to the disaster at hand. Some crew members were incredibly brave as they tried to fight the fire. Others tossed deck chairs and life rings overboard to provide persons in the water with makeshift flotation devices.

Only six of the ship's 12 lifeboats were launched: boats 1, 3, 5, 9, and 11 on the starboard side, and boat 10 on the port side. Although the combined capacity of these boats was 408, they carried only 85 people, most of them crew members. Many passengers died for lack of knowledge of how to use the life preservers. As they hit the water, life preservers knocked many persons unconscious, leading to subsequent death by drowning, or broke victims' necks from the impact, killing them instantly.

The rescuers were slow to react. The first rescue ship to arrive on the scene was the SS Andrea F. Luckenbach. Two other ships—the SS Monarch of Bermuda and the SS City of Savannah—were slow in taking action after receiving the SOS but eventually did arrive on the scene. The fourth ship to participate in the rescue operations was the SS President Cleveland, which launched a motor boat that made a cursory circuit around the Morro Castle and, upon seeing nobody in the water along her route, retrieved her motor boat and left the scene.

The Coast Guard vessels Tampa and Cahoone positioned themselves too far away to see the victims in the water and rendered little assistance. The Coast Guard's aerial station at Cape May, New Jersey, failed to send their float planes until local radio stations started reporting that dead bodies were washing ashore on the New Jersey beaches, from Point Pleasant Beach to Spring Lake.

In time, additional small boats arrived on the scene. The large ocean swells presented a major problem, making it very difficult to see people in the water. A plane piloted by Harry Moore, Governor of New Jersey and Commander of the New Jersey Guard, helped boats to find survivors and bodies by dipping its wings and dropping markers.


sea tales: Inferno on the Morrow Castle

Does anyone have this episode of Sea Tales! I've been looking for over 7 years for this program. My father lived in Spring Lake just a few miles away from the burning ship. My Grandfather took 16mm footage of the burning ship of Asbury Park. So I'm looking for Sea Tales: Inferno on the Morrow Castle. Thanks Mike

Letty C. Mohr - Victim - Name Correction

My relative, Letty C. Lohr, was a passenger on the Moro Castle and she lost her life on the ship because of the fire. Her name has been listed as "Letty C. Mohr" in official documents of the period, instead of her actual name, Letty C. Lohr (Letite C. Lohr). It was probably a typing error or someone misunderstood her name when she pronounced it when making reservations for the Moro Castle.

Her body was identified by her sister. She was the widow of Frederick Lohr and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Nellie Marshall - Morro Castle Victim

Nellie Marshall's body washed ashore at Sea Girt, NJ. Her husband, George Marshall, identified her body. On 13 Sep 1934, Nellie was buried in Brooklyn at the Evergreen Cemetery - Section: Bethel Slope, Lot #: 645. The next day George Marshall remarried.

I am trying to find Nellie's death certificate and obituary. Who were her parents? The more answers I find, the more questions I have!

Teri Wheeler

i would love to visit museum

i would love to visit museum and look at photos and letters my fire department has one of the fire trucks that responded to the morro castle the truck is still running i just finished its restoration it was the former ocean grove fire dept truck from the washington

pix from survivors

I would be very interested. Capt Robert Wilmot was my husbands 2nd cousin. We are trying to gather everything we can on this tragedy.

Capt Robert Wilmott Geaneoligy

He is my husbands 2nd cousin. I have his geoneoligy in My husbands Grandfather was Henry Wilmot who had a family feud and added a 2nd T to the end of his last name and dropped the Jr. His Grand father was Charles Wilmot I believe Charles had a brother who had a son Robert who was the father of Capt Robert Wilmot feel free to view our public Under Wilmott Whitesell family tree. You can probably type David Wilmott born 1968 to find it. Good luck. Let me know if its true cause we'd be very distant I am sure but still related.

Morrow Castle

I was only seven years old but I remember my Father taking me to see the Morrow Castle quite close to Convention Hall in Asbury Park. Breeches Buoys were being used to carry what we thought were passengers from the ship to Convention Hall. We watched for a long time from the Boardwalk. I was quite impressed and can still see all the action.
Nothing in this article mentions any of this. Is it possible that it was dead bodies being transferred to shore?

your book

My grandmother, Marie Byrne, was one of the people killed on this ship. I am curious about the book you refer to that is due out soon. Would you please send me the information for purchase, publisher etc. Thank you
Natalie Brown

Apologize for not having a

Apologize for not having a link...but this story isnt complete. THe radio operator who sent the distress calls was subsequently suspected of murdering (by poison) the Captain and setting the fire. He died in prison after being convicted of an arson murder in a different (not ship-related) incident years later.

Morro Castle

Hi Deb
I think I gave you all I had on the Morro Castle.
If there is something you see that you do not have, let me know?