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A castle crumbles

It was what author Hal Burton termed a "whoopee cruise" in his book, "The Morro Castle" - a New York-to-Havana-and-back steamship ride for a few days of partying. It was a popular tonic against the worries of the Depression.

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On the night of Sept. 8, 1934, some 300-plus passengers were enjoying the last night aboard the Morro Castle, premier ship of the Ward Line. But a growing storm outside only hinted at the "perfect storm" of circumstances brewing on the ship.

By dinner time, passing the Delaware Breakwater south of Atlantic City, N.J., the Morro Castle is "pitching pretty hard." Then, unbelievably, Capt. Wilmott, a taut veteran skipper, dies of an apparent heart attack. All officers aboard ship move up a rank, some into unfamiliar duties.
Word of his death spreads, and a palpable tension laces the night life aboard. As one passenger recalled: "[We had] a corpse somewhere over our heads, a ship without a captain, and the boat rolling as a storm followed us up the coast - it was an eerie sensation."
At around 1 a.m., a steward reprimands passengers in the Writing Room on B Deck for tossing lit cigarettes into a waste basket as a lark. Around 2:15, fire is discovered inside a closet in the same room. The crew turns a hose on the flames, but there is no water pressure. Within moments, the room is "one red glow, the paneling overhead ... ablaze."
An explosion blows out windows, fanning the flames. Passengers are called to the decks. The ship's wiring melts, and all power goes out. In total darkness, the steering fails, the ships stops, drifts, anchors. The signal comes: "Abandon ship."
Chaos reigns. With no lifeboat drill, most boats are launched with a handful of occupants. People jump or are forced overboard by sheer crowding at the rails. High seas prevent immediate rescue, though the smoldering Morro Castle is eventually taken under tow. She snaps the tow line and drifts onto the beach at Asbury Park, as captured in the image here.
The death toll was put at 135 passengers and crewmembers - aboard what had been touted as "one of the safest ships afloat."

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.