On 8 September 1934, Ward Line’s Morro Castle caught fire on a stormy night off the New Jersey coast as she was returning to New York from Havana. The blaze claimed the lives of 137 of 549 passengers and crewmembers.
The cause of the fire was never definitively determined, abut arson has long been suspected (although never proved). There’s no doubt, however, that some strange things happened on board Morro Castle during the hours leading up to the disaster—such as Captain Robert Willmott suddenly dying after complaining about a “nervous stomach.”
According to William Warms, the chief officer who assumed command after Willmott’s death, the captain told him the on day of the fire that, “I’m afraid something is going to happen tonight, I can feel it.” Willmott also supposedly told several of his officers that someone was out to both murder him and damage or destroy the liner. He allegedly told them that he suspected assistant radio engineer George Alanga, whom he is said to have described as “a dangerous radical,” was behind the plot.
This much we know: the blaze, which began in a utility closet, quickly spread out of control. Wooden fixtures and fittings fueled the inferno, as did multiple layers of paint covering deck railings and other exterior surfaces. Confusion reigned as a crew largely untrained in emergency procedures either fled the vessel in panic or responded haphazardly or counterproductively. Only six of the ship’s 12 lifeboats were launched. Bodies washed ashore at several points along the New Jersey coast.
The Furness liner Monarch of Bermuda, which raced at full speed through the storm in a Carpathia-like race to reach Morro Castle’s side, later brought 70 survivors and one body into New York.
The still-burning liner eventually beached herself near the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The wreck became a major tourist attraction until it was towed away for scrap several months later.
Incidentally, if you ever wondered why United States was designed with virtually no wood fittings or trim (other than a single piano), look no further than Morro Castle.
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