Saturday, September 10, 2011

Morro Castle

I knew it was something serious. And by that time everybody was yelling and screaming in the hallway. I went back to put my clothes on- put on a  shirt and trousers and we got out. Oh yeah, the companionway it was filling up with smoke.  You could still see, you could still navigate but it was filling up with smoke.  And that’s when my roommate gave his lifebelt away.  The lifebelts? Where were they kept in the cabin? Under the bunk… the lights went out. And…I told them “let’s hold hands” because I knew the way out, and we went up the stairs to B Deck and  from there we could see pretty well.
Did we try to get to the lifeboats? Well, when we were on C Deck and B Deck to get to the lifeboats seemed like… well it was, an impossibility…. The boats on one side weren’t lowered and on the other side some were, some weren’t… Well, there was panicking and it was crowded and finally the vibration of the boat….I figured the propellers were rotating and I wasn’t about to jump in and be sucked in to the propeller.  When the vibration stopped, that’s when I decided, “well, it’s time to get out of here.”   Well, the steel plates were burning- it was the paint that was burning. It was a nightmare on earth.
-- George Watremmez, Morro Castle survivor
Interviewed by Jim Kalafus on
On the morning of September 8, 1934, the SS Morro Castle, en route from New York to Havana, caught fire and burned, killing 135 passengers and crew. The fire would lead to the jailing of the acting captain, chief engineer, and a Ward Line company vice president, and would lead to many reforms in ship construction that we adhere to even today.

Built only four years before the fire at a cost of $5 million dollars, the Morro Castle was a party ship, meant to get around the rules of Prohibition then in force in the United States. She was fast, too, making the trip to Havana in only 59 hours and returning in 58. At 508 feet long, more than 11,000 tons, and with a passenger capacity of nearly 500, she resembled modern cruise ships in many ways, including plenty of food and drink available at all hours.

The food may have played a part in the Morro Castle disaster. Her captain, Robert Wilmott, had his dinner delivered to his cabin the night of September 7th, complained of stomach pain shortly after that, and died soon after that, apparently of a heart attack. The Chief Officer, William Warms, assumed command that night, just as the weather began to get worse.

Early on the morning of September 8th, a fire was detected. Within 20 minutes it had knocked out the ship's power and within 30 the entire vessel was engulfed in flames. Fire fighting and abandon ship efforts were disorganized. Only half the Morro Castle's lifeboats were launched and only 85 people, most of them crew members, made it to life boats. The passengers were never shown how to put on life jackets or told what to do in an emergency. Many died from drowning in the rough seas or from having their necks broken by their own life jackets.

Causes. To this day the cause of the fire is unknown, but subsequent investigation pointed to several factors that led to the quick spread of the flames:

  • The ship was equipped with fire doors, but there was a six-inch gap between the top of the doors and the overhead that rendered them essentially pointless.
  • Only about half the spaces on the ship had fire detection devices that would trip an alarm.
  • The fire pump could not produce enough pressure to effectively use more than six of the vessel's 42 fire hydrants. With all of them opened up, none got any water pressure to speak of at all. Some weren't working at all, being shut down to keep water from pooling on the deck and creating a slipping hazard
  • The ship's interior was built with attractive, but highly flammable, veneered wooden surfaces which burned quickly and released toxic fumes.

In addition, Warms waited to slow the ship -- he was trying to beach her -- and the high apparent winds contributed to the spread of flames. Meanwhile, crew members broke windows to vent the smoke, but only contributed to the spread of the fire.

Consequences. Warms and the chief engineer were convicted of willful negligence, but their conviction was eventually overturned. The incident also drove Congress to pass the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which established construction and training standards for US-built vessels.

To read the complete Jim Kalafus interview with George Watremez (quoted above), see the Gare Maritime website here.

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