In less than four days time, the liner will be destroyed and 128 will be dead.
In four hours it would all be over. The Morro Castle, flagship of the Ward Line, would be approaching Manhattan and her pier at the foot of Wall Street. Her passengers would be returning to the world of every day concerns, carrying with them mostly pleasant memories of seven days spent aboard America’s favorite cruise liner. Outside, the rain that had begun falling early in the evening was beating down, the lights of the New Jersey shore were occasionally visible to port through the storm wrack, and the seas were running high in the face of mounting winds. Inside, most of the passengers had retired for the night in preparation for the controlled chaos of disembarking the following morning, but perhaps two dozen of the more energetic remained awake in cabins widely scattered around the ship, and in the public rooms on B Deck as the clock approached 3 a.m. on September 8, 1934.
Max Berliner, a genial tobacco merchant from Queens, New York bade farewell to the last of the guests who attended his stateroom party. Mr. Berliner was traveling in Deluxe Cabin 10 on A Deck, located directly above the liner’s writing room. His party had been well attended, with many passengers dropping in over the course of the evening, but now with disembarkation only a few hours off, his final guests, Mr. Israel Rudberg, Mr. Milton Klein, Miss Adele Wallace, Miss Sydney Falkmann and Miss Elmira Thompson took their leave. Mr. Berliner would be returning to his wife and three children in just a few hours and it is likely that the 41 year old man soon went to bed to rest up a little for what would surely be a busy day.
Miss Eleanor Brennan, head buyer for the Curtains and Draperies Department of Macy’s Herald Square store, also hosted a stateroom party that evening. Eleanor had come far on her own. Born in a rural community, she had been compelled to drop out of school to raise her younger siblings upon the death of her mother. When the children were old enough to be self sufficient, she began commuting to New York City, took a job at Macy’s and worked her way up through the ranks. She was unmarried at 38 but, by all accounts, was not suffering for it. She traveled in one room of the ship’s finest two room suite, C-235/37, and was taking her second Morro Castle cruise of 1934. She and her friends, among them cousins Helen Brodie and Agnes Berry, Father Raymond Egan and his cabin mate 16 year old Louis Perrine, and Mary Robinson and her teenaged daughter, Lucille, decided not to go to bed at all, and a little before 3 a.m. put in a call to room service for sandwiches and Highballs to be sent up to C-237. So, when a knock came at the cabin door around 3:30, there was no reason for the guests to suspect that anything was amiss.
German Vice-Consul to Cuba, at Matanzas, Clemens Landmann and his wife and daughter occupied the next cabin aft of Eleanor Brennan‘s. Mr. Landmann had served as a diplomat in Cuba since 1912. His daughter Marta, born in 1922, spoke only Spanish and Mrs. Landmann, shown as “Jose” on their FBI statement, was apparently a Cuban. The Landmanns retired early, but the noise carrying over from Eleanor Brennan’s cabin kept the Vice-Consul awake and some time after midnight he took a sleeping pill.
Miss Marjorie Budlong, of Hillside, New Jersey, an 18 year old student at Greenbriar Junior College, sat in cabin A-17 with her friends, Rosario Camacho and Doris Wacker. Marjorie was traveling as the guest of the Wacker family, and she and Doris had become acquainted with Miss Camacho, an 18 year old Cuban who was en route to her apartment near Columbia University in New York City. The three decided to stay up and see in the dawn as the ship entered New York Harbor, and had passed the evening having the aimless sort of fun one has on the last night at sea. They visited with friends in the lounge, passed time in Miss Camacho’s cabin admiring her expensive wardrobe, and as the public rooms were beginning to empty out, went for a time to Miss Budlong and Miss Wacker’s stateroom C- 214 so that they could finish packing and Doris could change from her formalwear to street clothing. When they returned to Rosario’s cabin, it was a little after 2 a.m. and they saw nothing amiss in the empty writing room and nearly empty lounge through which they passed. The girls talked for nearly an hour, and at some point set their watches ahead to Daylight Savings Time. Doris Wacker grew tired and decided to return to her room. Miss Camacho rose to open the cabin door to see Doris out, coincidentally noting by her watch that it was 3:10 a.m.. From where she sat in the cabin, Miss Budlong thought that she heard Doris scream 'fire!' as she stepped in to the hallway, but from where Miss Camacho stood at the open door it was apparent that the scream had come from one deck below, in the lounge.
Lounge viewed from the writing room door towards the balcony from which Miss Budlong watched the fire
Miss Camacho's stateroom was one of the deluxe cabins that lined A Deck, also known as the Boat Deck. It was located just aft of the balcony surrounding the well on the upper level of the ship's lounge, and taking a few steps forward from her door would give a person an unobstructed view of the grand, wood paneled, room below.
The three friends rushed to the rear starboard corner of the lounge well. From where they stood, they could look diagonally, downward, into the writing room through the open doors on the forward port corner of the B Deck lounge. The carpet in the writing room was in flames, which covered the floor and rose perhaps two feet high. A man and a woman stood by the door of the room and from where the girls stood it looked as if the man wanted to attempt to fight the fire and was being restrained by the woman. A steward was calling to someone to hurry, but the girls could not see at whom the order was directed. Marjorie Budlong saw two men throwing something from buckets on to the flames, and a crew member called up to her that the fire was under control and not to worry. All three girls noted that no smoke was entering the lounge.
They went back to cabin A-17, where Miss Camacho locked her window, closed and locked her trunk, and grabbed her handbag into which she had placed several thousand dollars worth of jewelry. When they returned to the lounge well railing, they were surprised at how quickly the fire had spread in the short time they were away. Flames were roaring aft, consuming the lounge carpet, and spreading across the room towards its port and starboard walls. The three turned and retreated from the inferno moving towards them.