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DAY 1. HAVANA: I begin my Morro Castle anniversary road trip, walking along a street in Havana, the city from which the liner Morro Castle departed for the final time on September 6, 1934. I am feeling the buzz from perhaps one too many Mojitos, of which I am glad because it has taken the edge off of a potentially vacation (and life) ruining development that only a half hour before kneecapped me. But, it is warm, the evening sky is still a beautiful tropical blue and I figure..."hell...debtor's prison doesn't exist any more what can possibly happen to me?"
DAY 2. HAVANA: Yes, debtor's prison looms. It is all an illusion of course. I am not really in Havana, but in the over-the-top-and-beyond Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The ground floor of the mammoth structure (actually, structures)is a life-sized repro of Old Havana that winds on and on seemingly forever in all directions. I am "in town" for a trade show that my 9-to-5 requires I attend once a year, and this year I am quite gleeful at the prospect since the dates coincide with the Morro Castle fire anniversary. My plan is to see the trade show, network myself, and then drive up the coast visiting as many Morro Castle sites as I can find. But, after my "real work" was finished, I had perhaps twenty minutes of guilt-free enjoyment before the black cloud appeared overhead and a bolt of lightning symbolically shot forth. I have one credit card with me. It is a card with a burley, healthy, manly limit that one would REALLY have to work hard to max out. And, apparently someone has just done that. I attempt to buy a box of saltwater taffy, the ultimate Atlantic City cliche, and my card is declined, with that embarrassing flatulent noise credit card machines make when the DESTROY CARD pictogram begins flashing. If one has ever been a victim of identiy theft, one knows that nice heart attack feeling that grips one as soon as the truth sinks, as you know it, is now over forever. Prepare to see everything you hold dear destroyed.

So, here I am in a fairly costly suite, with a dead credit card and enough cash to cover the room BUT not enough to eat on, or put gas in the car, for the weekend.

So, I do the mature thing. I think "Call the bank and straighten it out tomorrow morning. If you now owe the equivalent of a new car, you'll be able to handle it better first thing in the morning~ if you find out the truth now, you'll end up insane." And so I return home to Havana, down a few mojitos and a white Russian or two, and head off to my (unpaid for) bed where I try to think about the Morro Castle and not about the looming nightmare of getting this all straightened out. Being trapped on a burning liner at night in the middle of a storm seems more appealing than the present situation....

...and the next morning, I slink out to gas up my car. I attempt to use the credit card, hoping that last night was all a nightmare or a fluke, and happily, it was. The card works. What happened? I suspect that the sales clerk manually typed in the zeros after the decimal after hitting a wrong digit, and attempted to sell me an $11,000.00 box of taffy.

But, the day seems brighter, my steps lighter and I don't have to plead with the mananger of the hotel to trust me for the cost of my rooms. And, soon I am off, driving up the coast, very much aware of what was happening on that very site, to the minute, in 1934.
My first stop is the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History, in Beach Haven, about an hour's drive from Atlantic City. When the Morro Castle passed Beach Haven, that night, she still had perhaps three hours of normal life left and to anyone looking out to sea, she would have been brightly lit and moving at a fair pace, against the starless background of the looming storm.

My freidn Bart Malone, deep water SCUBA diver extraordinaire, has been urging me to visit the museum, a favorite project of his, for some time. From what I understand, it is in a custom built building, and has a Morro Castle room~ the latter detail being all it takes to get my attention. Bart has told me, repeatedly, that the building is large and quite beautiful but I have avoided the website so that I can go in without any preconceived (and possibly prejudicial) notions of the museum based on its appearance.

It's a beautiful, sunny day but with quite a bit of haze. I'm in an exceptionally good mood, which gets even better when I finally find the museum.

The first impression is "Wow, it IS large." The building, brand new, strikes me as being a modern interpretation of the old, eclectic, summer resort building that once lined the Jersey Shore. It rambles. It has a round central pavillion flanked by octagonal pavillions. It has a deep porch, and a multi-level roof line. And, it does not look like a McMansion. What appears to be wood actually IS wood. With two or three years of weathering under its belt, it will look mellowed rather than frayed around the edges as plastic and vinyl strcutures invariably do. The whimsy of the design is not leaden, and my already good mood is not dampened by the "This...does...not...bode...well" feeling public buildings with cheesy architecture inspire in me. I enter, sensing that I will not be disappointed.
The interior does not disappoint by either design or content. The ground floor is a series of galleries, naturally lit, leading back to (for me, the highlight) the Morro Castle Room, which occupies a corner pavillion at the rear of the building. The floors are of honey-colored wood, the walls are a soft non-reflective white, and the contents...eclectic.

Now, when I say "eclectic," in this context, I mean "So varied that one has to look VERY carefully to avoid missing some small gem. Unpredictable." Not "eclectic" as in "It's like a junk shop but I'm trying to be polite." No exaggeration- hundreds of photos of wrecked new Jersey ships line the walls. Some I am familiar with (Mohawk, City of Athens) many I am not. Artifacts either recovered by divers or removed from the ships as they were in their death throes are carefully placed in such a way that as one stands in one room, one's eyes keep wandering to the next- visible through every door and archway is SOMETHING to command one's attention. The effect is bright and cheerful and uncluttered.
A quick trip up the stairs to the second floor brings one to the nerve center of the museum, and many of it's most appealing features.
One enters the second floor and finds oneself in a reference library, lending library, and internet center, that also serves as the office of creator and driving force Deb Whitcraft. I have spoken online with Deb a few times in the past, and we've had the occasional eBay bidding war (all mutually forgiven, of course
) but this is the first time I've met her. I am impressed by both her drive and her friendliness~ Ms. Whitcraft has what is often called "presense." I am soon seated in the conference area and we are chatting away about The Museum and the Morro Castle in such detail that the two hours I alloted to see the museum pass and I haven't left the office yet!

The Maritime Museum was built entirely with Deb's personal funds. I did not ask for a figure, but as was once said in gentler times "it must not have been inexpensive." There is no admission fee and never will be. She says, flat out "I'm not here to make money." What she wants is considerably harder. She wants her museum to be THE BEST, not the most profitable, of its kind. As we talk, I take in the learning complex. To the left is a lending library filled with shipwreck and general maritime books that can be checked out and taken home. The shelves are all full, and there are a LOT of them. Directly ahead of me is the reference library where, behind locked glass doors rest the irrepalceable books and reports that one is free to use on premises. Overhead is a set of dishes and paltes salvvaged from the City of Athens, which sank in 1918 with the the loss of 87 lives after a collision. Behind me are more than a dozen large binders full of notes on Jersey shipwrecks, donated by a "benefactor." Thre are several computer stations, also free of charge, to be used by researchers.

I realise that if I am not careful I'll end up setting up a sleeping bag and refusing to be evicted.

While Deb has to conduct some business matters, I tour the rest of the second floor. The Andrea Doria room commands my attention. It is here that our friend Bart's presense is most strongly felt, in both the items that he donated and the photos in which he appears. I linger and look over the salvage....
THE MORRO CASTLE ROOM And finally, I tour That Which I Have Come to See. One entire wall display is made up of snapshots of the wreck. Another is lained with larger photos of the survivors and victims as they were on September 8th/9th 1934. A cabin key for cabin 40_? lies positioned in such a way that I cannot read the final digit. The 400-409 block of cabins had a fatality rate approaching 50%, so chances are even that the owner of the key did NOT have a happy ending, 73 years ago to the minute. Might it have been Lulu Dillon in 401? She and her daughter Mae Maloney, and two of May's friends drifted most of the way to shore together that morning (6 miles) and then Mrs. Dillon smiled and her head slumped forward. Mae Maloney kept worriedly saying "I hope mother will wake up" but the others knew that she wouldn't. Or might it have belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Likewise, of the 400 block? Jacob died of exposure, but Minnie, 67, swam against the storm for some hours and was rescued, in shock.

In a cornwer stands a mannequin, wearing a Morro Castle lifejacket. Deb tells me that it was used by Helen Brorie, survivor, that morning. I tell Deb of the jacket's grim history. Helen Brodie was at a stateroom party, hosted by Miss Eleanor Brennan, when the fire broke out. Helen, Eleanor, and the other guests jumped from the stern together, but were separated by the storm. Some hours later, Helen came across Eleanor Brennan in the water but, by then, the exhausted Miss Brennan "was in terrible condition." Semi-coherent, she clung on to Miss Brodie and during her lucid moments would mutter "I'm not going to make it. I'm going to die." New Jersey Governor Moore spotted the two women from his plane, and circled them to draw the attention of nearby fishing boats. Eleanor Brennan became "hysterical" and expended what remained of her strength crying. As the fishing boat reached the two, a wave broke over them and Eleanor let go and was carried away. Miss Brodie was pulled aboard within five minutes and was soon in such deep shock that she was laid out with the dead passengers. But, for some reason, she chose to keep her life preserver.

I look at it, aware of the sad, protracted, death of Eleanor Brennan, just before 11 AM on the morning of the 8th. 73 years almost to the minute. In the water for seven hours and dead two minutes before help arrived. It is hard to explain how I feel....

The outfit on the mannequin, BTW, was donated by its original owner, and is actually from 1934. I can't help but notice that on the opposite wall, there is a photo of a Morro Caslte passenger, dead, her face mercifully covered, wearing a similar skirt and shoes.
BEAU GESTE: My departure time arrives and, incredibly enough, Deb "gifts" me with Morro Castle life preserver of my own, and a mannequin torso on which to carry it.

I am beyond grateful...beyond ecstatic. What can one say beyond "Thank you?" I realize that the best possible repayment is to work at making the Morro Castle Room, already great, even better.
As I drive away, I begin to formulate ideas.
JAWS: A quick drive down "Engleside," and I am at the site of the first of the notorious 1916 shark attacks that partially inspired Jaws.

It was here that young Charles Van Sant, of Old Philadelphia Roots, was atacked by a shark while standing in moderately deep water a distance from shore. Mutilated on his legs and buttocks, he was carried to the elegant Engleside Hotel where he died after being laid out on the manager's desk.
JAWS 2: The high-Victorian Engleside Hotel is long gone. Deb and a friend of her's, a Beach Haven historian, pinpointed the site of the hotel as being the park visible in this view as the patch of green left of center. Ca. 1916 views show that the hotel was, at that time, almost right on the beach. Which means, allowing for a generous stretch of beach and then another 50 yards of ocean, I am standing on the approximate spot where the fatal attack took place~ now some distance from the water.
JAWS 3-D AND THE MORRO CASTLE: By the time I reached Spring Lake, the haze had thickened considerably. But, oddly, it hung only slightly higher than my head, over which it was a sunny blue skyed-day.

(Spring Lake, BTW, is where the second 1916 shark attack took place. An employee at the Essex and Sussex Hotel, while swimming at the staff beach, died of catastrophic blood loss after having both legs severed by the shark)

Standing on the beach, I felt more of a connection with the disaster than I later would at Asbury Park. Spring Lake is where the life-or-death drama took place. Some 250 Morro Castle passengers went overboard into the storm long before rescue ships arrived on the scene. The two liners and one freighter on scene did commendable work, but no one told them that almost half of those onboard were nowhere near the area they were searching. Radio messages eventually arrived, alerting the rescuers that a huge mass of people were widely spread out, three miles south and one mile west of the wreck and that a few, hardy, survivors were in the final stages of completing the six mile swim and coming ashore at many points along the beach.

I find myself thinking about Mrs. Mary Robinson and her 18 year old daughter Lucille. They swam most of the distance but were separated in the (violent) surf area while still 100 yards out. Searchers found Mrs. Robinson washed up on the beach, semi-coherent and calling for Lucille. In a rare happy ending, Lucille washed ashore unconscious but alive. Lloyd Barnstead and his wife, Grace, swam the distance as well. But, it soon became apparent that most of those coming ashore here were either dead or in terminal shock. Lifeguards and citizens rushed in groups into the surf, and were photographed dragging limp forms ashore. A row of corpses, the first group recovered was photographed on the beach here, and the image ran in hundreds of newspapers. The pajama clad man at the head of the row strongly resembles Herman Wacker, of Roselle Park, New Jersey, who was among the initial ten bodies recovered- my hunch is that it IS him.

I look out, seawrd. I think of Abhaham and Harriet Cohen, the honeymooners who swam all the way to shore. They clung to a set of pilings in the surf zone and men from the beach swam out and helped them the final 50 yards to safety. They walked ashore together and then collapsed and were taken to Point Pleasant Hospital. Where Harriet turned 22 the following day. I do not see any sign of pilings but, in truth, it is a long stretch of beach and who can tell, specifically, where any one person came ashore?

The mist over the beach has an eerie effect. It acts as a filter. The hazy figures that stand at the waters edge and emerge from the surf appear, at a distance, to be transparent. Up close, of course, one can see the brightly colored bathing suits and Crocs, but at a distance the effect is quite ghostly and, 73 years later to the day, somehow fitting.
ASBURY PARK 9-9-07. 73 years to the day after she drifted ashore at Asbury Park. Note that the spot where once she rested is now dry land.

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