Morro Castle / Mohawk Article

Jim Kalafus

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This article began about fifteen years too late. I realised, as I was collecting the material I needed to flesh out the stories that I wanted to tell, that the majority of my "central characters" died between 1995 and 2000, and I found myself wishing that I had been motivated enough to undertake this project towards the end of my college years.

When I was, perhaps, ten years old, I was given a facsimile of a New York Times Morro Castle issue and I was excited to see that one of the passengers lived at an address close to that of my aunt and uncle in Westchester County, N.Y. I was also excited to see that as of 1976/'77 her family was still listed at their 1934 address in the phone book. I did not call, but from time to time as my Morro Castle interest ebbed and flowed, I would check the phone book to see if there was still a listing. At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, I did a random check and the listing was gone. I assumed that she had passed away, and so was more than a bit disappointed this March to learn that Miss Desvernine survived, in Florida, well beyond the point at which Anthony Cunningham and I were seeking survivors for his book.

The survivor whom I most sorely regret having 'missed' was Marjorie Budlong who, at age 18, behaved with a heroism and compassion sadly lacking in many of her elders. 16 year old Frank Dittman, who tried and failed to save Raymond Lione~ a child from Queens~ was justifiably hailed as one of the unqualified heroes of that morning, but Miss Budlong whose story parallelled that of Mr. Dittman, seems not to have been given the same level of public recognition in 1934 and, as far as the books are concerned, is now a completely forgotten 'story' of the disaster. As I read the different accounts she gave, I came to like her a lot and regret not having had the opportunity to interview her in person and say "good job."

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"My friend, Doris Wacker, and I were up until 3 O’clock, visiting the stateroom of a shipboard friend, Miss Rosario Comacho. As we left for our own stateroom, we saw flames in the passageway. Doris rushed to her parents (Mr. and Mrs. Herman Wacker) and wakened them. They came back buckling their lifebelts and bringing one for me.

We all went up on C Deck. Everything was confusion there. We couldn’t see to get into a lifeboat. The flames kept advancing toward us. A little knot of people clustered around us. Then I hear a steward say; ’We’d better jump. We’ll all hold hands and jump together.’

We started to go over together, but my foot slipped on the rail and I fell alone. I came up dazed but unhurt and started to swim. The water seemed filled with bodies. They were always bumping into me.

Then after a while I found a young man swimming beside me. He didn’t have any life preserver and he gasped out that he was tiring. I told him to hang on to mine. He did. It dragged me down a little, but I could still keep my head above the water.

I guess that it was about two hours that he clung to me. He kept saying ‘I can’t hold out much longer.’ I kept telling him to hold on- we’d surely be picked up soon.

Lifeboats were passing us. I shouted to those which passed nearest. Most of them kept on going- I guess they couldn’t hear. One came so close that I talked to the people in it and asked them to take us aboard- the man, anyway. But they said they were filled up. They promised to come back.

It was 4 O’clock when we went over the side. It was about six I guess- dawn was just breaking- when the young man, a Cuban I believe, said ‘I’m going. Please send my love to my mother, won’t you?’ I said ‘What it your name?’ but he didn’t seem to hear me. A few minutes later his hand slipped off and down he went.

I kept paddling around. I wasn’t swimming toward any place, but I felt I had to do something to keep warm. About 8:30 a life boat stopped and picked me up, it was from the City of Savannah."


The young Cuban whose death Miss Budlong witnessed, was Franz Hoed de Beche, 18, of Havana who was en route to DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. He was a friend of Miss Comacho, with whom Marjorie Budlong was visiting aboard the ship, as the fire broke out, and Miss Budlong became acquainted with him during the voyage~ although in all but one account she claimed not to have known who he was while they were in the water. Perhaps she wanted to spare his parents unwanted attention or the pain of knowing the exact circumstances of his death.

Franz Hoed de Beche was a swimming champion in New York City. His friend, and cabin mate, Joseph Hidalgo recalled decades later that Mr. Hoed gave his lifebelt to Miss Comacho, saying that he was by far the best swimmer of the three and needed it the least. Rosario Comacho gave this account of their final moments together. It begins at the rail, with an adult male who refused to allow the suffocating teenagers past him:

"Because of his height he could lean over the rail and breathe comfortably without abandoning the ship. Our coughing and desperate pulls at his shirt did not and could not dislodge him. Finally, as everything turned black before my eyes and I began losing consciousness, I did what later astounded me. With Franz pushing me and total suffocation only seconds away, I thrust my face with my mouth wide open and, before I knew what had happened, there were my teeth burying themselves in the fleshiest part of that man's upper back. He turned, and reeled backwards with a loud scream of pain, and it was this clearance that offered us the opportunity to climb the rail, take one deep breath of fresh air and brace ourselves for the thirty foot jump.

Just as we were about to jump a gasping man lost his balance on top of the rail and, colliding with Franz, knocked us apart..I went down screaming Franz' name...and that was the last I saw of him. "

Marjorie Budlong Vibbert died in December 1998.

Another regret is that the last living person I can prove to have been aboard the Morro Castle during the August 1933 bomb threats; the September 1933 hurricane; the November 1933 machine gunning of the liner in Havana harbor, and the 1934 fire is now incapable of being interviewed.

My friends and I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of George White Rogers. Just as the munitions and the German warning have overwhelmed virtually every other aspect of the Lusitania's story, so too has sociopath Rogers squeezed virtually every other story from that night~ other than the death of the captain~ out of the limelight. Did Rogers do it? My own gut hunch is now, incredibly enough, 'no' but the evidence to back up my own suspicion is virtually non-existent.

There is much more to come on this story!
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I haven't even gone through the Morro Castle material properly yet,<<

I've been through some of it and it's an impressive work. Lots of insights to be had on the intrigues that surrounded the Ward Line, some of which were quite nasty. If the Morro Castle wasn't deliberately torched, then I would have to say that some freaky accident beat somebody to the punch, and there were a lot of parties who had a reason to do it.

I'll have to devote more time to it later on.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Take a minute to remember the 130 or so people lost 72 years ago this morning aboard the Morro Castle, and think, pleasantly, of the six or so survivors who remain.
~JK
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Jan 22, 2001
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Jim,
Who are the survivors?
Is cruise director Bob Smith one of them? I have been told he later worked for the Holland America Line and retired in 1973 after the Nieuw Amsterdam was taken out of service. Do you know any more about him? Thanks,

Carole
 

Jim Kalafus

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Hi Carole: Here are three: Herbert Saffir, crew, who ended up famous as the co-creator of the Saffir-Simpson Scale for measuring hurricanes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saffir-Simpson_Hurricane_Scale

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Saffir

Robert Lione who, as a child, lost his father and brother in the disaster. His mother, Mary survived.

Benito Rueda, who lost his infant brother, Dickie.

In addition, there are two surviving passengers who guard their privacy zealously, to say the least, who want to forget the Morro Castle and be left alone, who would not want their names used in this context and one surviving crewman who, sadly, is not in any shape to be interviewed.

I believe that Frank Dittman (see above post) is still alive but I've not been able to confirm it.

There were quite a few 18-20 year old survivors who could still, conceivably, be alive of whom I could find no record.

Regarding Robert Smith~ I am fairly sure that he is no longer alive. Because his is one of the iconic stories of the fire, I avoided it in the article in favor of more obscure accounts.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>the radio man poisoned the captian<<

I'm not so sure about that part. I know of no evidence that the Captain was poisoned, and everything I have seen points to a heart attack being the most likely culprit. If such be the case, then his death was a freaky co-incidence. Unfortunately, since there was no body to autopsy after this, there's no way to really know this as a fact.

The radioman may have been a real piece of work, but my own read on it is that it would have been rather difficult for him to try something like that without attracting some unwelcome attention. Be that as it may, the Morro Castle was at the centre of a lot of intrigue so it's not really a stretch to see that there would be several possible candidates aboard who would be out to do the ship dirty under the guise of "Payback."
 

Jim Kalafus

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Continuing with the thought- although there is much evidence that Rogers was a sociopath, and that he blew up a police station; poisoned a water cooler in a factory; beat an elderly family to death, and stalked and threatened a female co-worker with death, that all took place AFTER the fire, commencing in 1938. One could go pop-psych and comment that the 1938 bombing and the mass poisoning could well have been the result of his Morro experiences, and that the disaster 'created' George White Rogers, monster, and not vice-versa. He DOES seem to have been unpleasant before the disaster- to say the least- and had a record of offenses that included homosexual rape at knifepoint as a teenager (as the aggressor) and murdering his wife's dog (she attended a funeral he ordered her not to, so he poisoned the dog to be spiteful) but the evidence just isn't there to support Rogers as the arsonist- and it WAS arson- on Sept. 8th 1934.

But- food for thought- the Morro Castle was heavily booked on that voyage, yet the entire block of eight suites forward of the Writing Room on B Deck was empty. So, whomever DID set the fire had the advantage of being able to enter and exit through the one portion of the ship where there were no passengers and only one potential witness- Harold Foersch, watchman- whose badly charred body was recovered from the B Deck starboard promenade deck, forward. Mr. Foersch was on the bridge with Warms early on in thre disaster, and was in fact the person who notified the captain of the mounting smoke, so 'he was murdered after he interrupted the arsonist and left on the promenade deck to burn' can be ruled out. Just a gruesome FYI- the only unburned decking remaining on the ship was found under Mr. Foersch- which indicates that he was felled by the smoke and not trapped by the fire. But, with the only person likely to look back and say 'wait a minute, I noticed so-and-so exiting that room' dead ( a happy accident for the arsonist) a first-person solution of the crime was not possible.

As I speculated in the Gare Maritime article- the week of Sept, 8, 1934, marked the first anniversary of a series of events in which the Morro Castle was met by angry mobs coming and going, visited by the bomb squad and the strong arm squad of the NYPD, the location for a thwarted 'Revolutionary' murder, and the center of an incident in which an official of United Fruit, who was suspected of arranging the murder of a Union organizer had to be brought aboard the ship in Havana under U.S. military protection to prevent his being dismembered by an enraged mob. All of which fell between the last week of August and Sept 10, 1933. I can't help but suspect that the torching of the ship might have been a symbolic act of terrorism. That is what was suspected in 1934- air service between the US and Havana was immediately suspended on the day of the fire, BTW, for fear of further terrorist acts.

Just as a historical aside- the day the ship burned, the US was in the middle of a 'citizen's uprising' in Rhode Island so severe that President Roosevelt was sending in the troops to quell it (check out the photos online- Woonsocket, 1934 will get you there- it looked like a war zone) and, again, I strongly suspect that fear of publicizing an successful act of Revolutionary Terrorism when it seemed that portions of the U.S. Northeast were on the brink of outright revolt, was why after the first few days a veil of silence fell over the M.C. terrorism angle.
 

Jim Kalafus

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> everything I have seen points to a heart attack being the most likely culprit. If such be the case, then his death was a freaky co-incidence. Unfortunately, since there was no body to autopsy after this, there's no way to really know this as a fact.

I'm trying to learn if, in fact, there was a partial autopsy conducted on the pelvis and bone fragments recovered from Wilmott's mattress. He was constipated- his last words were a request for an enema- and he was found dead in a position that strongly suggested that he toppled off his toilet in mid-bowel movement. All of which reenforces the diagnosis of Heart Attack rendered by the doctors who examined his body.

I think that whomever torched the ship seized the opportunity to operate in the not-entirely-orderly environment that Wilmott's death created. My guess, then, is that it WAS a crew member.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I'm trying to learn if, in fact, there was a partial autopsy conducted on the pelvis and bone fragments recovered from Wilmott's mattress.<<

It would be a neat trick if they could have obtained anything useful from that if it ever happened. Medical forensics technology wasn't anywhere near as advanced as it is today. Assuming that poisoning was considered as a possibility, do you know of any testing protocols in use in the 1930's that would have detected it? (And what could they detect?)
 
C

Charles V. Norris

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I find the Gare Maritime site very interesting,especially the Morro Castle disaster.
My father and uncle participated in the rescuing of survivors at Spring Lake N.J.
I have many photos and correspondence from family's of victims of that disaster,passed on to me from my uncle.
My father on the right carrying a survivor.
Unknown man helping on the left.
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Jim Kalafus

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73rd Anniversary of the Morro Castle fire.

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In the last year or so, we've found two additional survivors, and lost two. Ann Stemmermann, who as a girl of 15 survived, along with her mother and best friend, passed away in 2006, as did crew member Edward Janssen, who died on 9/6/06.

Correspondents frequently ask, “How many survivors are still alive, and how many children were aboard the ship?”￾ Assuming that a lifespan of 100 years is possible as of 2007, many of the surviving passengers and crew 28 years and under whom we have not yet traced could still conceivably be alive. Here are all of those aboard, 18 and under, some of who have proved elusive and may still be available for interview.


Passengers:
Mr. Henry W. Borman. 17. (Died 2000)
Miss Nancy Ann Brady. 18.
Master Mervin Bregstein. 9. (Missing)
Miss Ofelia Busquet. (Age undetermined, but under 18)
Miss Rosario Camacho. 18. (Alive 2007)
Mr. Frank Dittman. 16.
Mr. Jose Antonio Freire. 18
Miss Mary Gilmore. 18.
Master Roberto Gonzales.13. (Died)
Miss Ethel Hassall 16.
Mr. Joseph Hidalgo. 18. (Died 2005)
Mr. Franz Hoed de Beche. (Missing) 18.
Mr. Charles Hofman, Jr. 14.
Master John Morgan Holden. 12.(Died 1995)
Mr. Reuben Andrus Holden, IV. 16. (Died 1995)
Mr. Henry Jakoby, Jr. 16. (Died)
Miss Gladys Knight. 16. (Died 1972)
Miss Doris Landes. 16. Celebrated her 16th birthday aboard the Morro Castle, September 7, 1934.
Miss Marta Landmann. 12.
Master Raymond Lione. 9. (Died)
Master Robert Lione. 4. (Alive 2007)
Mr. Louis Perrine. 16.
Miss Lucille Robinson. 18.
Master Benito Rueda. 7. (Alive 2007)
Master Ricardo Rueda. 3. (Died)
Master Braulio Saenz y Aguilera. 13. (Missing)
Miss Margaret “Caina”￾ Saenz y Aguilera. 8. (Missing)
Miss Marta Saenz y Aguilera. 11. (Died)
Master Arthur Sheridan. 7. (Died)
Miss Anna Stemmerman. 15. (Died 2006)
Mr. John Torborg. Jr. 15. (Died ca. 1990)
Miss Ruth Torborg. 18. (Died ca. 1980)
Miss Doris Wacker. 18. (Alive 2007)

Crew:
Mr. Walter Cody. 17.
Mr. William Hellestrand. 18. (Missing)
Mr. John Howell.18.
Mr. Edward Janssen. 18. (Died 2006)
Mr. Seymour Saffir. 18. (Alive 2007)
Mr. William Tripp. 18.
Mr. William Wright. 17.
Mr. Robert Young. 18.
Mr. Andrew Zabala. 17.

Andrew Zabala, who worked in the engine room, is of specific interest to us. His father, a head chef, died aboard the Morro Castle of a heart attack a few years prior to the fire, and his Danish born mother, Ragne Zabala, was apparently given a job aboard the Oriente, and later the Morro Castle, in lieu of charity- and probably in lieu of death benefits as well. Ragne jumped from the ship and died of exposure, but the circumstances of how her 17 year old son escaped are unknown to me at the present and, I suspect, will make an interesting story.

George Watremez, our favorite survivor, is doing well, and we send our best wishes to him and his family today.

I, Jim, will be in Asbury Park over the weekend, and exploring all of the places that survivors swam ashore on 9/8/34. In addition to the " well known" Morro Castle graveyard in Asbury Park, it turns out that a second, smaller, plot for unidentified victims exists in Northern New Jersey, and I will be going there as well.

Please join us: Jim; Mike; Marty; Harald, and the others who have helped on the upcoming articles, in paying respect to the 128 who died this morning in 1934.

BTW- The six victims on the list who didn't really die included Ann Behling, who was not only interviewed by multiple Philadelphia papers but also deposed twice by the FBI yet STILL resolutely remained on the Ward Line known dead list; Miss Aagot Halvorsen, who traveled under the pseudonym of Jerry Ericksen and ended up listed as two separate fatalities; a crew member who never joined the ship and ended up on the missing list, and a male passenger, listed as "missing," who seized the opportunity to begin life afresh, sans wife but with a blonde hussy, in a hotel in another part of the country. Where he was found, in 1937, by private eyes hired by his wife who never believed he was dead to begin with.

So many stories.....so much time to tell them
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Eric Longo

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Hello Jim,

Most all have seen one of these but for those who have not, a "crushed penny" or elongated cent souvenir available at Asbury Park during that summer:

Best,
Eric



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Eric Longo

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Hi again,

I certainly did not mean to trivialize the respectful and memorial nature of this anniversary thread by posting a cheap boardwalk souvenir. I was just thinking it was something neat to look at and maybe some had not seen one. My apologies.

Best,
Eric Longo
 

Jim Kalafus

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No need to apologise, Eric. It was an interesting contribution and, as you said, many have not seen one!

For myself- I've been trying to locate the actual penny press mold used to make these. In an example of "No point is too low for us," check out these two 1934 postcards, one of which was mailed three days after the fire was extinguished:

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The Morro Castle almost took a large chunk of downtown Asbury Park with her in her death throes. I have the original 1934 FD Report (On file at the Luce Library at SUNY Maritime) which details the 5 day effort to extinguish the burning liner after she beached on the 9th. On the Tuesday after the fire began, the blaze suddenly picked up again and began to approach the ship's refrigeration rooms ~which were sizeable~ and the ammonia which functioned as a coolant within. The firefighters were withdrawn from the wreck, and a two block swath of Asbury Park evacuated so that if MC went up, Texas City style, casualties would be minimised. But, in this case, the fireproofing worked and a second disaster averted.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>and the ammonia which functioned as a coolant within.<<

I'll bet that information cured a few people of their constipation. Anybody interested can read the full MSDS for ammonia HERE Lovely stuff...not!

I see the entrepreneurs wasted no time coming out with the trinkets and the postcards. The one above with the covered bodies is pretty grim. Were there any cries of outrage at that one? (If so, such protests probably helped the sales!)
 

Eric Longo

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Hello Jim and Michael,

Yes, I've seen some of that stuff. That postcard does not really make me want salt water taffy! Grim indeed. I once sold some photographs of her taken from the beach - maybe to you Jim? I don't recall. It was several years ago but I recall your interest in her.

Best,
Eric