TEL Morro Castle


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Robert J. McDonnell

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This conversation addresses another mysterious shipwreck, the burning of the Turbo-Electric Liner Morro Castle, off the New Jersey Coast, in 1934. Captain Robert R. Willmott (usually mispelled as Wilmott), had not been feeling well for a few voyages. The vessel, following its usual, round-trip route from NYC to Havana, left the later port in a hurry on 5 September, because a hurricane had formed SSE of Cuba. Traveling at its usual 20 knots, the Morro Castle headed home in an effort to outrun the storm.
Captain Willmott's health worsened. On 7 September, he was found dead in his cabin's bathroom at 7:40 p.m. E.S.T. At 2:10 a.m. EST the next morning, fire broke out in the ship's Writing Room--the ship was about eight miles off the New Jersey Coast. Chaos prevailed. End result? 134 people, mostly passengers perished.

Numerous investigations followed. The officers believed that Willmott had been murdered, and the ship was set abalze to cover the act. Thus, the mystery lingers in the minds of many to this day.

Please feel free to visit: http://home.att.net/~morro34 I am willing to answer questions as best I can, here or via email.

Thanks,
Bob
 
Sep 12, 2000
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The information you share is most interesting and the site contains a wealth of knowledge. I highly recommend it to others to view. Maureen.
 
Aug 29, 2000
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Hurray Bob! Just last night I was wondering why Morro Castle wasn't here and was going to write to you! Folks- this IS a real treat -this man knows everything worth knowing on this ship- let's get cooking! /Shelley
 
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Robert J. McDonnell

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Hi Maureen:
Thank you for your generous comments. The Web Site could use a bit more information, I think, but much of the message gets across, except...what really happened and who knew what and did not tell!
Cordially,
Bob
 
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Robert J. McDonnell

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Shelley!
It has been a long time since last we "talked," and much has happened, from my viewpoint, for the better. (You're being far too generous, Shelley, but I thank you for that.)

Finishing the book has been delayed by factors outside my control, primarily health-related. Yet, the beat goes on now that I live along the coastline where the disaster unfolded. Often, when writer's block knocks, I walk to the beach and look to the horizon. It as if I can see the entire mess unfolding. Sometimes, too, I think I was on the ill-fated ship, particularly when the wind blows NNE on a stormy night. Crazy!

Now, I have learned that thirteen graves, marked "Victim of Morro Castle," are located in a cemetery behind the hospital (now a major Trauma Center)where those still alive, when then made the beach, were taken. I always believed the death count was higher, but I don't have the slightest idea how to help identify the remains. My best guess? The poor souls were stowaways escaping Cuba. Oh well!

Now, I have to run. Be back when time permits!
Cordially,
Bob
 
Dec 12, 1999
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Bob,
You're Morro Castle site is very interesting. The Ward Line story sounds something like the recent Premier Lines fiasco. Before it went out of business, I understand, some Premier Lines crewman or officer was stabbed. I tried to get at your PTSS links but it didn't work. We've been looking at PTSS in connection with the "Survivors' Suicide" conversation. So, when is your book coming out?
 
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Robert J. McDonnell

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Dear Joe:
You're right, of course. I checked the link, still displayed on search engines, but it simply is not there. Many other links concerning PTSD can be found using "Excite" search engine. (I'll have to fix the page!)

Just a few remarks from here regarding PTSD. One of my great sources is a psychiatrist, whose grandfather wrote a most eloquent account of his
experience during the fire and while in the water. His grandson says, however, that whenever any TV show, or newspaper article appeared concerning the Morro Castle, his grandfather turned it off or, in the case of newspapers, threw them out. Outright PTSD, according to the grandson. Of course, the individual's personality comes into play as well, as does guilt for having survived an incident, when others did not. Those involved in the rescue effort are not immune, either. I think, regarding your researching, that the foremost factor is Depression (like you did not know this, right?)

As for the Ward Line? It was part of a "Deceptive Corporate Network," according to a Congressional Report. Yes, there was a stabbing aboard a few years before the fire. Drug smuggling...you name it, it was there.

As for when the book will be out, I am putting no date on that for many reasons. As my mother often said, "When the fruit it ripe; it will drop from the tree!" There are many reasons for this philosophy, Joe. Please don't interrupt it as my being curt. There is one roadblock, that varies from day-to-day, but everything happens for a reason.

I thank you and all the others for your interest in the Morro Castle--"the safest ship afloat!"
Sincerely,
Bob
 
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Robert J. McDonnell

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Dear Joe:
I'm not awake yet! "Interrupt" in the above is obviously wrong!
Sorry,
Bob
 

Mike Poirier

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Dec 12, 1999
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Hi Bob:
I think people on the board might understand the story better if you could point out the gross misconceptions that permeate the other Morro Castle books.
Mike
 
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Robert J. McDonnell

Guest
Per Mike's suggestion, here goes a summary, as brief as I can make it, concerning the darkness surrounding the Morro Castle debacle.

The four-year-old, state-of-the-art vessel was inbound from Havana to New York on its 174th round-trip. The Great Depression fostered a high turnover of the crew, forged papers, and more. Lifeboat drills were not conducted.

When fire was discovered, hours after Captain Willmott's death, the Acting Captain continued on course at about 19 knts into a wind of about the same velocity, thus spreading the flames rapidly. The beach was only eight miles away. Three sources set the time of the fire's discovery, but the Acting Captain apparently did not sound the General Alarm until some 45 minutes later. Many of the crew were asleep. The Chief Engineer, supposedly ill, was told to take charge of lifeboat No.1 to "test" the waters, according to some sources. Other crew members piled on No.1 and other boats and disembarked, but no Abandon Ship had been ordered. Some fire Hydrants were capped. Another Merchant vessel sent a wireless to a land-based station asking if there was a ship on fire. Despite this, not until 1:15 hours after the Morro Castle was an inferno, was the SOS ordered and sent. Passengers were forced to the stern, where they jumped into the sea. It was chaos. When the Acting Captain finally decided to turn toward the beach, he gave an order that, even today, would likely break a ship's rudder, which is exactly what happened. Then, all power was lost.

The controversy? Was Captain Willmott murdered and the ship set ablaze to cover the deed? Two books make this case because the Chief Radio Operator, deemed the hero, a few years later was convicted of Attempted Murder and, in 1953 he was sentenced to Life in prison for a double homicide.
Officials records, however, tell a far different story about this person, which I will not dive into here. I will state emphatically that Captain Willmott was not murdered, and arson was committed aboard the Morro Castle.

The Acting Captain, Chief Engineer and the Ward Line's VP were criminally charged. The VP paid his fine; the other two were convicted, but appealed. A US Court of Appeals overturned their convictions, essentially blaming Captain Willmott--the dead man! This, of course, allowed an Admiralty Court to order payment of insurance money for the vessel.

There sure was enough blame to spread around regarding the Morro Castle, but how one fingers a dead man for a delayed General Alarm, sailing into the wind, and a delayed SOS frankly escapes me.
Thank you all for your time.
Bob
P.S. How's this Mike, ok?
 

Hildo Thiel

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Nov 5, 2000
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Hi All,

Who can tell me something more about the passenger and crew list of the Morro Castle?

How many passengers and crew were aboard and how many did survive?

Some of the survivors where:
- Ivan Freeman
- George Rogers
- William Warns
- George Hackney
All officers.
- Eban Abbott, Head Engineer
- George White Rogers, First Marconist
- Joseph Spilgins, Sailor
- Lena Schwarz, First stewardess
- Daniel Campbell, Steward
- William O'Sullivand, Quartermaster
- Charles Maki, Second Marconist
- Charles Wright, First Steward
- Robert Smith, Cruise director
- Anthony Bujia, Second Engineer

What happend with the members of the Concordia choir?
How many children where there and how many did survive?
How many stewardesses where there besides Lena Schwartz, the First stewardess and what where there names?
How many lifeboats left the ship and how many did not?

Regards,

Hildo
 
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Michael Friedman

Guest
Greetings. There is a book out there with a passenger list; I don't remember which one, however. Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts wrote a book on the Morro Caste entitled "Shipwreck", which gives quite a few details about the various passengers & crew, but the list was not in their book.

If I come across the name of the book in my files, I will post it for you. In the meantime, try to get a copy of "Shipwreck".

Regards,

Mike
 

Paul Rogers

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Jun 1, 2000
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West Sussex, UK
Hi Hildo.

If you haven't already found it, this site might be of some use: http://home.att.net/~morro34/
I don't think George Rogers was a relation...thankfully!

Regards,
Paul.

PS: I just tried the link again and the site appears to be down presently. Sorry. It was there no more than a fortnight ago, so hopefully it will be back soon.
 

Hildo Thiel

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Nov 5, 2000
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Hi, Michael, Michael and Paul,

Thanks for the messages.

First the book of Gordon Thomas an Max Morgan Witts: I have it so most of the information I have about Morro Castle is from that book.

And about the site about Morro Castle, I knew that site and its blocked.

Regards,

Hildo
 
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Michael Friedman

Guest
Hi, Hildo

It seems I need to make a visit to the library, in order to find the book with the passenger list. It would be good to consult other sources; although I enjoy Thomas & Witts' writing, I am aware of at least one glaring error in their Morro Castle book.

I will get back to you with my findings, if any.

Regards,

Mike
 
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Michael Friedman

Guest
Hi, Hildo

It seems I need to make a visit to the library, in order to find the book with the passenger list. It would be good to consult other sources; although I enjoy Thomas & Witts' writing, I am aware of at least one glaring error in their Morro Castle book.

I will get back to you with my findings, if any.

Regards,

Mike
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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Hi Hildo and Mike: The book with the passenger list for the Morro Castle is Fire At Sea: The Story of The Morro Castle by Thomas Gallagher. The book itself is readable, but like many late 1950's non-fiction books reads more like a novel than a piece of serious research ( "He ran aft through the clearing but it was no use. The smoke was like another kind of darkness; it allowed no light, no air, no life at all. He began to smother and to regret having come back, when suddenly, confronted by the flames again, he realized he had gone past the radio room." being typical) and seems largely to have been researched through the newspapers. Another book you might want to look into is Hal Burton's The Morro Castle which is, in my opinion the best of the four I've read. If you can find a copy, the German Morro Castle: Die Sterbestunde eines Schiffes (Rudolf Van Wehrt- 1935) is probably the most lurid of the lot.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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HILDO: You asked about the Morro Castle Stewardesses. They were: Lena Beck; Harriet Brown; Aagot Halvorsen (drowned); Sarah Kirby; Lena Scwartz, and Ragne Zabola (drowned). Miss Zabola allegedly jumped with steward Sidney Ryan while the ship was still under way and was pulled into the propellors. Sarah Kirby was evidently a senior citizen and is quoted in Hal Burton's book as praising the crew. Lena Schwartz's testimony figures heavily in Shipwreck (Gordon and Witt). The stories of the others remain to be told. One other female staff member was Ella Jacoby, the manicurist. According to one story (and I forget whether it was in Shipwreck or Fire At Sea) she supposedly died performing some bizarre attempt at rescue. However, her name is consistently on the published "saved" lists and a photograph of her aboard one of the rescue ships was run in the Baltimore papers the day after the fire, so it can safely be assumed that she did NOT in fact burn to death while trying to free a caged bird in the lounge, or whatever the half-remembered legend was.

LIFEBOATS: Numbers 10; 3;5;9;11 and perhaps 1 were lowered. Burton claims that six boats were used, but gives numbers for only 5 of them. I am taking a guess about #1 being the unnamed boat. There were 85 people and 408 total spaces in these boats.
 
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