Inferno at Sea|
Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle
Gretchen F. Coyle and
Deborah C. Whitcraft
Down the Shore Publishing, 151pp, $30
The Morro Castle was an 11,520 gross ton, 508-foot steel (with wood interior) cruise ship, launched from Newport News Ship Building Company in 1930. She sailed between New York and Havana, Cuba during the depression years. On September 8, 1934 she caught fire (most likely set) off the coast of New Jersey with 508 passengers and crew aboard. One hundred and thirty-seven of the passengers and crew died on board, jumping from the stern or in the water while trying to swim the seven (+/-) miles to the shore.
The New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven has an entire room devoted to the artifacts and official records (including documentation recently released by the government), newspaper clippings, souvenirs, personal effects and, most especially, photographs of the ship and her passengers. Inferno at Sea is the first book about this disaster at sea to focus on the human element. From personal letters, photos, diaries, as well as newspaper coverage, authors Coyle and Whitcraft have compiled a record of what they call the "human side" of the disaster. "Many books have been written about the Morro Castle, yet none have aspired to honor those who died or those who lived to tell of that night..."
It seemed initially, to me, that the art-book format (the volume measures 10.25" x 11.25") was inappropriate for such a dark subject...but I was just plain wrong. The book gives sober and tasteful homage to the victims (survivors as well as the dead) of what appears to have been the work of a deranged crew member.
Organized to highlight the stories of individual passengers, core chapters are devoted to the separate personal stories of from passengers, crew, and rescuers-- accompanied by photos of the people themselves--from a sand sculptor to a Cuban competitive swimmer, a honeymooning couple to the suspected arsonist, Chief Radio Officer, George Rogers. Especially poignant are pictures of passengers enjoying themselves on board and then after their ordeal. Survivors who were strong enough, swam; others were rescued by local fishermen ...and eventually, the Coast Guard. (A cloud still hangs over the tardy arrival of the Coast Guard Cutters, Tampa from Staten Island and Cahoone, about five hours after the first SOS radio signal was sent.)
Photographs of the charred ship are dramatic evidence of the total destruction of the interior of the vessel and the horror of being trapped in it. Most lifeboats were inoperable, unable to be launched. Only 85 people were able to board the few launchable lifeboats and they were mostly crew members. The remaining survivors jumped from the stern of the ship--40 plus feet into the stormy Atlantic.)
Inferno at Sea is a moving and vivid account as well as a tasteful tribute to the victims and survivors of a horrible maritime tragedy that should never have happened.