Fire at Sea
(1959), a non-fiction book written by American author and journalist Thomas Gallagher, chronicles the final doomed 1934 voyage of the US ocean liner the Morro Castle
during which 135 people died following a fire. The book also discusses the subsequent investigation into individuals onboard whose negligence exacerbated the disaster. Gallagher received the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime for Fire at Sea
The S.S. Morro Castle
makes its maiden voyage on August 23, 1930. A luxury ocean liner ferrying travelers between New York City and Havana, Cuba, the ship enjoys strong business despite the Great Depression. Gallagher writes that the financial success of the Morro Castle
is in part attributed to Prohibition. A trip on the ocean-liner gives wealthy businesspeople and their families an affordable way to drink legally.
On September 5, 1934, the Morro Castle
embarks from Havana on what will be its final voyage. As the ship runs parallel to the Southeastern coast of the United States, it encounters heavy wind and cloud cover. On September 7, as the wind shifts to easterly, it becomes apparent that a nor'easter extratropical cyclone may be imminent. With the foul weather worsening, many passengers and crew retire to their bunks early. That evening, the Morro Castle
's captain, Robert Willmott, complains of stomach problems not long after dinner. Within hours, Captain Willmott dies of a heart attack, leaving Chief Officer William Warms in command of the ship as Acting Captain. Overnight, the wind increases to thirty miles-per-hour.
Just before three a.m., while the Morro Castle
is eight nautical miles off the coast of Long Beach Island, a fire is detected on B Deck in a storage locker. Thirty minutes later, the entire ship is in flames. The fire quickly burns through the ship's electrical wiring, leading to a loss of power affecting all the ship's systems including its radio. Before the radio goes out, the crew sends out a single SOS transmission. Warms's efforts to beach the ship on the coast are quickly abandoned as the power outage eliminates the vessel's steering capability. He directs the crew to prepare the lifeboats for launch to abandon ship.
Meanwhile, the passengers flee the fire toward the stern of the ship. Throughout the vessel, deck boards are hot to the touch, and the smoke makes it increasingly difficult to breathe. Faced with the decision to either jump ship or burn alive, many passengers jump. The roiling sea, however, worsened by the strong wind, makes it difficult for even strong, experienced swimmers to avoid drowning. Meanwhile, many passengers—unaware of how to use life preservers properly—are knocked unconscious by the preservers the moment they hit the water, causing them to drown. In all, only six of the twelve lifeboats onboard are launched into the water, carrying only 85 people even though the maximum capacity of the lifeboats is 408. Most of the 85 individuals who make it into lifeboats are crew members, not passengers.
Rescue efforts are slow. One ship near the scene of the disaster dispatches a motorboat to the Morro Castle
's wreckage. But after failing to see any survivors in the immediate vicinity of the wreckage, the motorboat is withdrawn. The coast guard doesn't send floatplanes until civilian radio stations report dead bodies washing up on the shore. Rescue efforts eventually accelerate, but in the end, 135 individuals die out of a total of 549 passengers and crew.
Subsequent inquiries revealed that various design components of the ship accelerated the fire. Components designed to make the ship feel more elegant, such as heavily veneered wood and glued ply paneling, are highly flammable. Electric sensors designed to detect fires were only added to a portion of the ship's rooms. Even once the fire was detected, the alarms were so soft that most passengers could not hear them. Various crew practices potentially added to the damage caused by the fire. Though the crew participated in fire drills, passengers were neither required nor encouraged to participate in them. After the fire began, the operators made no effort to correct course, so they weren't sailing directly into the wind, which was a major factor in the fire's rapid spread. Moreover, the Acting Captain waited until 3:18 a.m. to order an SOS transmission, which then wasn't sent until 3:23 a.m. Only minutes later, the fire rendered the radio systems inoperable.
As a result of these inquiries, Acting Captain Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott, and vice-president Henry Cabaud of the Ward Line that owns and operates the ship are tried and convicted of charges related to willful negligence. On appeal, however, Warms and Abbott's convictions are overturned, and much of the blame is assigned to the deceased Captain Willmott. Meanwhile, Chief Radio Operator George White Rogers is hailed as a hero for sending a distress transmission despite his inability to obtain a clear order from his superiors. Later, Rogers is tried and convicted for the attempted murder of police officer Vincent "Bud" Doyle by way of an improvised explosive device. Doyle is convinced that Rogers set the fire, though he is never able to prove it. In 1954, after being released from prison, Rogers is once again tried and convicted, this time of robbing and murdering two of his neighbors.Fire at Sea
is a disturbing chronicle of a disaster that likely would have been far less deadly had various individuals not been willfully negligent in their duties.