The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Morro Castle

The Burning of the Morro Castle

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On September 8, 1934, the cruise ship, the Morro Castle, caught fire en route to New York City, killing 137 people.  The Ward Line luxury liner had left port from Havana, Cuba three days before, running into some rough weather along the way.  Adding to the problems, the ship’s captain, Robert Wilmott, died of a heart attack the day before the fire began.  Officer William Warms assumed control and captained the vessel along the Jersey coast through thirty-mile-an-hour winds.


At about 2:50 on the morning of the tragedy, a crewman reported a fire in a storage locker, which quickly spread throughout the ship.  Captain Warms ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship, but shortly after the flames damaged the electrical system, which knocked out the lights leaving everyone in the dark.
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Radio communications were also impeded, leaving the outside world to wonder what was going on since the radioman was only able to send one S.O.S.  In addition, the fire destroyed the hydraulics that worked the steering system, making it impossible to navigate the vessel, and leaving the Morro Castle adrift in the Atlantic Ocean some eight miles from land.


Panic ensued as those on board tried to find safety, and many were faced with a choice of either burning to death or jumping overboard where it was likely that they would drown in the choppy ocean.  Only half of the ship’s twelve lifeboats were put over the side, and on them only eighty-five people consisting mostly of the crewmen sailed to safety.  As for those who jumped overboard, many were killed by their life preservers, which shifted up when they hit the water, either breaking the victim’s neck, or knocking them out and leaving them helpless.
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The Morro Castle eventually drifted towards Convention Hall pier in Asbury Park, NJ, settling on the sand bars near the beach.  By the time it stopped drifting up the coast most of the ship had burned, leaving spectators and rescues crews to wonder how anyone could have survived.
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George Rogers
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There are several theories as to how the fire started, but the most talked about is arson, which was thought to have been carried out by George Rogers, the ship’s chief radioman, who at first was hailed as being a hero for his ability to send out the S.O.S. despite the chaos and danger around him. 

He was later accused of setting the fire after he attempted to kill a fellow police officer by burning him to death several years after the Morro Castle burned.  Rogers was convicted in that homicide attempt, and again in 1954 for the murder of two of his neighbors whom him killed over money. 

Unfortunately, we will never know if Rogers was the perpetrator in the Morro Castle tragedy since he never admitted to that crime before he died in the fourth year of his prison term.
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Death Certificate Signed by Coroner Borden
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Ocean County’s connection to the Morro Castle story was in the debris and dead bodies that came ashore as it passed by, which kept souvenir hunters, police, and county coroner, William Borden, busy for weeks to come.


You can see an exclusive video of the aftermath in Asbury Park filmed in 1934 here

You can read a full history on the Morro Castle here

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Letter to the Ocean County Coroner


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Letter from the Ocean County Freeholders to Corner William Borden







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