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Historic Moments in Safety: The Morro Castle Fire

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Steamship Morro Castle on Fire

The Morro Castle was a ship built with great expectations. She would ship mail along the eastern seaboard, and be the luxurious cruise ship for millionaires and businessmen, couples and socialites and anyone who wished to enjoy the 59-hour stretch between New York and Cuba.

From her christening in March 1930 to her destruction four years later, she was just that. Even in the firm grip of the Great Depression, the Morro Castle remained an ever popular vessel to escape the hardships of the times.

But the ship’s splendour ended tragically in September of 1934.

On the night of September 7th, the weather had shifted from calm to strong winds, dark clouds and rain. The majority of the passengers and crew moved indoors to stay out of the deteriorating weather.

The captain, Robert Willmott, retired early after dinner on September 7th. He had complained of a sore stomach, and hours later died of a heart attack.

The sad event left a chaotic scramble in the chain of command. Chief Officer, William Warms, took his place as Captain and his subordinates followed suit, getting placed in a higher level than they had been trained for. With the weather worsening, panic ensued.

A fire started in a small locker on B Deck. The size of the fire had initially been small enough to put out. But because of the panic of the crew, the fire was abandoned and fire-exit doors were left open as they ran to the bridge to report the incident to Warms. By that time, precious seconds were wasted and the fire had consumed the ship.

Because of the plumbing in the ship, only six fire hydrants could be activated at one time. The untrained crew activated all the hydrants at once, which seriously decreased the water pressure resulting in an ineffective fight against the raging fire.

The fire made it impossible for the desperate passengers and crew to navigate through the ship to find their way amidships where the lifeboats were located. Of the 549 passengers and crew on board the ship, 135 died.

On the early morning of September 8th, the blazing Morro Castle drifted ashore in New Jersey where it burned for two days. The corpse of the ship remained there from September of 1934 to March of 1935, when it was finally towed away for scrap.

The Morro Castle disaster prompted the necessity for fire-safety at sea. Following the tragedy, ships were renovated and built with automatic fire-doors, better fire-alarm systems and fireproof materials were used in the construction of the ships. Firefighting and proper training became mandatory for the crew on all ships.

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