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Fire at Sea: Tragedy of the SS Morro Castle
The Morro Castle after the devastating fire.

Fire at Sea: Tragedy of the SS Morro Castle

On the morning of 8 September 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing 137 passengers and crew members.

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She was a luxury ocean liner of the 1930s that was built for the Ward Line for runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba.

Passengers who died in the fire.

Passengers who died in the fire.

  • The Morro Castle was named for the Morro Castle fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay.
  • The ship eventually beached herself near Asbury Park, New Jersey, and remained there for several months until she was towed off and scrapped.
Passengers aboard the SS Morro Castle.

Passengers aboard the SS Morro Castle.

  • The devastating fire aboard the SS Morro Castle was a catalyst for improved shipboard fire safety.
  • Today, the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater attention to fire drills, and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster.

“El Desastre del Morro Castle” by Leopoldo González interpreted by Trio Matamoros. Featured here are 16mm home movies from that period, the first being “Sandy Sails Morro Castle” for the sail away footage, followed by amateur movies of the ship still burning on the beach in New Jersey. 

  • When the Morro Castle departed Havana for the final time on September 5th 1934, she carried aboard her 318 passengers and a crew of 231.
  • On September 7th, as the voyage drew near to its conclusion, the series of events that culminated in disaster commenced. That night,the weather deteriorated a fire was discovered in a storage locker in the port side B deck Writing Room.
The lobby and cruise passengers aboard the SS Morro Castle.

The lobby and cruise passengers aboard the SS Morro Castle.

  • The ship was kept sailing into the wind for a regrettably long time, driving the fire aft, up through the lounge well, and out onto the boat deck. Passengers, unable or unwilling to risk running through the flames to reach the boats congregated on the open decks aft on B, C and D Deck.
  • The vast majority of those who escaped in the Morro Castle lifeboats were crew members, a fact later to draw much negative criticism, mitigated somewhat by the fact that they were quartered forward on the ship and had a knowledge of onboard shortcuts and crew staircases that the passengers did not possess.
  • Those trapped at the stern began jumping when it appeared that the flames were about to burst from the superstructure on to the aft decks.
  • Many broke their necks or knocked themselves out jumping improperly with life preservers on, while others jumped or were thrown from the ship without any life saving devices only to weaken and drown struggling in the increasing storm.
  • Passengers who did not awaken in time had to jump from the cabins in which they found themselves trapped by the fire.
  • Few survived.

A tour of the city of Havana, Cuba in the 1930s filmed by Andre de la Varre. Footage from this subject is available for licensing from www.globalimageworks.com. Passengers aboard the Morro Castle are seen on deck arriving in Havana. This is a Havana of the past…

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The first SS Morro Castle...

For 115 years, the American flag Ward Line provided freight and passenger service to Nassau, Havana, and Mexican Gulf Ports. The company was a critical link between these ports and the New York City, and its ships played a major role in the history of the nations they served.
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Ward Line advertisement from a 1928 edition of Travel Magazine…

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The Morro Castle band in happier times…

Many people know the Ward Line only through the Morro Castle of 1930, the liner whose tragic loss by fire in September 1934 changed Safety of Life at Sea laws forever and was a very important part of cruise line history.

images1.jpgThe SS Morro Castle was a the second ship of that name built for the Ward Line in the 1930s for service between New York City and Havana, Cuba. The Morro Castle was named for the Morro Castle fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay. In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 8, 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing a total of 137 passengers and crew members. The ship eventually beached herself near Asbury Park, New Jersey and remained there for several months until she was eventually towed away and sold for scrap.

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The devastating fire aboard the SS Morro Castle served to improve fire safety for future ships.

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Today, the use of fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater attention to fire drills and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster.

The Ward Line website goes beyond the tragic loss of this ship (the single worst loss of life in U.S. history in peacetime) to explore the larger company history through images and memorabilia.

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Another advertisement from The Ward Line…

The Ward Line ships were a critical links for U.S. interests in Cuba, Mexico, and the Bahamas, and they served a cross-section of the American public for nearly twelve decades.

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This Ward Line weathered the storms of revolution, war, poor rofits, fickle subsidies, tragic losses, and changing technology to serve the U.S. Merchant Marine from 840 until 1955… the oldest U.S. shipping company at the time of its liquidation.

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Cruising The Past is an informative site on travel featuring photos, videos and stories. Ships, trains, hotels and high society.

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