Gare Maritime

George Watremez, Morro Castle survivor

by Jim Kalafus

George Watremez
George Watremez, 1961. "The Toolmaker"

“I did go back to boats, and I’m not scared of the water even though I still don’t know how to swim.”
George Watremez, Morro Castle survivor, smiles slightly and continues; “To tell you the truth, I don’t think about it often….”

Mike and I are sitting in the living room of the Watremez residence.  It is a large room, furnished with antiques that span the history of the 216 year old house. A pair of oil paintings, dating to 1961 hang on the wall over the couch, showing Mrs. Watremez looking coolly elegant with upswept hair and delicately crossed hands, and Mr. Watremez, in a portrait tiled “The Tool Maker”  looking handsome and natural in a  blue work shirt with an open collar.  The room is sunny and friendly, and so too are our hosts. Mrs. Watremez sits beneath her portrait and the contrast is not cruel. She has expressive features, an easy smile and a gracious manner. Mr. Watremez sits to my right in a  comfortable chair. Again, the contrast between The Tool Maker from 1961, and its subject “in the flesh “ in 2006 is not cruel.  He recalls names, dates, and places from 1934 with almost startling accuracy. He can relate a story in  a way that keeps your attention focused throughout, without exaggerating or resorting to ‘storyteller’  tactics.  Like his wife, he is immediately likeable and from the moment we were seated both Mike and myself have felt completely at home.

George Watremez was 19 in 1934, and employed by Dr. James Coll of New Jersey .  Dr. and Mrs. Coll were traveling to Havana with George’s cousin, Dr. Jules Blondeau and his wife, Margie, and in an act of generosity, Dr. Coll treated his chauffeur- George- to a cabin aboard the Morro Castle on what proved to be her fatal voyage.  Jules and Margie Blondeau would swim six miles to shore on the morning of the fire, while Dr. Coll would be killed in a  freak accident and his wife Dorothy brought back to New York City aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. George jumped from the C Deck fantail at the height of the fire, drifted in his life jacket for 8 hours, and was rescued by the Paramount.  A self-described “packrat,” Mr. Watremez still has, in his possession, the 1934 deck plan and interior brochure he received before the voyage, a carefully preserved towel from a Spring Lake hotel that he was given with which to dry himself when he was brought ashore, and the pocket watch he carried with him through the disaster, monogrammed with his initials~ G.L.W. ~and engraved: Morro Castle: September 8th, 1934. “The one thing I regret that I didn’t keep,” he says, “is my life preserver.”  It was removed from him aboard the Paramount and he did not retrieve it upon  disembarking.  A photocopy of a clipping from the family collection shows a distant view of Morro Castle survivors walking towards shore along a dock, among them George: someone has written “George” in the sky portion of the photo, and an arrow points downward to the small, but recognizable, face in the crowd. A box holds a huge stack of New York City newspapers covering all aspects of the disaster~ I randomly reach into the stack and extract a 1935 edition of the New York Daily News with a  cover photo of the burned out hulk of the vessel being towed into Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn. I want, badly, to read through the entire pile, but knowing as I do vintage newspapers’ tendency to self-destruct into a pile of loose pages and paper fragments, I resist the urge to begin digging.

Jeanne and George Watremez
Jeanne and George Watremez, November 2006.
Married since 1941, Mr. and Mrs. Watremez, in person, possess a timeless charm and are immediately likeable. Photo courtesy Michael Poirier

Within a few minutes of commencing the conversation, Mike and I realize that, Morro Castle  connections aside,  Mr. and  Mrs. Watremez, and their daughter Paulette who arranged this meeting, are very interesting people. Over the course of five hours,  the discussion moves in directions I never imagined that it would. “The Normandie”  says Mrs. Watremez, her facing lighting up, “she was the most beautiful ship. She was like a yacht.”   Mr. Watremez’s family owned a popular French restaurant, La Tour Eiffel, on West 52nd street during the 1930’s and early 1940’s and members of the Normandie crew ate there.  George and Jeanne Watremez visited the ship several  times, and on a cold February afternoon in 1942 witnessed her burning.  George recalls the frustration of the Normandie’s skeleton crew, billeted at the Hotel Chesterfield after the U.S. takeover of the liner in the latter half of 1941, at not being permitted to board the ship and aid with the efforts to save her. Later, after the war, Mr.and Mrs. Watremez and their children traveled aboard all of the major French Liners;  Liberte; Ile de France; France.  They sold the restaurant in 1948 ~ the new owner then resold it to Frank Sinatra and it became “Jilly’s,”  the theater district restaurant run by his friend Jilly Rizzo. We have come to discuss the Morro Castle, but our hosts have proved to be an amazing source of unexaggerated and very precise anecdotes regarding classic ocean liners, World War 2, and Roosevelt-era New York City. The conversation touches upon all of my areas of interest in the field of history, and with each new tangent I grow more impressed- and wish that I was tape recording it all for posterity. The family is aware of the disasters to the Havana and Mohawk in the months following the Morro Castle , and are surprised to learn that a Mohawk survivor, Karl Osterhaut, lived out his life ‘just up the road’ from them in a neighboring town. They wonder, aloud, if he read the interview George gave to a local paper in the mid 1980s.  They listen, and laugh, as Mike and I tell briefly of surviving the world’s first portable shipwreck ~ the Queen Mary 2  January 2004  Maiden Voyage.

Don't Miss : Morro Castle, Mohawk and the End of the Ward Line

We were all brought together by the miracle of the Internet Age. The previous September, as the anniversary of the fire approached, George found himself wondering  how many, if any, Morro Castle survivors remain. He asked his daughter, Paulette Cole, to do some online research, and she found my Morro Castle piece in Gare Maritime #1.  We exchanged cordial emails and a meeting was arranged.  So, on a bright Monday morning in November we drive up to the Watremez home. We listen to the rare Towering Inferno soundtrack  album transferred to CD format ~ I am surprised to discover that The Morning After, from The Poseidon Adventure, appears in that film as well~ and speculate on what the coming interview will be like.  I make it a point, in these cases, not to speak with the interview subject in advance lest I, or they, form a prejudicial opinion prior to our meeting, so I have no idea what awaits us. Nor, for that matter, do Mr. and Mrs. Watremez and Paulette. The house is easy to find~ a well maintained 1790 New England Classic~ and we park in front of the carriage house . Paulette greets us at the doorstep, and George welcomes us into the house and introduces us to his wife. There is no initial awkwardness, and soon we are in the parlor exchanging stories in a very relaxed manner. It is the kind of interview one hopes for and seldom encounters.

The morning and early afternoon pass quickly and pleasantly. I tell of how when I was a grade school student I would sporadically look up a Morro Castle survivor- Madeline Desvernine- in the phone book, excited by the fact that she lived perhaps 5 minutes walk from one of my aunts, but too shy to ever phone and ask her about the fire. Mike, who grew up in Rhode Island and whose family has a beach house at Misquamicut - ‘ground zero’ of the 1938 hurricane- mentions that at the same age he did phone local survivors he found listed in the phone book and talk with them about the Labor Day storm. George and Jeanne Watremez remember the storm well. They were dating at the time,. He lived in New York City, and she in Massachusetts, so long distance commuting was part of the courtship. He was driving home on the day of the storm and the trip took 20 hours. 314 died in the coastal section of Rhode Island, but George and his car came through alright. We speak of World War 2, and of how while George was overseas in the infantry Jeanne helped take care of the family business on West 52nd Street. She wrote him daily, and both remember an occasion on which 32 of her delayed letters arrived simultaneously. We notice, and later comment on, the fact that although Mr. and Mrs. Watremez frequently supply additional details to one another’s stories, they never once overlap or interrupt one another.

Finally, tape recorders are set up, and we commence the Morro Castle interview. George speaks, and answers questions, for well over an hour.  As far as interviews go, it is a “snap.”  He is comfortable speaking in semi-monologue form and, as we suspected  would be the case by this point, is an excellent interview subject.  When he does not remember a detail, he flat out says so. When he is relating something of which he was told but did not witness in person, he identifies it as such. Later, when transcribing the tapes, I realize that literally every major detail of his story and 99% of the minor ones can be verified and are correct!  And, George passes what I call ‘the adjective test’  as I knew he would soon after we met. Simply put- the more adjectives and adverbs an interview subject uses, and the more ‘dramatic shading’ he or she attempts to give a story, the less satisfying it becomes.  His narrative is free of padding and unnecessary verbal  ‘decoration’ but rich with supporting detail.:

My name is George Watremez. I’m 91 years old, and I was born in Blackstone, Mass, raised in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Started school at the Stevens School, in 1921. That was a one room school, about 30 kids in it. Nine grades and one teacher. I walked two miles at morning, and two miles at night to attend school. Grew up there, and after that we moved into Providence, Rhode Island~ lived in Providence maybe two or three years, and then on to New York City  Arrived in New York City in 1927, went to Public School 27 and Public School 116, and then Peter Stuyvesant High School- that was at 12th Street and Avenue A. After than I went to work at Nedick’s ~ I was 18. I worked there for a little while and I was out of a job again. Next thing that happened I was employed by this Doctor, Dr. Coll,  as his chauffeur, and that’s how I went on this cruise on the  Morro Castle.

Morro Castle

Well, it was about August 1934 when he decided he’d like to take a trip with his wife  and he invited my cousin and his wife, Jules and Margie Blondeau.  And since I’d be alone and have nothing to do, they took me along, too.  We had a good departure. When we went to the boat it was a beautiful day. I imagine we took a car- might’ve took the subway, I really don’t remember that part. There were streamers and gala ‘this and that’ and the people on the boat waving to the people on the dock. It was an impressive ship- a good sized ship, it probably compared to the  ocean liners. It was quite a vessel. It was new- from what we read about it, it was only 4 years old. We boarded the ship, didn’t have to do anything in particular- I assume the paperwork was taken care of in advance. Were the cabins assigned then?  I do not know- I didn’t make the reservations, the Doctor made the reservations. The cabin- I had the cabin alone going down to Havana. Well, the cabin was very small- it had two bunks- they were bunk beds. It did have a toilet and it did have a  shower bath in it. It had sort of a little alleyway going down to where the porthole and the sink and the water bottles were. It was an inside cabin and it was on C Deck, on the starboard side of the ship- the right hand side of the ship. My cousin and his wife were forward on C Deck on the same starboard side~ I never got to his cabin. And Doctor Coll was on D Deck on the  port side of the ship. One deck lower. Did I have to do any duties for Dr. Coll?  No, no, I was absolutely free. Well, we visited the ship, went around, utilized it. There was, of course, ‘beverage’ aboard. The strong kind (laughs) We took advantage of the ship. What room did I like best? The dining room, I guess. The library. We took a look at the library. We went on deck, of course. Wherever we could go. We played shuffleboard. There was  tricycle racing. I didn’t ride the tricycles. (laughs) My legs were too long.  What was the dining room decorated like? That I wouldn’t remember. There were table clothes and the tables were set, of course. I thought the food was alright, it was good. Yes, all five of us were seated together, but no I don’t remember exactly where. I didn’t bring a camera. I didn’t have a camera in those days, I don’t think any of did. I don’t remember any.

George’s description of his cabin puzzled me. I did not recall ever seeing an upper/lower style cabin with private facilities on C-Deck. Yet, there was one, aft on the Starboard side, just as he described it. C-277 was a Bibby cabin  (an inside cabin turned into an outside by the addition of a porthole reached by a  long, narrow corridor) with upper and lower bunks and a private toilet. A second cabin of similar design, C-227, was located far forward on the Starboard side but does not match any of the other details of Mr. Watremez’s story, leaving 277 as the only choice for his cabin.

Oh yes, on the way down there was probably a wave, or a dip in the ocean or something, but the ship leaned. For a second there you thought we’d hit a stone wall or something. The ship gave one big shudder and then everything flew off the tables. That was just before they opened the doors and let us go in to dinner. It probably took them  maybe 15, 20 minutes to straighten out and put the things back together again. That was probably the day before we arrived in Havana.

What was the night life on the ship like? Entertaining. A good show, plenty of dancing. The cruise director did a very good job. Gave us ideas on what to do when we got ashore….go to la Playa, things like that. Of course there was always Sloppy Joe’s. So, we went to the beach. We went to a nightclub where they played the maracas. And Sloppy Joes’s. Wouldn’t miss Sloppy Joe’s. Odd thing about Havana~ I guess at that time they must have had some military problems. You’d see soldiers sitting on the piers with rifles in their hands. Jules and Margie enjoyed themselves, yes, yes.

The girls that I danced with onboard? Well, I’d hate to tell you that because I don’t dance! (laughs)  We just met, and walked around the decks. Well, one of them lived in Connecticut and one of them was from Brooklyn. I remember one’s name, her name was Roberts.  29 or 30 years old. She had a job working down around Bowling Green in an office building.

George’s female companions were most likely Florence Roberts, of Providence, Rhode Island, and Anne Conway, a secretary from Brooklyn, New York. They were part of a group of four single, female, friends. vacationing together. On the night of the fire, Chief Engineer Eben Abbott found Miss Roberts and Miss Conway, and their friends Floride laRoche and Louise Taubert in a forward corridor on C Deck. He led them to a steel enclosed crew stairway, by which they were able to reach the Boat Deck safely.  The gale force winds were blowing the fire across the port Boat Deck from its inboard side, and flames from the Promenade Deck below had ignited the paint on the steel lifeboats on the outboard side of its  forward half. Boat #10, the only port side boat to escape, had been swung out, and to reach it three out of the four women, and a crew member who was escorting them, had to dash into the flames. Louise Taubert hung back, and  was lost, while Miss laRoche and George’s friends Miss Conway and Miss Roberts became three of  the fewer than ten Morro Castle passengers to escape in one of her lifeboats.

Mrs. Coll. She was about 21. She was picked up by the Monarch of Bermuda, by one of the power launches. They got her on board, and, uh, she heard them call out “watch out for the propeller”  and she said they got her husband- Dr. Coll - they got him right across the head and that killed him. They didn’t pick him up, they left him. He was picked up a  couple of days later, and he was identified  at the Bellevue Morgue. Didn’t know too, too much about her personal background. She as nice, she was basicially a farm girl from a  small town. Except that she had folks down near Camp Dix. She had a brother.  Dr Coll, he’d say “meet my fifth wife” and she’d say “I’m not only your fifth wife, I’m your last wife.”  Well, he’d say that all the time. Any time he introduced her. (laughs) Oh yeah, (laughs) When he, when Dr. Coll was ‘feeling good,’ when he was under the liquor, he’d ask me how fast I was going and I’d say “Fifty miles an hour” and he’d say “put it to sixty.”  And when he was on the ‘straight and narrow’ he’d say “how fast are you driving?” and I’d say “forty” and he’d say  “cut it down to thirty-five.” He’d drink for a while, then his feet would swell up, and he’d clean up for a month or so. When they found him, when they identified him at Bellevue Morgue this whole side of his head (indicates area of right temple) was pretty…well, it was damaged.

Newsreel footage of the pretty but understandably shocked looking Mrs. Coll, is familiar to Morro Castle researchers.  Dr. Coll was 50 in 1934, while his wife was either 21 or 23, depending on the source. The press was confused by the age difference between Dr. and Mrs. Coll  and on many occasions she was identified as his 21 year old daughter. The passenger list in Fire at Sea contains a Mrs. Coll and a Miss  Coll, but George Watremez does not equivocate when he says ‘”There was no daughter. It was just the Doctor and his wife.”  The various lists are also in error concerning George. In Fire at Sea, and in most published lists from 1934 he is ‘George Atromez’ passenger, but he is also occasionally listed as Charles Atromez, Charles Watremez, and  Charles Atromez, missing and presumed dead crew member.

We did a little relaxing. We tried to keep busy. On the way back, on the way back that’s when it started. The storm. That was a ( word dropped) that storm, believe me. When did I notice the weather changing? The first night out, probably, I don’t remember. Was I concerned? No! Nothing to be concerned about, the water was rough, that’s all. No, no, nobody got seasick in our party. Did I meet the captain? No, I never met the captain. The only crewman I ever met was the cruise director.

How did we find out about the big party? Well that was announced in the  programme like everything else. Everybody was getting steamed up about it, and that’s when they announced that the ….Captain Wilmot was dead and  that all festivities were cancelled. We could enjoy ourselves whatever way we wanted, do what we wanted, but, uh, as far as the ship was concerned that was it. We weren’t in the  dining room when we heard the announcement~ it was the Cruise Director who made the announcement.

There wasn’t much to do but talk, and kid around, and laugh and whatnot. Now, the Doctor was with us. He was with us quite for a bit …if he’d had a little too much (makes ‘taking a drink’ gesture with his hand) he’d disappear. Go sleep it off. Did he drink heavily during the cruise? Now, I really don’t know what you’d call ‘heavily’ for that type of man. Light or heavily, he drank quite a bit anyway. I don’t know what they charged for drinks, I didn’t take any. I was 19.  There were groups and this and that, but you didn’t hear any singing or screaming- it was very subdued.

Crew members would later claim, as would author Hal Burton, that the ship’s alarm system was set off early on in the fire, rousing and giving warning to the passengers, very few of whom were trapped in their cabins by the advancing fire. However, while doing research for The Morro Castle, the Mohawk and the End of The Ward Line (Gare Maritime #1) I noticed that over 100 passenger accounts from 1934 were consistent in one detail~ nearly everyone who survived was awakened not by alarms but by the sounds of the panicked passengers from forward in the  ship fleeing aft ahead of the fire. George recalls, conversationally and on tape, that he was awakened by people in the all outside of his cabin banging on pots and pans as an improvised alarm.

I went to bed probably around one, 1:30. On the way back I had a roommate in my cabin. I had met him once before that night, and uh, that’s it, I went to bed. Then when the banging on the pots and pans started going, I got up, and got a drink of water, looked out the porthole and the sky was red. I knew it was something serious. And by that time everybody was yelling and screaming in the hallway. I went back to put my clothes on- put on a  shirt and trousers and we got out. Oh yeah, the companionway it was filling up with smoke.  You could still see, you could still navigate but it was filling up with smoke.  And that’s when my roommate gave his lifebelt away.  The lifebelts? Where were they kept in the cabin? Under the bunk. And, uh, then I left him and went looking for my cousin. I found them coming up the hall and, I went down to see about Dr. Coll and his wife and I didn’t see my cousin and his wife again ‘til we got home, got to New York. I went down to D Deck and Dr. Coll and his wife were just coming out- the door to the cabin was open, and they were coming out. He was having problems with his life preserver and I finished tying it up~ but his wife’s was alright. And the lights went out. And…I told them “let’s hold hands” because I knew the way out, and we went up the stairs to B Deck and  from there we could see pretty well.

Did we try to get to the lifeboats? Well, when we were on C Deck and B Deck to get to the lifeboats seemed like… well it was, an impossibility…. The boats on one side weren’t lowered and on the other side some were, some weren’t. how far along B Deck did we get before we turned back? We didn’t; get far at all- didn’t get to the superstructure at all- it was just one blaze. I went from B to C. and by that time I was alone. I’d lost track of the Doctor, I’d lost track of my cousin~ or they’d lost track of me, I don’t know. And, uh, C Deck was crowded and it was covered overhead by the deck above it and I was really on the extreme fantail of the boat. Well, there was panicking and it was crowded and finally the vibration of the boat….I figured the propellers were rotating and I wasn’t about to jump in and be sucked in to the propeller.  When the vibration stopped, that’s when I decided, “well, it’s time to get out of here.”   Well, the steel plates were burning- it was the paint that was burning. It was a nightmare on earth. The smoke from this paint and everything else- it would suffocate you. And that’s why I went overboard. Was there any part of the crew trying to direct us? No.  Did I see a crewmember with a hose?  Yes, that was up on B Deck. We got up on B Deck and it was spectacular. On the port side, and he must have been up on A Deck. We saw him holding a hose, and  the hose was just a trickle. And that was the end of that. How far was the fire from the man with the hose? Well, it wasn’t a good way away from him. I was probably 50 feet back on B Deck. Way back.

B Deck, aft, was an open sports deck . As such, there was nothing to block the thick smoking rolling aft from the superstructure and, during the early stages of the fire, a driving rain was beating down. Many, like George and the Colls, went up to B Deck but soon retreated to C Deck where conditions were slightly more tolerable.  They left evidence of themselves behind, some of which survived the fire and was photographed as a forlorn still life the day after the disaster:

And, of course there was all handbags and purses and coats and trousers- all things people didn’t need and dropped and left behind.  B Deck was just mobbed with everything.

Conditions on C Deck were marginally better than those on B. A small lounge and smoking room, which could be used as second class facilities on voyages requiring two classes, stood in a  deckhouse independent of the first class portion of the ship, and so did not immediately catch fire along with the superstructure. It also served to block some of the smoke pouring aft.  The passengers lucky enough to find a space along the starboard rail were able to breath relatively fresh air, but as conditions worsened and the second class deck house began to burn, the crowd of passengers who could not obtain a place at the rail began to jostle, and then push forward as the choking smoke poured back over them. Abraham Cohen, of Hartford, Connecticut, would recall being trapped in the smoke at the  rear of the crowd, and pushing his way forward with his wife, Harriet, before they collapsed.  Rosario Camacho, of Havana, began blacking out from the smoke she was inhaling and, in desperation, sank her teeth into the back of a man who was blocking her progress to the rail; he moved and she was able to climb the rail and jump. A few had jumped early on in the disaster‘s progression, while the ship was underway, but at some point after 4 a.m. the C Deck fantail became uninhabitable and its occupants started jumping into the darkness for their lives.

Well, when I jumped they’d been dropping in left and right. They’d been going down the side, down the ropes, jumping, whatever. I went off the absolute fantail of the ship on C Deck, right at the flagpole. At that time you didn’t think about waves. You just thought to get off, because you couldn’t breathe. The smoke, and  the lead paint burning, and everything else…in fact, I put a wet handkerchief on, on D Deck. I wet it and put it over my mouth so that I wouldn’t be breathing all that smoke.  Before I jumped could I see people in the water? No! No, it was too dark and it was far down. It was quite a drop. Well, there were ropes that were thrown over so that people could slide down or something but I never saw those ‘til I got in the water. Then I got down there, went deep when I went under. When I came up, that’s when I got tangled up in them. They were like the big ropes they used to dock the ship at the pier. I broke loose of that in record time. When I jumped I thought “Well, you don’t know how to swim, but it’s a darned good time to learn.”  I kept my feet together and kept my arms down, because I knew those cork life preservers would come up and kill you. And it took me a long time to hit the water, and when I did I just kept going down, down, down.  And when I started coming up again I got tangled up. But this all took place in the space of a minute. How long can you hold your breath? Two minutes? Three minutes? That’s about it!

When you were in the water you could see shadows and whatnot. You‘d come up on a wave and you‘d spot somebody. When daybreak came it helped out a bit. Of course we never did get the sun~ it was a stormy morning.

How long did I stay by the ship once I was in the water? Not long because the ship drifted away from us. It was still moving, either by the wind or whatever propulsion…

When I looked up at the ship I saw a monster of a fire burning. It wasn’t a pretty picture. She was burning, I’d say, from the wheelhouse all the way back, all the way back to B Deck. It looked like the steel was burning, but that was the paint, the lead paint.

Six of the Morro Castle’s twelve lifeboats were successfully lowered from the ship and, eventually reached shore, in one of the most notorious events of the Morro Castle disaster. Starboard boats 1.3.5,9 and 11, and Port boat 10, with a capacity of 408 people saved only 85. Of these,  Charles Cochrane, Renee Capote, Paul Arneth, Anne Conway, Florence Roberts and Floride laRoche are the only passengers known to have come ashore in a Morro Castle lifeboat, the remaining 79 were likely all crew.  In partial defense of the crew, within 20 minutes of the fire’s outbreak, it had blown up through the lounge well and set fire to the boat deck from amidships aft.  Most of the passengers fled not upward, but towards the stern portion of the decks on which they were quartered.  By the time efforts were made to reach the superstructure, and  A Deck, it was too late.   However, what is indefensible is the subsequent abandoning of the passengers and crew struggling in the water around the ship. Dozens would later testify, in court and in print, of lifeboats that bypassed them as they called for help in the water. Katherine Phelps would recall struggling in the water and watching Boat #1 pass her by, Chief Engineer Abbott identifiable in his dress whites and bow tie. Dolly and Sydney Davidson would speak of a lifeboat crew calling ‘no room’ to them as it passed by~ Nathene Loveland recalled the same thing.  Franz Hoed de Beche, 18, a champion high school swimmer, jumped from the Morro Castle without a lifejacket, seriously underestimating the effort it took to swim for a prolonged period in a storm.  Exhausted, he clung to the lifejacket of shipboard acquaintance Marjorie Budlong, 18, who would later remember asking a lifeboat crew to pull them in and being refused. She then asked them to at least take in the  semi-conscious Mr. Hoed de Beche, but the boat continued onward and soon after Franz released his hold on her lifebelt and sank.  Crew members who escaped by lifeboat would claim in 1934, and forever after, that the seeming abandonment of the passengers was regrettable but unavoidable: The boats were undermanned and uncontrollable in the high seas and high winds. Perhaps such truly was the case, but one must observe that five of the six boats were lowered from the windward side of the ship and yet had control enough to get clear of her hull, and row around her stern and then towards shore. None of the boats turned broadside to the waves and were swamped, nor did any of the boats turn broadside and capsize when they reached the quarter-to-half mile breaker zone near shore. It must also be noted that Chief Engineer Abbott’s boat was motorized,  and could conceivably have been used to ferry survivors from the water to the other boats, but the motor was never used. Madeline Clancy, secretary of the Spring Lake Red Cross, who was present through the rescue effort would later tell author Hal Burton:

It struck me as strange at the time that so many crew members came in…but as the passengers came in, most of whom had swum to shore, I understood all too soon. Those crew members had saved their own skin….Oh, that crew should have been murdered.

(Hal Burton, The Morro Castle. Viking Press, 1973.)

But, there were many instances of heroism reported regarding the 150 crewmen and women who did not leave the ship. At least 40 were lost, and many more were injured or brought ashore in deep shock after prolonged immersion. But, although the men and women of the crew manned hoses, awakened passengers, tied on lifebelts, pulled passengers from burning A Deck cabins and attempted, in some areas, to maintain order, the image of the departing lifeboats was indelible. Many surviving passengers retained a great deal of bitterness towards the crew for the rest of their lives: if one has had the experience of calling for help and being left behind in a  storm at sea, it is understandable if one is unforgiving.  George Watremez does not seem to harbor the level of anger and bitterness shown by other survivors, but it is clear that he is not a supporter of the crew, either. He points out several times, in conversation, that he received no help from any crew member during the entire  length of his ordeal.

When I was in the water I never saw any Morro Castle lifeboats. I know there was a couple of them that landed at the beach, but I only know that because I was told that. From where I was on C Deck you couldn’t see alongside of the ship. I never got to look over the side of the ship so I don’t know if the lifeboats were there or not. But I know there was one ‘tipped up’ on A Deck that never got down because something had happened ~ the ropes were tangled up or something. But we never had a fire drill, I can tell you that. No, we never had a lifeboat drill.

The people. A lot of them, they tried to stay in groups. But, a lot of them were holding hands, trying to stay up, and I avoided that  because I was afraid of being taken down if somebody passed out or somebody died. So, stayed close to a group, but not in the group.

My cousin and his wife? They jumped, that‘s what they told me. And then they swam ashore. (laughs) Jules, as a young kid was deathly afraid of snakes and that carried on when he was grown up. He was afraid of snakes all his life. Now, daylight is breaking and Margie’s in her nightgown and that’s it, and they’re both swimming along, swimming together. Now, with daybreak coming he turned around and said “Margie, you’ve got a snake following you”  and she looked and said “Oh, that’s my silver fox.”  And that was the end of the silver fox.  Now, here’s a woman, she saved her silver fox but never put any clothes on. Margie- she was a blues singer in…I don’t remember the name of the group she was in. She was very good and she was leaving New York for St. Louis. He met… they met… on a  Monday night. He was in a nightclub and they met that Monday night and Saturday, the same week, they got married~ they went down to the Municipal Building in New York and  they got married. (laughs softly) and stayed married for two months under 50 years. She was a very good singer. (Mrs. Watremez interjects. “She was a very lovely lady”) Yes, she was, a  very lovely lady. She was originally from Connecticut. She had a mother and sister also- they used to come to the restaurant. She was very nice. They lived in New Jersey and later on Philadelphia.

I was in the water, maybe 15, 20.… a half hour maybe, and I met this…I met the roommate, the cabin mate of mine, and he still didn’t have a preserver on so he hung on to me for a little while, but of course he kept swimming. He wasn’t a big burden, and as time went by  we ran into a  little boy maybe 10, 11, 12 years old, I don’t know, and he was in an adult preserver and he kept falling in and out of it- he was having an awful time staying afloat. But we did tie him up, got him hooked up right. And, of course, the roommate had his one hand on each of our shoulders and we decided he was getting pretty weak and we had to do something. So…. I suggested we get a preserver off of a body. And, uh, he wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, he asked me to do it, and we went over and we found a body...and pulled the preserver right….now, these cork preservers you had to keep kicking , kicking all the time otherwise you’d turn over and your fanny’d come up out of the water and your head and feet would jack knife down. So, uh, I got him the life preserver and he put it on and we stuck together. Finally, it was daylight now and we were close enough where we could see people on the beach. And they decided to swim for it, but I didn’t go along because I didn’t know how to swim and I didn’t want to jeopardize their chances. And then a change in the tide came and I started drifting out again.

After day break you couldn’t see the ship any more. She kept drifting, drifting towards Asbury Park…and of course the tide took us and we were drifting in another direction.

Daylight found three large vessels on hand, commencing the rescue effort; Furness-Bermuda’s elegant Monarch of Bermuda; the Savannah Lines’ City of Savannah, and the Luckenbach Lines’ Andrea Luckenbach.  However, the storm, the tide, and the Morro Castle’s continued drift had scattered her passengers and crew over a large area, running several miles along the coast and up to six miles between the ship’s path and the shore.  Fishing vessels and charter boats, pressed to sea by dutiful and fearless crews, combed a larger area than the lifeboats from the three rescue ships could. Singly, and in groups, the Morro Castle’s people, most of them in  various stages of shock, and several on the brink of death from exposure and prolonged immersion were pulled from the water.  The former rum-runner Paramount, a one time possession of Dutch Schultz, was by 1934 a popular charter fishing vessel owned by John Bogan Sr, of Brielle New Jersey, and operated by him and his two sons Jimmy and John Jr. On the morning of the fire, the Bogan family and a crew made up of six captains and mates from other vessels, set out into the mounting storm and earned a place in New Jersey legend by effecting the most successful rescue operation of the day.  Among the crew was Bill Fuhrman, who would later tell author Hal Burton:

“It still puts the shivers to me. The only way I can describe it is to say it was one big mess; people bleeding, people with cuts and bruises, people with broken bones, some people waving for help, and floating all around them the bodies of the drowned.”

(Hal Burton: The Morro Castle. The Viking Press. 1973)

On tape, George Watremez’s voice registers the most emotion of the interview when he, briefly, tries to describe what he saw when he hauled himself aboard the Paramount. Conversationally, he recalled that few remained ambulatory after coming aboard. People lay aboard the deck, some exhausted, some unconscious and a few clearly dying. George himself soon passed out.

The rain had stopped and I guess the wind  had stopped as well, because the water was in rollers and before it was big peaked waves. They’d hit you and you’d take a drink whether you wanted to or not. By this time it was daylight and we (the passengers and crew adrift-J.K.)  weren’t really close in the water, and along came the Paramount. Well, I’d see them picking up people over there and I hoped they’d come over and pick up me, and finally they picked up a person a hundred feet from me. I heard that motor start up and that’s when I said “Hey, what about me?”  They said they’d be right back to pick me up, and I said “I can’t swim!“  And that’s when Bogan calls down to me “Then what are you doing out here?” He was right. (laughs) Really. (laughs)  But, I tell you, that five or ten minutes it took for them to pick me up was longer than the eight hours I spent in the water.  The boat came alongside and I was able to grab this…with one hand…this post, this post of the handrail and crawled up on board.  They’d picked up 61...that was a mess on that boat. (Whistles) god…I mean, nothing but flesh, some dressed some naked some half dressed….I passed out, and when I came to, I was  parched, so they handed me a bottle and it wasn’t a whiskey bottle- I still think to this day it must have been Canadian Club or something. And  I started going and going and going …glug glug glug… and I couldn’t taste it, and they say to me “hey, that’s all we got on board.” But there wasn’t anything left in the bottle.  So, uh, finally we made landfall. And then we were received and we were given clean, dry clothes. I got a pair of bib overalls and, I did get long john underwear. Then we walked to the train, and I didn’t have shoes on and I was walking on the cinders. And the American Legion got me a pair of shoes. We got aboard this special train, and it took us to Penn Station, and the Hotel New Yorker. We were able to get between building without ever going above ground.  They had these ropes set up on the platform to keep people back from us. My uncle…my step father’s brother…he came under the ropes. He’d taken the subway, the IRT, to 34th street.  Then we walked over to the Hotel New Yorker- we didn’t get outdoors at all, we stayed inside all the time. And that’s where I met my folks. I’d sent a telegram home, and that kind of saved the day because, my mother…my mother was working in a building down at Union Square, and she didn’t know…my step father didn’t tell her, but some of the women where she worked were talking about the fire, so she knew.

“But, I tell you, that five or ten minutes it took for them to pick me up was longer than the eight hours I spent in the water.”

Many survivors later voiced similar sentiments when trying to describe the worst part of the Morro Castle experience. After 5, 6, 7 or more hours adrift, people could feel themselves weakening and growing groggy- the knowledge that rescue ships were on hand but might not reach one in time was horrible in a way that most later found impossible to articulate.  Helen Brodie of Hartford, Connecticut and her cousin, Agnes Berry, of  Springfield, Massachusetts, jumped from the stern together, from the same area of C Deck as George Watremez.  Helen, who was wearing  lifebelt, supported the steadily weakening Agnes, who wasn’t, for several hours .  Governor Moore, of New Jersey, had flown to the disaster site in his private plane and aided rescue by circling and dipping his plane’s wings at survivors he spotted in the water until rescue craft start in their direction. He spotted Agnes and Helen, and led a small boat towards them.  Agnes, according to Helen, became “hysterical”  at the sight of the plane and the oncoming rescue craft and then a large wave struck the two women and she was carried away, never to be seen again. In less than five minutes the rescue boat arrived and pulled Helen Brodie aboard.  Her 25 year old cousin died, and her body may never have been recovered.

I was filmed by the Universal Newsreels, but I don’t know if they ever used it or not. I was told to go to the  Trans-Lux on such and such a day and I’d see myself, but I  went and didn’t see myself. Dr. Coll’s wife. They filmed her getting off the Monarch of Bermuda. They used the film on that movie HBO did. She was on the gang plan and talked to them and then said   “Oh, I just can’t talk anymore.”

Did I suffer any ill effects from being in the water that long? No ill effects except, you see, for the chafing from the lifejacket and my clothes moving up and down. The chafing was absolutely horrible. Your whole chest, your back your legs were just raw, and then, of course, your problem was for a few days after that, or maybe a week, you’re drying up. And you’d be wanting to talk to somebody but when you’d turn around, you’d crack. Other than that, there was nothing.

Did I ever have a dream, or a nightmare about the Morro Castle?  No… oh, I thought about it a lot, but I never had a nightmare. No.

Oh, (laughs) the following week I was going to Providence. I used to take the Colonial Line. They had two ships- they were river boats, actually, the Concord and the Lexington, and they docked at Water Street in Providence. The boats used to leave from Canal Street on the Hudson River. So I spent the night on it, but I didn’t have a stateroom because I couldn’t afford the dollar and  a half it cost for the night. So I’d sit up all night, sleep in a chair. It was starting daybreak, and I started smelling smoke. I came out on deck, and I smelled smoke- wood burning. And of course the ship is all wood. So a watchman came by- I went looking for one- and I said “can you smell smoke?”  And he checked, and he said “they’re lighting the galley stoves for breakfast.” And I just said “oop.” 

Did the Morro Castle change my life, affect my life in any way?  No…I don’t think so. I think I let it pass over. I did go back to boats, and I’m not scared of the water even though I still don’t know how to swim. I owned my own boat, for a while. To tell you the truth, I don’t, I don’t think about it very often. It just happened  last week or so, I said to my daughter  “I wonder how many survivors are still living?”  I was probably one of the youngest ones on board. She left it at that and a few days later she told me she’d been on the internet and had contacted you folks.

The Blondeaus? I think they probably did the same as I did- think about it for a while and then let it go. But on the tape…I went to visit my cousin- his wife had died already- in South Carolina and I brought that tape down, by HBO whatever it is, and showed it to him. And he’d forgotten quite a bit. ‘cause he was older than I am, six or seven years older than I am. Was in a nursing home at the time.

How did I find out about the other Ward Line disasters? The Havana and the Mohawk? That was when we were meeting at the hotel with some of the survivors. The hotel at 56th…55th and Broadway- I don’t remember the name…. it wasn’t the Taft. The meetings went on…we met maybe once a month and it went on for a year maybe or so.

I was subpoenaed to appear at the hearings, but I never too the stand, I was never called. I had to show up- I got paid for it, and you’d be there for an hour or two and you’d just sit. And the judge, was by the name of Hoover and his brother- J. Edgar Hoover, that was his brother.  I did hear from one of the watchmen who was on the ship and he’d been subpoenaed  to talk and he volunteered the question that he knew and he could prove, that the Captain had been murdered. And Hoover told him “We didn’t ask you that question.”  At least that’s what he told me- how true it is, I don’t know.

Cash settlement?  Ah, yeah. I sued them for $50,000.00 and got $800.00.  $800, but of course I had to split it up with the lawyer. So, he wanted 50% of the $800.00 and he only got, maybe, 30%  because at that time I was still a minor. In those days you were a minor until you were 21.

Did I got to see the ship? Yeah, I took my folks down to see it. We didn’t pay the .50 to go to the end of the dock- we thought that was pretty rough on the  part of the mayor of Asbury Park. It was quite a sight to see- it still looked like a big ship. It was pretty much a wreck.

Was there ever a time I thought I wouldn’t escape?  No, not really. No. The only time I got pretty anxious was the last five or ten minutes waiting for the Paramount to come back. That felt like….that was longer than the eight hours I spent in the water. It was just anxiety.

George in 1944I have a four hour drive back to New York ahead of me, and so with regrets it is decided to bring our visit to a close. Pictures are taken, hands are shaken, and it is mutually agreed that we will all keep in touch and that a second visit is in order. We speculate on what might have become of Dorothy, Dr. Coll's widow. 21 or 23 in 1934, it is possible that she might still be alive.  Paulette escorts us to the sun porch, and while admiring a pair of Christmas Cactus, I notice, and comment on, a ca. 1944 photo of George, framed along with his medals from World War 2.  And so the visit continues for a bit longer. Mr. Watremez gets his coat and takes us to the carriage house, where his WW2- era Ford Jeep is kept.  The Jeep was used as a  ‘driver’ for years after George acquired it, and then restored over a ten year period beginning in the 1980’s.  “It is mostly used for parades now.” Vintage cars are almost as consuming an interest of mine as are ships and shipwrecks, and I am impressed by the restoration. We talk for a bit longer in the driveway and George gives us permission to address him informally.  He returns to the house, and we drive off towards the interstate, late afternoon sunlight and the haunting strains of the Towering Inferno score filling the car.

1) C-277. George Watremez's cabin. For this cabin, Dr. James Coll paid $115. Across the passage, the next cabin toward the bow, C-271, was occupied by Miss Gertrude Cohn and Miss Sidney Folkman, both of whom survvied. The cabin on the outboard side of George's , C-275, was occupied by a Miss Sherman, also a survivor. The fourth cabin in the block, C-273, was occupied by Helen Brodie of Hartford, Connecticut, who survived, and her cousin, Agnes Berry of Springfielod, mass. who was lost.


2) C- 249. The cabin of Jules and Margie Blondeau. Dr. Coll paid $110 for this room. Although larger than that of George Watremez, it did not have its own toilet and so commanded a lower fare. Ernest Pottberg, of Staten Island, New York, who occupied the cabin inboard of the Blondeaus, C-247 was lost, as was Mrs. August Scheely in C-253, although Mr. Scheely survived. C-251 was occupied, but the Ward Line did not have record of by whom.

3) D-328. Dr. James Coll and his wife Dorothy occupied one of three oddly situated First Class Cabins on the port side of D-Deck. The rooms were cut off from D Deck by a passage between the second class cabins in the deckhouse, aft, and the second class dining room. Accessible only by one flight of stairs, these rooms could only have been escaped from for a limited time, but, fortunately, the other two in the group were unoccupied. This room cost $125 for seven days.

Two weeks later I sit in a NYC area archive reading the Morro Castle ticketing list. I had already guessed, through examining the deck plan that George was most likely in cabin 277, and he was. Jules and Margie Blondeau? Cabin 249 which, just as he said,  was a bit forward of him on C Deck. James and Dorothy Coll? Cabin 328, aft on the port side, again just as George remembered. The Colls were in what we have often referred to as “the probable Death Cabins,” a group of three isolated outboard first class cabins occupying space in the  middle of second class on D Deck. There was no access to D Deck and the only escape was up one flight of stairs or, if one awakened too late, out the porthole. However, the other two cabins in the group, according to the Ward Line documents, were unoccupied, so the Death Cabins claimed no victims. Lost, however, is the ticketing list for passengers who embarked in Havana, so George’s cabin mate from the last two nights remains nameless. From other sources I have matched all but 6 of the Havana passengers to their cabins, three of whom are female, and of the remaining names it seems most likely that George roomed with Frank Dittman, 18, who sailed one way from Havana to NYC, and that the little boy they helped in the water was Raymond Lione of Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y. who died after being pulled on to a rescue craft.

Mr. Watremez allowed Mike and me to listen to, and borrow, an audiotaped recounting of his Morro Castle experiences that he recorded for a grandson who was doing a school project. He and Mrs. Watremez proudly showed us the well done photo boards, and essay in booklet form, which won the grandson first prize. It was an exceptionally well executed seventh grade project, and we admired the work it represented.

Next : The Watremez Tape

Detour : Morro Castle, Mohawk and the End of the Ward Line