Morro Castle, Mohawk and the end of the Ward Line : Part 2

Dolly Davidson : I won’t die! I won’t!

Courtesy of Anthony Cunningham – September 12, 2003

Dolly Davidson

Dolly Davidson

“In those days, Cuba was an exciting and exotic destination so my husband Sydney and I decided to take a honeymoon cruise aboard the Morro Castle because the ship was so beautiful and the length of the cruise was just right. We hoped it would be a romantic start to our married life.

I had been a child actress both on screen and stage and by quite an early age I had appeared with the legends Katherine Cornell and W.C. Fields. At the time of the Morro Castle trip I was 21 years old and working as a model on Fifth Avenue, New York. My husband was the owner of a fabric business, selling to the fashion houses. Being reasonably comfortable we decided to splash out and go first class.

The night before we were supposed to dock in Havana I fell over on the boat deck and sprained my ankle. Sydney and I therefore stayed on board instead of exploring the city. It wasn’t so bad ‘though, as Sydney surprised me with a wedding gift of a fur coat and a diamond watch. These, and all of our other possessions, were lost during the tragedy which followed.

Our cabin was pleasant enough, but some of the staterooms were quite enchanting. I particularly recall the first class lounge and dining room as being quite exquisite. The service on board was attentive and the food was very good indeed. In all we were more than happy- being newly married adding to our general good spirits I suppose!

We didn’t have a lifeboat or fire drill once while we were onboard.No one seemed bothered about it ‘though and we didn’t give it much thought- not then, at least.

1 morro castle deckshot 3 1 morro castle deckshot

Happier times on the Morro Castle
Michael Poirier Collection

There was quite a bit of drinking and partying going on. Everyone was very sociable and determined to have a good time. The ship’s orchestra piped out lovely tunes, which we danced to every night.

For the last night of the cruise we were invited to attend the gala dinner at the Captain’s table. Naturally, we were both very excited and looking forward to it tremendously. Suddenly word was sent out that Captain Wilmott had died of a heart attack and that all subsequent festivities were to be cancelled. A sort of gloom spread over everyone after that. Some passengers were suspicious because the Captain had appeared to be in such good health a few hours before. So Sydney and I had a quiet dinner followed by a nightcap and went to bed early.

At about 3Am Sydney was awakened by a noise in the hall. He opened the door and people were running up and down calling out, “Fire! Fire! The ship is on fire!” Sydney threw on his trousers and buttoned his coat around me and we went out with the other passengers. One of the crew- who I recognized as our Cruise Director Mr. Smith- led a group of us to one end of the ship, but there was simply too much smoke and fire to proceed any further. Back we trouped to the other end, but we were driven back by the intense heat. So the only way was up a stairwell to a higher deck. Wherever we went, the fire turned us back. It was total bedlam with people running and screaming- heat smoke and flames all over the place. By now passengers were shouting out “where are the lifeboats?” but we hadn’t seen any being made ready- ‘though there already appeared to be some bobbing around in the water below.

People began jumping into the water. Sydney had managed to find two lifejackets from our stateroom and he now fastened one on me and put on his own. A young child asked us for a lifejacket and Sydney gave his to him. He then went searching for another one because he knew that he would never survive in the water without it. I saw none of the crew other than Mr. Smith.there was total panic and people were pushing and shoving in order to get off the ship before they were burned alive. I was both numb and scared out of my wits. Finally, in desperation, Sydney told me that we had to jump for our lives, but the thought of it terrified me. It was so far down to the ocean from the deck and the waves were so high. Sydney jumped, and as I looked overboard another passenger grabbed hold of my feet and just tipped me over the rail.

We were in the water more than seven hours. To keep our spirits up we joined hands with other passengers in a circle. Sometimes we sang songs, and sometimes we just prayed. We had to keep our feet moving because the lifejackets were the old “Mae West” type. We tried to keep a child up, passing him along from one of us to another, but finally he was taken from us by a huge wave. By then he was already dead.

It was simply terrible seeing dozens of burnt corpses floating by. People called out that there were sharks, which didn’t help! Twice I tried to swim to a lifeboat but was either turned away by people who said it was too full or the size of the waves further deterred my efforts. The older people didn’t stand a chance in that water- they either disappeared or drowned. I remember seeing this girl in the water with long black hair. She was completely burnt. It was a dreadful sight, but in a strange way it gave me hope. I just became more determined to live. I kept repeating to myself, “I won’t die! I won’t!”

When it got light, we saw another lifeboat between waves and Sydney said that we had to try and make it. We couldn’t survive any longer in the water. When we got to the boat the people said again, “No, no! Too full!” but Sydney pushed me up and then climbed aboard himself; in doing so, he broke all the fingers on one of his hands.

It was daylight by now when a big ship appeared, and they threw a rope down to us and we were hoisted aboard. We were taken to the boiler room to dry off and generally we were treated very well..

I credit my survival to a plain determination to live, a refusal to think of myself as ‘lost at sea’ and lying in a casket- plus a lot of praying and faith. Ever since the Morro Castle disaster, I have not set foot on another ship and cannot watch movies about disasters at sea. In fact, just looking at the ocean from the beach makes me feel a little odd even today. It just brings it all back.

Sydney and I returned to New York and soon after we had our first child- a boy. I was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which the doctors thought was a result of the long exposure I had undergone in the water. I was sent to a sanitarium in upstate New York for a lengthy stay. Sadly, although Sydney and I had endured so much already we were not able to survive the long separation and eventually we divorced. I returned to the fashion industry, remarried, had another boy and was widowed. I continued to work until my retirement at 65.

I have been to a number of reunions but although I found them interesting I, and the other survivors, did not generally like discussing our experiences in any detail. I still get bad dreams about it, and it feels too sad thinking about picturing the dead floating around me in the sea. It was horrible- just horrible. So many people died because of plain negligence and poor organization. The whole affair is still such a mystery, isn’t it? No one really knows why that fire started, do they? It’s a story full of intrigue and not something I feel ever likely to forget.

Photo from the collection of Dolly Davidson McTigue, courtesy of Anthony Cunningham.

Sydney Davidson died in New York in December 1980. Dolly Davidson McTigue died in Buffalo, New York, on September 24, 2005.

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