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

I think you’d better get up

morro_castle_madeline_desvernine_thmMadeline Desvernine, 19, of Tuckahoe New York boarded the Morro Castle along with her cousin, Alice Desvernine (1911-1984) of Plainfield New Jersey and her aunt, Mrs. Florence Brown of New York City. Madeline had spent the summer of 1934 visiting with relatives who lived in Cuba, while the other two women traveled to Havana for a short end of summer vacation. Since the majority of the Morro Castle’s peak-season passengers booked round trip, the women were unable to secure passage until after the ship departed from New York on the southbound leg of her journey and the amount of available space known. The three subsequently ended up in separate cabins; Madeline sharing a room with a woman whose name she could not later recall.

We went to our cabin shortly after eleven o’clock. Things were quiet on the ship because the captain had died and a storm was raging outside. I went to sleep a short time later. We were scheduled to dock in New York around 8 o’clock in the morning.

The first I knew of any trouble was when my companion shook me and told me to get up. I was half awake. Someone had pounded on the door of our cabin. I said that I did not want to get up-I was too sleepy. My companion said “I think you’d better get up and hurry, too. The ship is on fire.” I jumped out of my berth, out on my shoes and dressing gown, and grabbed a life preserver. We opened the door and found the corridor full of smoke. We could see flames. I don’t recall just how we got out on the deck, but we found ourselves there. There was great confusion. The rain was coming down hard. I didn’t think that there was any real danger. It didn’t seem possible that such a big boat could be in danger of burning up or sinking. After I while I began to wonder just what was going to happen.

Finally most of us realized that we were in serious danger. I didn’t see any lifeboats into which I could get. I asked someone what to do and they said “it’s a case of jump or get burned, I guess.” It was hard to make up your mind to jump. I saw other people jumping. I hadn’t seen my aunt or cousin and in the confusion lost my cabin companion. I decided I’d better jump off- the flames seemed to be getting closer very fast. I saw a rope hanging over the side and thought I’d slide down. I made up my mind that I had to get off somehow. I was glad that I learned to swim while I was in Cuba- the thought of it gave me confidence. I climbed the rail and took hold of the rope. I went only a few feet and let go. The drop to the water was terrible, it seemed so long. Just as my head came up a wave caught me and hurled me against the side of the boat. I was thrown against it several times.

I began to try to swim away- it wasn’t but a short time before I was clear of the ship. There were people all around me in the water. I was able to keep my head up as I tried to swim. I kept hoping all the time that I’d see a lifeboat or that someone would see me. I don’t know how long I was in the water. I was cold and was getting very tired. The sky began to lighten after a while. I began to think I would never see a boat. Finally I did see one as one of the waves carried me high in the air. Then I didn’t see it anymore. A short time later I saw a lifeboat- it was nearby. I could hardly believe it: I was so tired. I turned my head to look again and then I did not see it anymore.

I kept on trying to swim but it was difficult. I was nearly exhausted. I was too tired to go on when a lifeboat came up behind me. I hadn’t seen it until it was right up to me and I was pulled into it. It was a lifeboat from the City of Savannah.

All three members of the Desvernine party were rescued by the same ship. Their names were not printed on the initial survivor list obtained by their families and it was not until after 4PM on the day of the fire that Madeline was reunited with her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Henri Desvernine. She was hospitalized for observation overnight, and returned to Tuckahoe with her parents the following day.

Madeline, who was a French major at Hunter College in Manhattan, went on to become one of the final Morro Castle survivors, dying in Florida in October 2003 at age 88.

Janet Pruzan, 21, an employee of Walker Freight Service, composed this account a few days after the fire:

It’s too horrible to describe. I was in cabin 290, on C Deck aft. It was utterly impossible to get into a lifeboat. Realizing this, there was only one thing to do; strap on a lifebelt, jump and trust in God. That’s what we had to do or burn.

PHIND morro castle editorial

I will never forget the heroism of the women aboard. They forgot themselves completely in an effort to help those in more serious trouble.

I was knocked unconscious on hitting the water. It was much like diving off a cliff. I must have been in that condition for several minutes. The sight I witnessed on regaining consciousness was tragic indeed. There were bodies everywhere. Amid the shrieks of the dying, women struggled against terrific odds to help someone near death. I’d rather not talk about it. After being in the water for six hours I naturally want to forget this awful tragedy.


Katherine Liebler, a young lady from Bellerose Long Island, later recalled that the possibility of an accident had been discussed over dinner on the final night:

No one who hasn’t gone through what we had to go through last night can possibly begin to imagine the horror of it.

I was awakened about 4 o’clock by a steward pounding on my door. He said nothing about a fire. He gave me and my room mate, Mildred Weiser, life preservers. We were scared stiff because only last night at dinner we had discussed the possibility of anything happening and said how everybody should keep their heads in an emergency.

We rushed out in our nightclothes. Flames and smoke were sweeping through the corridors. We rushed out and dashed up the stairway. We were on C Deck.

When we got out in the open, it seemed we were in a madhouse. Screams and yells and cries. I was slammed here and there and up against a porthole. I lost Mildred and haven’t heard from her since.

I saw one woman screaming for her boy. I was going to talk to her, but somebody shoved me ahead and I found myself along the rail. Some of the crew were there, they were fine. They kept their heads. One helped me over the rail and told me to slide down the rope he put in my hands. I had only my nightclothes on- I never saw anything so horrible as that water. I hesitated and a man said “Go on, kid. Scram!” I took one look back- the whole ship seemed to be on fire- and I thought it would be easier to drown than die in that hell hole behind me.

I made sure my life preserver was okay and then I said to myself “God help me, here I go.” And I went.

I did nothing in the water. Just let the life preserver hold me up. Once in a while I thought I saw someone floating by. It seems funny when I think about it now, but the water did not seem that cold. Maybe I was too scared to notice!

I think I was in the water about a half an hour when a small boat from the Andrea Luckenbach came alongside me and pulled me in.

Miss Liebler, one of the most photogenic- and photographed- of the survivors testified before the Government Inquiry Board in Manhattan within the week:

Q: Where was your stateroom?
A: Room 403, on C Deck

Q: When did you learn about the fire?
A: I was awakened at about 4;10, daylight saving time, by my room steward knocking on my door.

Q: Were the rest of the passengers aroused by the stewards?
A: I couldn’t tell you. I was so excited about getting out myself that I didn’t notice anybody else.

Q; What did you do?
A: I was led to the boat deck with my girlfriend Mildred Weiser and her parents. Later, we were led back to C Deck.

Q; How did you get off?
A: I slid down a rope and was rescued by the crew of the Luckenbach steamer.

Q: Have you anything to say about the conduct of the crew of the Morro Castle?
A: There was one very nice young man, a bellhop. He was concerned about me going down the rope, and told me to take my coat off so it wouldn’t hamper me. I took it off. He gave me a lot of encouragement.

Q: When you were on the after deck was the smoke so dense you couldn’t see through it?
A: Yes, you couldn’t even see the rail.

Q: Did you see any use made of the hose?
A: I didn’t see any use of hose until I came back down stairs, about 5 or half past 5.

Q: After you had been on deck and hour or an hour and a half?
A: Yes.

Q: There seems to have been a good deal of drinking done onboard. Can you tell us anything about the crew in that respect?
A: After we got on the boat in Havana there were quite a few intoxicated waiters.

Q: Do you know how many there were?
A: I came in contact with three.

Q: What kind of contact?
A: They just waited on the table. One of them had to be taken out of the room and my room steward took his place.

Q; That was on Wednesday, when you left Havana. Did you see any intoxication among the crew after that?
A: No.

Q: Were you around the deck before you went to bed on Friday night?
A: No, I came right downstairs from the lounge

Q: What time was that?
A: One-thirty.

Q: What time did you go to bed?
A: Quarter after two.

Q: Did you smell any smoke at that time, or see any evidence of fire?
A: None.

Q: Was there any noise at the time you retired?
A: There was a party going on at the end of the hall.

Q: Where was that?
A: In a stateroom.

Q: What time did you leave the ship?
A: I went over the side about a quarter after six.

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