Morro Castle, Mohawk and the end of the Ward Line : Part 3

Pyromaniac in the radio room

The Morro Castle, as previously stated, drifted ashore the morning after the fire and burned herself out in full view of thousands who crowded the boardwalk and beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey. The press, shipping lines, airlines and the respective governments of the United States and Cuba made the immediate assumption that the fire was an act of terrorism aided, no doubt by the coincidental outbreak of fire aboard several other ships that night, the most serious being aboard the Grace Line’s Santa Rita. Airline service between Havana and New York was suspended, security was “stepped up” at the piers in New York City, and for several days after the fire shrill articles about “arson plots” were a feature of the tabloids and to a lesser extent, the more traditional papers. In Havana, twenty-five Radicals were rounded up as ringleaders and implementers of the plot and then, as quickly as it came, the terrorism angle faded away from the pages of the press. The cause of the fire, at least in the minds of the general public, was accepted as “unfortunate accident.” and three the matter rested until the 1950’s and the publication of Thomas Gallagher’s Fire at Sea, which first put forth the possibility that career criminal and known arsonist George White Rogers, radio man from the Morro Castle’s fatal voyage, started the fire intentionally in the linen storage locker in the liner’s Writing room. Gallagher, and later Hal Burton in his book The Morro Castle were careful to present the Rogers angle as speculation, but subsequent authors have not equivocated in establishing Rogers’ guilt and he has, posthumously, become the mass murderer in the radio room.

PHIND morro castel editorial 21

The terrorism angle, however, remains as interesting a possibility as the pyromaniac in the radio room. The fire came one year to the day after the Valentino look-alike bent on assassinating Machado’s ‘butcher’ Ludao was apprehended aboard the liner, and just a few days short of the anniversary of the day when the US Government had to intercede to prevent an angry mob from storming the ship and dragging United Fruit’s Molamphy ashore after rumors of his involvement in the murder of a female union organizer became widespread in Havana. One can speculate that it would be considerably easier for a revolutionary willing to- possibly- die for the cause, to enter the liner’s writing room unnoticed and set the fire than it would be for the hulking crewman Rogers to do so, and one could also speculate on symbolism of the date for members of the ABC revolutionary group but, as with Rogers, the evidence to elevate terrorism beyond speculation to fact is simply not there.

In late 1934, the Morro Castle was the subject of a folk ballad. The tradition of commemorating and preserving topical events through song was on the wane during the depression years, and “The Morro Castle Wreck” was then, and remains, an obscurity;

Cries of ‘Fire!’ filled the air,
mad’ning scenes were everywhere,
the flame swept decks were far beyond control.
In a cabin overhead,
lay the Captain who was dead,
while Death took charge, demanding his great toll.

And all around, ocean waves
Carried poor humans to their graves.
Surely Angels way up there
wept for loved ones way down here.
Beseeching God for mercy on their souls.

Many hundreds made the trip
on the Morro Castle ship.
Bidding good-bye to loved ones that were dear.
And the proud ship sailed along
With its happy, merry, throng.
And none imagined death was hov’ring near.

But all around, ocean waves,
waited to carry souls to graves.
Surely God in Heav’n above
in His mercy, filled with love,
bade angels charge to lost souls in their care.

Three’s no doubt that something failed
When the Morro Castle sailed.
Perhaps t’was carelessness upon that deep sea.
They’ll investigate, they’ve said,
but it won’t restore the dead,
the innocent ones of that tragedy.

And all around, ocean waves,
carried poor humans to their graves.
But the guilty ones shall pay
on the last great Judgment Day,
When God shall judge each soul in His glory.

The song, more factually accurate than many of its genre, exists on at least one 78 RPM record, released by Roy Whitely on the Melotone label. It has a haunting tune and, unexpectedly for a country record of the 1930s, the performer comes close to emulating an Argentine tango singer on the chorus. Listening to it one can easily call to mind a frightened pretty girl in pajamas who lost her chance to live when she hesitated to run into smoke and flames with her traveling companions, a little boy dressed in a raincoat entrusted to strangers who could not save him, a woman without a lifejacket thrown overboard by well intentioned souls bent on saving her, and the 131 or so others who died lonely deaths that September morning a lifetime ago.


Rescue of Radio Operator Rogers

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