The S.S. Morro Castle disaster is one of the strangest and most fascinating disasters in American history. On September 5, the Morro Castle departed Havana, Cuba, headed for New York. For two days there were no problems, but on the third day tragedy of multiple kinds befell the four-year-old luxury liner. The ship was met with high winds and stormy conditions in the Atlantic, making the sailing choppy. Later that night Captain Robert Wilmott had dinner delivered to his room. After the meal he complained of stomach trouble and was found dead shortly thereafter due to “acute indigestion” according to the ship’s doctor.
The new captain was Chief Officer William Warms. Around 2:50 a.m. a fire was discovered in a sealed cabinet on the B Deck. The fire was too large to be put out by a fire extinguisher and the hose system had been disabled by Captain Wilmott a month earlier. The fire spread quickly, aided by the ship’s high rate of speed and the high winds at sea. The ship and its contents were highly flammable. Ornate wooden furniture, cleaning fluid and lacquered wooden walls fueled the blaze. The badly under trained crew tried to put out the fire, but it was too large. Fireproof doors on board could have snuffed out the blaze, but no one ever closed them. Captain Warms finally gave the order to send an SOS signal some 39 minutes after the blaze was discovered. The SOS was received by a station in Tuckerton, New Jersey who then alerted the Coast Guard in New York and any ship nearby. Why Warms waited so long remains a mystery.
Both crew and officers began to panic. The ship contained more than enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The problem was that many boats were inaccessible due to the fire. The six lifeboats that did make it out were not filled. Only 85 people were aboard the boats that could hold over 400. Many of the 85 were crewmen, leaving many passengers to fend for themselves. No order was ever given to stop the Morro Castle. The flaming ship floated out of control up the New Jersey coast. Passengers began to jump in the Atlantic Ocean, taking their chances of surviving in the water instead of burning to death.
The fire destroyed communication to the radio room. Soon after, the ship’s engine died. The blazing ship was unable to be controlled and was being moved around by the wind. The anchor was dropped and more passengers and crew evacuated the flaming wreckage.
Rescue ships had a difficult time coming to the ship’s aid. The stormy seas made sailing difficult.
People along the coastline began calling local police and fire departments reporting of a flaming ship just off the coastline. Local ships from nearby Asbury Park began to arrive on the scene only to discover the horror. Bodies, some drown, some mangled by the ship’s propeller, others with their necks broken from jumping floated in the water. Anyone who was still alive was rescued and brought back to shore.
By mid-afternoon the Morro Castle had been abandoned, left to burn. The anchor was cut and a coast guard cutter named the Tampa, attempted to tow the ship to New York, but the towline snapped. The winds pushed the husk of a ship to the shoreline at Asbury Park, New Jersey near the convention hall. The burned-out husk of the ship would remained grounded there, attracting tourists by thousands, for six months before it was moved for good. A total of 137 people died in the disaster and questions lingered as to what truly happened on the Morro Castle that September night/morning.
Investigations began right away. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover appointed Special Agent Francis X. Fay to lead the FBI’s inquiry. Congress, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, Asbury Park Police and the Commerce department conducted simultaneous investigations. They all determined that there was lots of blame to go around from the poorly trained staff to the ship’s flammable contents. Captain Warms, the ship’s chief engineer and the ship company’s vice-president were all indicted and convicted of negligence. The convictions were later overturned.
Investigators also found that crew members were miserable. Captain Willmott had become increasingly paranoid of saboteurs conspiring to start a mutiny. Poor working conditions on board lead to further dissatisfaction but that was not cause of the fire. In fact, none of inquiries ever answered the question of how the fire started and who or what caused the sealed closet to erupt in flames.
George Alagna, the Assistant Radio Operator, was the prime suspect. Chief Radio Engineer George W. Rogers testified that he found suspicious chemicals in his assistant’s locker. Rogers further testified that Captain Wilmott had become afraid of Alagna organizing a mutiny. Alagna was arrested, but was ultimately cleared due to lack of evidence.
Long after the disaster, conspiracy theories began to surface regarding Rogers. Some believe he poisoned Captain Wilmott and started the fire. None of that could ever be proven. What is known is after the fire Rogers was hailed as a hero. He told anyone who listened that he stayed aboard the ship, aiding passengers to safety. Rogers’ heroics were even brought to Broadway where sold-out crowds went to the Rialto Theatre to hear the tales of his bravery. It was soon discovered that the man, called strange and unsettling by crew members, had a shady past.
At 15 years old he raped a younger boy at his school. He poisoned his wife’s dog when she attended a funeral against Rogers’ wishes. Before joining the Morro Castle, he had been fired from a job at a New York electric company for theft of equipment and was also under suspicion for starting a fire at his workplace. Soon after his star dimmed, Rogers owned and operated a struggling radio shop in Bayonne, New Jersey that burned down mysteriously.
He then joined the Bayonne Police Department as a radio assistant. Rogers’ boorish behavior and insistence on wearing the same pants every day made him rather unlikable. He did find a friend in his commanding officer Lt. Vincent Doyle. The two had similar interests. Both considered themselves inventors who enjoyed tinkering with equipment of all kinds. Other officers would often bring faulty equipment to them to see if they could fix it. In March 1938, Doyle was working on a faulty fish tank that exploded when he plugged it in. Rogers had been in the room but stepped out mere minutes before the explosion. Doyle was badly hurt, his left hand mangled so horribly that he was only left with two fingers. An investigation and subsequent trial brought to life that Rogers’ had told Doyle of what “might have” caused the fire aboard the Morro Castle. He is said to have told Doyle that maybe “someone had inserted a fountain pen into the breast pocket of a waiter’s uniform in the writing room closet. This particular fountain pen had two compartments inside separated by a thin copper divider. One side had been filled with a specific acid, the other with a chemical powder that would burn violently if it were to come into direct contact with the acid. Once the acid was added it would gradually eat through the copper separator, acting as a crude sort of delay timer.”
Rogers also is said to have bragged to people that he was going to lieutenant soon. Rogers was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 12-20 years. He would only serve three years as he was released from prison to fight in WWII. The problem is that the armed services did not want the overweight felon. In 1954, Rogers was convicted of murdering his neighbor and neighbor’s daughter with a sledge hammer. Rogers died in prison on January 10, 1958.It is impossible to know if George Rogers was responsible for starting the Morro Castle fire or for the death of Captain Willmott. Rogers definitely had the opportunity and a murderous inclination, but a motive remains unclear. The actual cause of the blaze has been lost to time.