A Jersey Shore Ghost Story
A Jersey Shore Ghost Story: The Morro Castle Disaster
ASBURY PARK, NJ—People say that Asbury Park is haunted. Paranormal teams from various groups like The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or T. A. P.S. made famous by the show Ghost Hunters, and others have come to Asbury to seek out the ghostly truth.
The city’s history and proximity to the ocean could lend itself to be the perfect ghost story in the perfect ghost town.
From its early founding in 1871, down through the decades, Asbury has been a place for memories to be made, a place for laughter and sadness, and perhaps a place where spirits could gather to remember earthly pleasures or life’s tragedies. These moments in time left a “mark” or an impression, a residual energy that lives on in Asbury.
One such mark in time was the tragic fire that destroyed the S. S. Morro Castle which finally ran aground in Asbury in 1934.
The S.S. Morro Castle was built for the Ward Line to carry passengers between New York City and Havana during the 1930’s. Havana was considered the “Paris of the Caribbean” and eager travelers flocked to the island to revel in the culture, music, and nightlife.
In the 1930’s the Morro Castle was considered a luxurious passenger and cargo ship, she sailed to and from Havana for years without incident until September 1934. That fateful last sail of the Morro Castle was strange, to say the least.
On the evening of the September 7, all seemed well as the ship was approaching the central New Jersey coastline. The Morro Castle’s captain Robert Willmott had his dinner delivered to his quarters.
Shortly after dinner, the captain began complaining about stomach pains and, not long after, died of an apparent heart attack. Command of the ship passed to the Chief Officer, William Warms.
During the overnight hours, the winds increased to over 30 miles per hour as the Morro Castle steered its way up the eastern seaboard.
At around 2:50 a.m. that morning, while the ship was sailing off Long Beach Island, a fire broke out in a storage locker within the First Class Writing Room on B Deck. As the fire grew in intensity, acting Captain Warms thinking the fire was under control, sped the liner along and fanned the flames into a bigger conflagration. He then attempted to beach the ship, but the panic, the growing need to launch lifeboats and abandon ship forced him to give up the beaching idea.
Within the next 30 minutes, the Morro Castle became totally engulfed in flames. The fire burned through the ship's main electrical cables, plunging the ship into complete darkness. As all power was lost, the radio stopped working too. The crew had only enough time to radio a single SOS transmission.
As if the fate of this vessel had been already decided, the wheelhouse was the next to fall victim to the fire and lost the ability to steer, the hydraulic lines that drove the big ship were destroyed by the flames.
Cut off by the fire, passengers rushed toward the stern. Most crew members decided to move to the bow in the confusing panic. On the ship, no one could see anything, the smoke blocked out the light, what little there was. The fire grew and in many places, the deck boards were hot to the touch, and it was hard to breathe through the thick, black smoke. As conditions grew worse, the decision became one of life or death.
The only decision for many passengers was to jump into the cold waters or to face the fire.
The water wasn’t necessarily the better choice. The sea, whipped by high winds, churned up huge waves that made it extremely difficult to swim. It was September and the Atlantic was a bit colder than normal that year.
On the decks of the burning ship, the crew and passengers reacted in many different ways to the disaster. Some crew members were incredibly brave as they tried to fight the fire. Others tossed deck chairs and life rings overboard to provide persons in the water with makeshift flotation devices.
Only six of the Morro Castle's 12 lifeboats were launched. The capacity of these boats was over 400, they carried only 85 people, most of the 85 were crew members who, by accounts at the time seemed to have abandoned the passengers as the fire spread.
Many passengers died because they did not know how to use the life preservers and at the time, it wasn’t required to show them.
The devastating fire and loss of life aboard the SS Morro Castle was a catalyst for improved fire safety on ships. Today, the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and mandatory fire drills and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster.
Unfortunately for the passengers and crew of the ship, no such measures were in place back then.
The mystery of the Morro Castle disaster has never been solved although many theories point to the radio operator on the passenger liner as being the one who set the fire. The operator, George White Rodgers had a criminal record and years after the disaster was considered a possible suspect in the fire.
Did George White Rodgers murder Captain Robert Wilmott and set fire to the Morro Castle to hide the crime? Although circumstantial evidence strongly suggests his guilt, and Rogers even hinted to some that he did it, never confessed and it’s doubtful that it can ever be proven.
Theorists point to a story that Captain Robert Wilmott told his crew shortly before the ill-fated voyage. He’d been captain of the Morro Castle since it first started sailing from New York to Havana, and was always known to be outgoing and gregarious.
Some crew members said that his personality had changed in the months prior to the last voyage. They said that he grew more hostile and suspicious during that last trip. He confided in some of his officers that he was sure that someone was out to murder him and damage or even destroy the ship.
As the Morro Castle ran aground in Asbury Park, it came to rest just at the end of the Convention Hall. The city was faced with great tragedy and great loss of life.
An impression was forever etched into Asbury’s history. The disaster killed 137 passengers and crew members. The burned out hulk that was the Morro Castle remained there, in that spot for months until she was towed away.
A memorial now stands in front of the Paramount Theater honoring those that were lost.
With such tragedy and so many dead, do the lost souls of the Morro Castle haunt the boardwalk in Asbury?
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Chief Officer, William Warms
Radio Operator, George White Rodgers