A High Seas Mystery

When the S.S. Morro Castle set sail on her maiden voyage in August 1930, she was hailed as one of the most luxurious vessels of her day.

When the S.S. Morro Castle set sail on her maiden voyage in August 1930, she was hailed as one of the most luxurious vessels of her day.

Built for $5 million, she measured 508 feet long, weighed 11,520 gross tons, and carried more than 500 passengers and a crew of 240. But en route to New York from Havana on a stormy September night in 1934, the Morro Castle caught fire and burned off the coast of Asbury Park, killing 135 people on board (some reports put the figure at 137). The cause of the fire was never officially determined, but author Brian Hicks points an accusatory finger in a new book, When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake (Simon & Schuster, $25).

In piecing together the events that led up to the fire, Hicks relies on previously confidential FBI reports, court documents, and interviews with survivors. The night of the fire began ominously enough, when the ship’s captain, Robert Willmott, became ill following dinner. He died a short while later of an apparent heart attack. As the Morro Castle made its way up the Eastern Seaboard in a fierce storm, the ship’s command fell to Chief Officer William Warms. The fire was reported shortly before 3 am.

In When the Dancing Stopped, Hicks focuses on two figures: Tom Torreson, the ship’s teenage purser, whom the author interviewed extensively, and George White Rogers, the radio operator initially praised for his heroism in alerting would-be rescuers. But rescue efforts proved tragically inadequate. The Coast Guard station at Cape May did not respond until the next morning after receiving radio reports of corpses washing ashore from Point Pleasant Beach to Spring Lake.

In the disaster’s aftermath, new ship-safety regulations were enacted. Warms and two others, convicted of willful negligence, were sent to jail. But the convictions of Warms and one other defendant were later overturned. Rogers was later convicted of murdering two neighbors and died in prison, bolstering suspicions of his involvement in the Morro Castle disaster.

Authorities never charged anyone with setting the fire, but Hicks pursues his own line of investigation. In doing so, the author confirms that more than 70 years after the Morro Castle’s final voyage, her fiery demise remains a New Jersey tale rich with intrigue.

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