New Look at Jersey Shore Shipwreck

The tragedy of the SS Morro Castle is one of the most bizarre and fascinating tales of the Jersey Shore. As we mark the 78th anniversary of the shipwreck, two local experts have published a new book that seeks to shed fresh light on the incident.

Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle was written by Gretchen Coyle, a local historian and writer on Long Beach Island, and Deborah Whitcraft, president and founder of the New Jersey Maritime Museum. Their book explores the strange, harrowing and haunting circumstances surrounding the Morro Castle luxury cruise ship, which commuted weekly between New York and Havana beginning in 1930 until it caught fire in the waters off LBI in the wee hours of September 8, 1934.

The ship was en route from Havana to New York that morning when it was suddenly engulfed in flames. The fire—which was allegedly set by radio operator George Rogers —killed 137 passengers out of a total of more than 500. It remains a mystery to this day.

“Deb and I have always been interested in the story of the ‘MC.’ We knew all the facts, they had been written about, but nothing had been told of the human side of the fire,” says Coyle, a volunteer at Whitcraft’s museum, where visitors can find the world’s largest collection of Morro Castle photos, letters, documents, memorabilia, FBI files and artifacts.

“The tragedy started haunting me when I began to volunteer at the museum three summers ago,” says Whitcraft. “Suddenly here was the human side of the tragedy that no one had ever written about. Real people, real faces, real names, real photos not seen before. So we started talking and decided to write a book.”

The details of this disaster are chilling. Consider, for instance, that fire started sometime after two in the morning while the ship was braving rough seas. Adding to the surreal nature of the moment, the ship’s captain had died of a heart attack just a few hours earlier. Finally, what makes the entire episode particularly harrowing is the fact that the fire destroyed the ship’s hydraulic and electrical systems, forcing everyone to fight for their lives on a lifeless ship that had been plunged into deep, suffocating darkness.

In addition to spending time in Cuba to research their book, Coyle and Whitcraft interviewed a 100-year-old passenger of the cruise liner, a 97-year-old crewmember, daughters of survivors, and many others who had never been contacted before.

“The more we got into our research, the more we found in the way of personal stories,” says Coyle. “We discovered relatives and families. We even traced the story of a Cuban Olympic swimmer named Franz de Beche, whose body was never found because, excellent swimmer that he was, he jumped off the stern of the ship into the props that were still turning.”

Inferno At Sea (which includes dozens of never-before-seen photos) does a remarkable job bringing to life this strange and macabre piece of New Jersey maritime history. It’s available on Amazon.

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