Sunday, July 26, 2009

When The Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks

After reading Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship" about the Mary Celeste and her vanishing crew, perhaps the greatest maritime mystery of all time, I had to read his account of the Morro Castle tragedy. Ever since seeing footage of Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreck of the Titanic on the evening news as a child of ten I have loved the majestic ocean liners that used to ply the seas.

For those unfamiliar with the Morro Castle, in the dark days of the Great Depression, this sleek, graceful lady used to make a weekly trip from New York to Havana, offering passengers an escape from the grim realities of breadlines and unemployment. Aboard the Morro Castle, every night was New Year's Eve, and every passenger, even those paying the reduced Depression-era rates, was a First Class passenger, the furnishings were a glamorous, glorious blend of Art Deco, Italian Renaissance, Louis XVI, and French Empire, she was touted as the safest ship afloat, and some thought of her as America's Titanic. There were masquerade balls, themed parties such as a "Balloon Dance," fine dining every night, sea spray showers on the game deck (one luxury that the Morro Castle did lack was a swimming pool), and a mini racetrack replete with toy horses with real betting to amuse the passengers. But on the night of September 8, 1934 the floating palace became a floating inferno when a fire of still indeterminate cause (accident or arson?) broke out and spread rapidly throughout the ship, quickly cutting off access to most of the lifeboats.

It was a night of horror, an ever-escalating waking nightmare, as an ill-trained crew gave full reign to their panic, and the situation quickly degenerated into sheer, unadulterated chaos, with crew members dashing through the halls banging pots and pans together and screaming to alert passengers and making no attempt to organize launching of the few accessible lifeboats. Though the Morro Castle carried more than enough lifeboats to have saved all of the 500+ persons aboard, the six that were launched carried approximately 100 crew members and only a handful of passengers. Once in the water these boats reportedly made no attempt to fish survivors out of the sea; those who lived would later tell of lifeboats filled with Morro Castle sailors floating callously by, ignoring their calls for help, and never offering to stop and render aid.

In desperation, with the fire burning the soles of their feet through the deck, most of the passengers jumped overboard, more than thirty feet down into the sea. Many were caught in the suction of the still functioning propellers and sucked into the enormous blades and certain death. Others died when, not forewarned by the crew, they did not know to hold down the bottom of their bulky lifejackets; these were fitted with thick blocks of cork which had a tendency to ride up and strike the wearer hard in the face and knock them out; some, landing face down in the water, knocked unconscious by the vests that were meant to save their lives, drowned.

Mr. Hicks book is a fair and balanced account of the disaster that attempts to correct myths, mistakes, and false assumptions. He made a study of numerous documents, including FBI files, reports of the various investigations, newspaper reports, and interviews with the survivors. He interweaves the tale of the tragedy with the stories of two new additions to the crew aboard for that final, fatal voyage: seventeen-year-old Thomas Torresson Jr., who fell in love with the ship at first sight and had sailed on her previously as a passenger when a doctor recommended the voyage as recuperation from a serious bout of pneumonia; and George White Rogers a psychopath who emerged as the hero of the hour but may in reality have been the villain.

For anyone interested in maritime history, ocean liners, or disasters at sea, "When The Dancing Stopped" is a most worthwhile read.

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