By a strange twist of fate I was a witness
to the Morro Castle tragedy. We had vacationed for two weeks in
Belmar and were supposed to return to Newark on Saturday the Eighth
of September Nineteen Thirty Eight. However I had contracted measles
and my parents decided that I would benefit from another week at
the shore. My father was able to extend the rental for another week.
Early Saturday morning neighbors rushed about telling stories about
a ship on fire off the coast. Madly dashing down 18th Avenue I finally
reached the beach. Off in the distance I was able to see the liner
with a plume of smoke pouring from her. A very strong Northeast
wind is blowing leaving a trail of smoke to the south. Small craft
can be seen running between ship and shore. We learned later that
the fishing fleet from Brielle performed magnificently during this
The Coast Guard members at the Shark River, Belmar station have
a problem. The Ocean Avenue bridge over the river is a fixed structure
with a usual clearance of ten or fifteen feet at low water. Today
however the Northeast winds has piled water up to the level of the
roadway leaving no room for passage of boats. To get around this
poser, the sailors put their whaleboat on rollers and transport
their craft over vacant lots and roadway to the beach where they
launch it directly into the surf, making their way to the disaster
Soon a lifeboat makes a landing holding fifty eight crew members
and six passengers. Only six of the twelve available lifeboats were
launched. Shortly, bodies began to wash up on the beach, a gristly
scene. All in all, 138 people perished in this catastrophe. Several
weeks later on a weekend trip to the shore I was able to see the
battered remains of one of Ward Lines premiere vessels. Resting
on the beach adjacent to the Asbury Park Convention Hall, the burned
out remains of the Morro Castle is a sad sight indeed, a stark reminder
of the insufficient maritime regulations. After several weeks the
hulk was removed, towed to a shipyard and turned into scrap.
This calamity is a watershed in American shipping. As a result
laws regulating construction of new United States merchant vessels
is legislated. Ordinances pertaining to materials used in ship building
are made and enforced, giving all new construction better fire protection.
Stronger rules concerning lifeboat and fire drills are instituted
making steamship travel much safer.
It was an eye opener to be a witness to this great tragedy.