A Newarker and the Morro Castle

by Jack Keegan


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 incident.

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 scene.

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.


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