The unsolved murder mystery of a 1930s cruise ship
The SS Morro Castle made its maiden voyage in August 1930, and spent four lucrative years carrying passengers from New York to Havana and back.
Named for the fortress which guards Havana Bay, the luxurious 508-foot ocean liner offered up to 489 paying customers a chance to escape from Prohibition and the Depression and enjoy a non-stop liquor-fueled party at sea.
On Sept. 5, 1934, the Morro Castle departed Havana, aiming to reach New York in just 58 hours.
As it continued northward, the ship encountered high winds and the signs of an impending nor'easter.
After eating dinner on the evening of Sept. 7, Captain Robert Wilmott complained of stomach trouble, and shortly thereafter was found dead in his cabin of an apparent heart attack.
Chief Officer William Warms took command as the Morro Castle continued steaming through increasingly high seas.
Just a few hours later, at around 2:50 a.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in a storage locker on B Deck.
High winds fanned the flames through the ornate wooden interiors as the inexperienced and disorganized crew struggled to extinguish the blaze and transmit an SOS signal.
When it became clear the fire could not be contained, many of the crew abandoned ship, leaving the untrained and panicked passengers to fend for themselves.
See the images from the 'accident' below:
Passengers struggled through the darkness and smoke without direction. Unable to find a lifeboat, many of them leaped into the churning seas to escape the fire. Some suffered broken necks or were knocked unconscious when they hit the water because they had not been told to hold onto their life vests when jumping.
Rescue ships were slow to respond to the SOS and struggled to reach the survivors in the stormy seas.
As news spread of the calamity, people gathered up and down the Jersey Shore to receive lifeboats and retrieve survivors and victims from the surf.
The next morning, the empty, burning ship ran aground on the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, just a few hundred feet from the Convention Hall pier.
Out of the 549 passengers and crew on board, 86 passengers and 49 crew had died.
While the smoldering wreck became an instant tourist attraction (complete with postcards and stamped pennies), authorities began to investigate how the fire had started and why the crew had failed to extinguish it.
The ship itself was highly vulnerable to a conflagration. Practically every surface was either covered in veneered wood or flammable paint. The fire doors were ineffective. The water system did not have enough pressure to operate more than a few hydrants at a time. The fire alarms were practically inaudible.
The crew's response to the fire was found to be uncoordinated and incompetent. Acting Captain Warms' decision not to leave the bridge and continue steaming into a headwind was criticized. Passengers had not been trained in emergency procedures, and only six of the twelve lifeboats were lowered.
And then there were the twin mysteries of the captain's death and the fire's origin.
Long after the disaster, the spotlight fell on George W. Rogers, the chief radio engineer.
Rogers had been widely hailed as a singular hero for being one of the few crew members to stay aboard the ship to help save passengers. He had told his story in many interviews, even presenting it on Broadway to sold-out crowds.
His colleagues had always found him to be strange and unsettling, and it was eventually discovered that he had a rather checkered past.
He had been fired from a previous job for stealing equipment, and was a suspect in a mysterious fire at his job before joining the Morro Castle.
After the Morro Castle disaster, Rogers opened a radio repair shop, but it failed. It also suspiciously burned down.
He then joined the Bayonne Police Department as a radio assistant. His boss, Lt. Vincent Doyle, became suspicious of Rogers and probed him with questions about the Morro Castle.
In March 1938, Rogers delivered a fish tank heater to Doyle, saying it needed repairs. When Doyle plugged it in and turned it on, it exploded, nearly killing him.
Rogers was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison. He was paroled in 1942 to fight in World War II, but the military wanted nothing to do with him.
In 1954, he was found guilty of murdering a friend who had loaned him money, along with the friend's daughter. He died in prison four years later.
No evidence was ever found to conclusively tie the suspected arsonist and convicted murderer to the Morro Castle disaster, but theories abound.
Some believe that Rogers poisoned the captain and started the fire. Others suggest the captain's death was a coincidence, and Rogers was hired by the steamship company to burn the ship and collect the insurance, or even that he was a federal informant and the ship was secretly smuggling arms to Cuban rebels.
Whatever the cause, the fire led to the adoption of tighter maritime safety standards, from the use of fire-retardant materials and improved fire doors and alarms to more rigorous emergency training for crew and passengers.