Iconic Photos

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Morro Castle

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morro castle

The SS Morro Castle, named after a fortress that guards Havana Bay, was a luxury cruise ship of the 1930s that was built for the Ward Line for runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba. In the early morning hours (around 3:00 am) of Saturday, 8 September 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing a total of 137 passengers and crew members.

Despite attempts to tow her to a safer location, the ship continued to drift toward shore. By 7:30 pm, she came to rest on the beach at the foot of Sixth Avenue in the summer resort town of Asbury Park, N.J. Carl Nesensohn, N.Y. Times Wide World photographer (who took above photo) arrived with other news cameramen in the late afternoon. They made photos of the victims and the burning hulk. Early the next morning, Nesensohn decided to board the smouldering ship.

A Coast Guard patrol boat threatened to shoot him down as he first attempted to board Morro Castle from a hired boat. Enraged, Carl Nesensohn stormed into Coast Guard Headquarters, shouting about the government threatening to shoot a newspaperman; how would it look in the newspaper? Coast Guard finally gave Carl permission to board the shio.

Onboard Morro Castle, the steel deck plates were still hot. Flames, noxious gases, smoke, minor explosions and charred corpses surrounded him. He took the first photos of the burned-out interior of the Morro Castle for two and a half hours, after which he returned to shore, his clothing torn, his shoes almost burnt through and his face covered with soot.

Later, N.Y. Daily News photographer Larry Froeber attempted the same thing, but he was overcome by poisonous fumes. However, he got back safely. The Morro Castle disaster set the standard for daring photojournalism–the coverage was excellent, but the courage of the photographers defined the day.

Officially, the cause of the fire was never determined, but the design of the ship, the materials used in its construction,  questionable crew practices and mistakes escalated the on-board fire to a roaring inferno that eventually destroyed the ship. The fire, however, was a catalyst for improved shipboard fire safety–the use of fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and fire drills were direct results of the Morro Castle disaster.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 24, 2009 at 8:18 am

4 Responses

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  1. My grandfather, William Deeke, was also one of the first to board ship. He was a cameraman for Pathe news. He to nearly had his shoes burned off his feet. If you watch the video on You Tube, S.S. Morro Castle Footage, that is him boarding the ship. Thanks and have a great day. Al

    al bolcato

    October 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    • I had a relative, Letty Lohr, mistakenly referred to as “Letty Mohr” in news reports, who was one those who died in this tragedy. I had no idea of this until a few days ago when I was doing some family geneology. I was stunned to say the very least! She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

      Mary F. Sibley

      June 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm

  2. […] is more readily found online, usually with a brief account of the tragedy attached, as here at Iconic Photos. See also The Burning of the “Morro Castle” in John Faber’s Great News Photos and the Stories […]

  3. My father Ike Norris and his brother Lew Norris were instrumental in rescuing many of the survivors of the Morro Castle Disaster off Spring Lake N J.
    C.V.(Bud) Norris

    Bud Norris

    January 1, 2016 at 5:46 pm

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