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Re: 72 years ago did a Jersey city man cause the Morro Castle Disaster and the death of her captain?
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glx wrote:
Strechin a little for relevancy to JC, aren't we?


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Yeah -- very true -- slow news day -- but I must say I got into the story and went for it!

Posted on: 2006/11/14 12:37
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Re: 72 years ago did a Jersey city man cause the Morro Castle Disaster and the death of her captain?
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Posted on: 2006/11/14 12:24
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72 years ago did a Jersey city man cause the Morro Castle Disaster and the death of her captain?
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An accident or deliberate act? Ship tragedy still a mystery
BY SHANNON MULLEN, Asbury Park Press

For 72 years, the Morro Castle tragedy off the Jersey coast has been shrouded in mystery.

Was the fire that swept through the luxury liner at the end of its weeklong cruise to Havana deliberately set?

Was the captain's sudden death just hours before the fire the result of a heart attack, or was it foul play?

And what about radioman George W. Rogers, who initially was hailed as a hero for remaining at his post to transmit distress calls despite the encroaching flames? Was he actually the villian of the story, responsible for the deaths of at least 134 passengers and crew?

Judging from Brian Hicks' new book about the doomed ship, the answers to those questions might never be known for sure.

Several books have been written on the subject over the years, but "When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake," published in October by Free Press, is the first to draw from the FBI's voluminous Morro Castle case file, which was declassified in the mid 1990s as a result of a court fight by a group of researchers including retired Belmar photojournalist James T. McDonnell.

Vivid narrative account

Despite the book jacket's provocative wording ("On a shipboard night of art-deco glamour, a madman worked his evil"), Hicks, a senior writer for The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., doesn't claim to have solved the mystery. In fact, he found no hard evidence in the FBI file that Rogers did anything other than his duty the night of the fire, despite the fact that he later proved to be a murderous psychopath.

Instead, "When the Dancing Stopped" offers a vivid narrative account of the Morro Castle's fateful final voyage and its aftermath, focusing on a handful of central characters. Chief among them is the late Thomas S. Torresson Jr., a longtime Dover Township, N.J., resident who was then a 16-year-old third assistant purser aboard the Morro Castle.

Though the book reads like a mystery novel, Hicks, a 39-year-old veteran journalist who also is co-author of "Raising the Hundley," is adamant that nothing in the story is fictionalized. That includes the dialogue, which is all based on sworn testimony, letters, memos, interviews or newspaper accounts.

"It's not really history if you make some of it up," Hicks said in a recent telephone interview.

Violent storms, a suspicious fire and a true story as gripping as the Morro Castle saga hardly needs embellishment.

The famed Ward Line cruise ship boasted of having the best safety technology available. But in the predawn hours of Sept. 8, 1934, with the crew reeling from the news of Capt. Robert Willmott's death from an apparent heart attack and a pair of violent storms bearing down on the ship as it neared New York City, a suspicious fire broke out in a storage locker in a corner of the ship's Writing Room.

Fanned by the headwinds, the fire quickly raged out of control before anyone thought to deploy the automated fire walls, one of the Morro Castle's vaunted safety innovations. Chaos ensued. In the absence of a coordinated evacuation, many passengers were left to fend for themselves, though Torresson, whom Hicks interviewed in depth before the former assistant purser's death last year, risked his life trying to save others.

The acting captain, William Warms, sleep-deprived and seemingly in shock from the sudden confluence of events, indecisively fettered away crucial minutes before finally authorizing Rogers to send out a distress call, though Hicks says Rogers could have saved many lives by acting sooner, even if it wasn't protocol. By the time Warms thought to pull the Morro Castle out of the wind and head for shore, the fire had knocked out the ship's engines, lights and steering capability, leaving the doomed liner adrift in the darkness, several miles from the beach. Ultimately, the ship broke free from a Coast Guard cutter that attempted to tow it back to port, and it ran aground less than 200 feet from Asbury Park's Convention Hall.

Rogers' sinister side

Rogers basked in the praise the press heaped on him from the moment he first came ashore. A Broadway theater booked him for a lucrative weeklong run, and his hometown of Bayonne feted him as a hero. But as the FBI soon discovered, Rogers had a sinister side.

A smarmy, nearly 300-pound man with oddly pursed lips and what Torresson described as a menacing air, Rogers brought trouble with him wherever he went. In his school days, he had been expelled for sodomizing a younger boy, Hicks relates, and prior to joining the crew of the Morro Castle he was suspected of torching the radio shop he worked at to conceal the fact that he was stealing from his employer.

An electronics whiz, he was hired after the Morro Castle incident to modernize the Bayonne police department's radio system, but when his supervisor, Vincent Doyle, was nearly killed by a homemade bomb, the evidence led straight to Rogers, who was ultimately convicted of the crime.

According to Doyle's unpublished memoir, Rogers had good reason for wanting him dead.

One day while the two were alone in their workshop, Hicks writes, Rogers boasted to Doyle that he knew precisely how the Morro Castle fire had started. He described in detail how an incendiary fountain pen filled with acid and combustible powder, separated by a thin sheet of copper -- which acted as a timing device -- had been planted in the breast pocket of a waiter's jacket that was hung in the Writing Room locker. When the copper sheet dissolved, the pen exploded, igniting turpentine and paint that was stored in the locker.

Stunned, Doyle said he pressed Rogers about how he knew such specifics, and finally asked him, "Why did you do it?" "For a second, Rogers said nothing," Hicks recounts, "then spewed vitriol with his answer: 'The Ward Line stinks and the skipper was lousy.' " Incredibly, after just a few years behind bars for the bombing, Rogers was granted a wartime parole to serve as a radioman aboard a U.S. Liberty ship. During his brief service, he helped oust the ship's captain, whom he accused of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Afterward, Rogers went to work in a Jersey City electronics plant. While he was there, he was suspected of poisoning the water cooler after a female co-worker he was obsessed with married another man. Finally, in 1953, Rogers was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal slayings of a neighborhood friend and his adult daughter in Bayonne. Less than five years later, Rogers died of a heart attack, without having divulged any more secrets about the Morro Castle.

The FBI case file shows that it had long suspected Rogers was involved in the Morro Castle fire, and possibly even Captain Willmott's death, but the circumstantial evidence against him only proved he was capable of such a sinister crime, and he was never charged.

James T. McDonnell and Fred Rasmussen, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, who together fought the FBI to gain access to its case file on the Morro Castle, suspected that Rogers set the fire as part of an insurance conspiracy by the Ward Line, and for years they promised to publish a book that would prove their theory. They never did find conclusive evidence, though, and after McDonnell developed health problems, the project was shelved.

"Bob and I both think it's there. We felt we got close to it," Rasmussen said.

Hicks doesn't make any definitive claims about Rogers' culpability, preferring to lay out the available evidence so readers can "draw their own conclusion."

In essence, he said, what the book reveals is that "all the rumors about this guy were probably right, and here are some reasons why." With just a few survivors left -- Hicks knows of only three -- and the FBI case file now laid bare, that might be the closest anyone can come to cracking the case.

Morro Castle life preserver donated to N.J. lighthouse

It's in bad shape, but still an historical gem: a life preserver from the famed Morro Castle cruise ship.

Robert H. Bossett, 85, of Brielle, N.J., has held onto it all these years since that unforgettable day in 1934 when he watched from the beach in Sea Girt, N.J., as lifeboats and survivors came ashore.

He was just 13 years old then. It was so dreary and foggy that morning he never saw the ship itself, which was on fire a few miles offshore, but he could smell the smoke.

He and a close friend had hurried to the beach as lifeguards and other good Samaritans mobilized to help the traumatized victims. Being teenagers, the boys couldn't resist helping themselves to some souvenirs.

"Everyone was taking something," Bossett recalled. "I mean, there were a lot of things."

Bossett came away with a water cask, an oar, a baling scoop and a life preserver. Years later, when he came home after serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, everything but the life preserver had somehow wandered off. Over time, mice ruined the cork, but enough of the life preserver survived that Bossett recently decided to donate it to the Sea Girt Lighthouse, which has a display of Morro Castle memorabilia. The display features an oar, photographs and news clippings about the disaster.

William Dunn, a trustee of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, said the life preserver will be restored as much as possible.

Shannon Mullen

Posted on: 2006/11/14 11:04

Edited by GrovePath on 2006/11/14 11:21:31
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