The Wreck of the Morro Castle

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This talk concerns the disaster that occurred on September 8, 1934 when the SS Morro Castle caught fire under mysterious circumstances and burned in an inferno, killing 134 people.

Two residents of Bangor, Pennsylvania, Herman and Pearl Panimo, were on the ship and survived the disaster.

We are going to explore both the story of the Morro Castle and the Panimo's escape from death.

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In 1928, the US government approved the Merchant Marine Act, which provided $250 million dollars in low interest construction loans to help American shipbuilders replace the aging US fleet.

The New York and Cuba Mail Steamship company, also known as the Ward Line, participated in this act, taking a loan, and building 2 ships: the SS Morro Castle and the SS Oriente.

The Ward Line had been in business since the mid-1800's carrying mail, cargo and passengers to Cuba.

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The ship, the Morro Castle, was named after the lighthouse and fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay in Havana, Cuba.

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Both the Morro Castle and the Oriente were designed by Theodore Ferris. In 1917, Ferris was chief naval architect of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, or the EFC.

The EFC was founded in 1917 to build 1,000 wooden steamships within 18 months, in an effort to expand and improve our shipbuilding capacity in a time of war.

After resigning from the EFC in 1918, Ferris continued his private practice, which included the contract to design the Ward Line's new ships.

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The Morro Castle launched in March of 1930. Her sister ship was launched in May of the same year. The Morro Castle's first voyage to Cuba started Aug. 23, 1930.

During the next 4 years, the Morro Castle operated non-stop. It was a financial success, even in the height of the Depression. Some of this is explained by Prohibition. Once the ship entered international territory, passengers were freed from the US restrictions on alcohol. The Morro Castle was known as a party ship.

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The Morro Castle was a luxury liner, as well as a cargo ship, and was beautifully appointed. The following slides are illustrations, probably from a promotional brochure.

This is the outside deck. If you look in the upper-left corner, you will see another ship. It may be the Oriente, the sister ship of the Morro Castle. Keep an eye out for her in the other pictures.

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This is one of the dancing rooms - note the viking ship-shaped bandstand. You can see a night-time view of the Oriente in the last window on the right.

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Here is a deluxe bedroom.

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Next we have a formal dining room. Two interesting things about this picture.

The Oriente is in the far-right window. But the painting on the far-left is of the Cuban fortress, the Morro Castle.

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Here we have one of the lounges.

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A smoking room with a fireplace and game tables.

The Oriente is in the left-hand window.

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And finally, the veranda.

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The captain of the ship was Robert Wilmott. He took command of the Morro Castle from the beginning. He was a veteran of the Ward Line for 25 years when he assumed command of the ship. At the outset of the Morro Castle's last voyage, the 174th voyage, there were no indications that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen.

However, in the few months prior to the fire, some crew members noted a change in the captain's personality which was blamed on stress and overwork.

There were also rumors such as arms being smuggled into Cuba aboard the ship. None of this was ever brought to light in later investigations.

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Second in command was Chief Officer William Warms. He was a long-time officer and was known as a competent sailor. But he also had a reputation of being a hard person and a "driver of men".

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The next crew member in our story is George Alanga. He was assistant radio engineer. Alanga tried to organize a strike against the Ward Line but was unsuccessful. He was apparently hated by the Captain, who had called him a "dangerous radical". Alanga had been notified that he was going to be fired after this trip.

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The most interesting figure in this tragic story is Chief Radio Officer, George White Rogers. Rogers was from Bayonne, NJ. Not much else was known about him and he didn't have many friends. Witnesses say he made the people around him feel uncomfortable.

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Now we come to our Bangor friends, Herman and Pearl Panimo.

Herman Panimo was born in Elmira, NY. He may have lived in Trenton, NJ. He did live in Newton, NJ, where he opened the Leader Store before coming to Bangor.

Herman married Pearl Weiss of Bangor, on March 26th, 1917.

Pearl graduated from Bangor High in 1910.

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Pearl was the daughter of Henry Weiss, who owned Weiss' department store on Broadway, located in the Bowers building.

Herman Panimo managed the store for 4 years, finally buying it when Henry retired.

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The Morro Castle's last voyage began on September, 1st, 1934.

Things must have been going well for the Panimos to take a cruise during the Depression.

They boarded the ship in NY. After arriving, Pearl looked for a life-preserver in case of an emergency. Herman jokingly asked her if she wanted to spoil the voyage before it began. After this telling incident, which will make more sense later, nothing else untoward happened during the cruise until the return trip.

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The ship arrived in Cuba on Sept. 4th.

Here we see the ship entering Havana Bay, with the fortress, which was its namesake, on the right.

Passengers stayed in Cuba one day and returned to the ship before morning.

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The Morro Castle left Cuba on September 5th.

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On Sept. 6th, the weather started to turn for the worse. Tensions also started to rise on-board.

Captain Wilmott had a meeting that day with George Rogers regarding George Alanga, Roger's assistant. Rogers reported that he had found 2 vials in Alanga's locker, that he thought were ingredients for stink bombs. However, he threw the vials overboard without showing them to anyone, or confronting Alanga. Since the captain didn't like Alanga, he chose to accept Rogers' story.

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On the 7th, the ship ran headlong into the developing storm. Since the ship was only one day away from port, it was a special day. That night was the "Captain's Dinner", where the officers and the Captain would entertain the guests.

During the day, Captain Wilmott reported that he was sick. He complained of stomach problems and had dinner sent to his room. At about 7 pm, he was discovered dead in his room by Chief Officer Warms.

Herman Panimo recalled later that "a woman passenger rushed into the dining room crowded with merry-makers...and ended the celebration with a cry, 'The Captain has just died,' then set everyone thinking as she added, 'Who ever heard of a ship docking safely after the captain has died.'"

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With the captain dead, Chief Officer Warms assumed command of the Morro Castle and all officers advanced one grade. The ship's doctor said the captain died of a heart attack and a "nervous stomach".

Outside the storm had increased with winds to 20 knots with waves 20-25 feet high. Passengers were worried about the storm and the captain's death but still enjoyed the festivities on their last night.

The Panimos, for instance, went to bed around 2 am, the morning of the 8th, after attending a farewell party with their friends.

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At about 2:45 a.m., on Sept. 8th., a fire was detected in a storage locker within the First Class Writing Room on B Deck. Acting Captain Warms sent an officer to investigate. When the officer opened the locker door, the flames erupted. The crew began fighting the fire but it soon grew beyond their control.

The Morro Castle was off the coast of New Jersey at this time, just hours away from home port.

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As the ship ran head-first into the gale, the flames were fanned into an inferno. The radio operator, Alanga, asked Acting Captain Warms if an SOS should be sent but received no clear reply.

Around 3:10, the main electrical cable burned, plunging the ship into darkness.

Chief Radio Operator Rogers sent Alanga back to the Captain for an SOS order, which he received at 3:18. But, it didn't get sent until 3:23. By that time, the ship was ablaze and had been for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile the Acting Captain Warms steered the ship towards New Jersey so the passengers might have a better chance of survival. However with the power loss, the wheel stopped responding and the ship started drifting north.

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About an hour after the fire started, the Panimos were awakened by their friend, Dr. M. Weinberger. As they left their stateroom, they put on their lifebelts. Moments later they turned around and saw their stateroom burst into flames. On deck, their lifeboat, #8, was already burning.

The following words describe the scene in an interview Herman Panimo did for the Bangor Daily News, four days after the shipwreck:

"As we came on deck we saw two lifeboats being lowered with what I afterwards learned were only three passengers, the rest being members of the crew."

"Pearl and I were at the rail, with our lifebelts on, intending to jump. Then, as the fire spread, I told her to wait at the rail, while I tried to help fight the fire. As the fire spread, I started to return to her and was only about six feet away when an explosion sent clouds of smoke and cinders down on us."

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"The panic-stricken passengers were so close together that I couldn't reach Pearl. The smoke was suffocating, so I told Pearl to jump. She leaped from the rail and I never expected to see her again as at that time the fumes were choking me and I thought I would die. I could see lifeboats out in the water and I was sure Pearl would be picked up."

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After Pearl jumped into the water, she looked and thought she saw her husband jump as well, but she didn't see him in the ocean. She swam aimlessly in the dark for about an hour before dawn. When it was light, she swam towards shore. She was on the verge of collapse when life guards spotted her 800 yards off-shore. The life guards on Asbury Park beach said she was about 8 miles away from the Morro Castle when she was rescued. She was taken to a hospital in Neptune, NJ, where she anxiously waited for word of her husband.

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While Pearl was floating in the dark ocean, Herman stayed for another 2 hours on deck. This is the rest of his story.

"After Pearl jumped..."I dropped to the deck as the rest of the passengers seemed to spread to other parts of the boat. I was dazed and, with Dr. Weinberger, made my way to a lower deck. I don't know how I got down there, but the air was better and we soon regained full consciousness."

"Then someone – I don't know who it was; I couldn't see very well as my eyes were burned by the fumes – gave the order to get everyone off the boat as an explosion was imminent. We could see the red-hot plates on a cabin nearby, so we obeyed the order and tried to get everyone off the boat. They were afraid to jump, but as we could see rescue boats in the dim light of dawn standing nearby, we knew that they would be saved if they jumped into the water."

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"Before Dr. Weinberger and I jumped, we saw a fellow with a broken leg lying on the deck. Dr. Weinberger gave him first aid treatment and we threw him overboard. He too had a lifebelt on."

"I jumped into the water and began swimming around. The water refreshed me, after being on the hot decks of the ship and knowing I could swim with the lifebelt helping buoy me up, I felt all right. I saw the Monarch of Bermuda, one of the rescue ships, standing by and started to swim toward it, but I couldn't make it as the tide was carrying me toward shore. I saw two lifeboats, but when they saw I could swim, they refused to pick me up. I was in the water about five hours before a lifeboat from the City of Savanna picked me up."

It was about 11 am when Herman was picked up. The rescue ship he was on didn't arrive in NY until 5 pm. Hospitalized for burns to his eyes and feet, he was able to let Pearl know he was alive. Word quickly spread to Bangor and its surrounds.

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Around the time the Panimos jumped ship, Acting Captain Warms gave the order to abandon the Morro Castle. Only six of the twelve lifeboats had made it into the water. Most of the lifeboats only carried crew.

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The first rescue ship to arrive was the Andrea S. Lukenbach. It was quickly followed by the Monarch of Bermuda and the City of Savannah.

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In this video we see passengers being picked up by lifeboats from the rescue ships.

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Numerous private and Coast Guard vessels helped in the rescue of people, both in lifeboats, and like Pearl Panimo, passengers who were floating in the sea. Notice how rough the waves still are which prevented many people from being rescued.

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The Morro Castle continued to burn as it drifted northwards along the Jersey coast. An attempt to tow it into NY harbor failed when the tow line broke.

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At about 7:30 pm on Sept. 8th, the ship came aground outside of Asbury Park, NJ. It burned against the night sky.

Incidentally, this video footage was used in the opening scenes of a Boris Karloff movie from 1940 called Doomed to Die, where he played a Chinese detective investigating the mysterious fire on-board an ocean liner.

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Thousands of people flocked to the area to see the wreck. The ship stayed at Asbury Park until March of the following year when it was sold for scrap. Here are some views of the ship at Asbury Park.

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Hearings into the shipwreck began immediately after the disaster.

A trial was held where Acting Captain Warms, Chief Engineer Evan Abbott, and an executive from the Ward Line were convicted. Later they were acquitted of wrongdoing.

Acting Captain Warms insisted the fire had to have been arson.

Later, Herman Panimo would agree. Their lifeboat, and four others, were destroyed by the time they got on deck and the fire also seemed to break out in different places all at once.

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Chief Radio Operator, George White Rogers, came across as an unlikely hero. This was due in part to his persistence in asking the Captain for an SOS order before finally getting one. The radio room suffered intense heat, to the point where equipment started to break down, but he didn't leave his post until the SOS went out.

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But, Rogers wasn't quite what he seemed. He later was a suspect in the Morro Castle fire. He had a long criminal record starting from the age of 13, unknown to his employers.

After leaving the Ward Line, he opened a radio repair shop in Bayonne which burned suspiciously. He then joined the Bayonne police department as assistant to Vincent Doyle.

Doyle soon became convinced that Rogers was the arsonist of the Morro Castle. In March of 1938, Rogers delivered a package to Doyle containing a fish-tank heater for repair. This package exploded and severely injured Doyle. Rogers was sentenced to 12 to 20 years for attempted murder but only served 4 before being released.

In 1948, Rogers opened another repair shop but by 1952 he was desperate for money. He took a loan from a friend, William Hummel. Hummel pressured Rogers to repay the money. One month later Hummel and his daughter were found beaten to death. Rogers was again sentenced, this time to life imprisonment. He died in prison four years later in 1958.

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Nobody knows the true facts about the Captain's death or the fire that killed 134 people. The Captain's relatives believed he had been murdered.

After the wreck, Rogers hinted that he knew more about the fire than he was telling. He said that it had been caused by an incendiary device shaped like a pen. How would he know this?

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The Panimos resumed their life in Bangor. As I mentioned in the beginning of the talk, Pearl wanted to know where the lifebelts were as they boarded the Morro Castle.

The reason for this was that her escape from the Morro Castle was her third close encounter with death in four years.

In 1931, she was critically ill and only survived due to an emergency operation.

In 1932, she escaped from a blazing car accident on the Bangor-Belfast highway.

In 1934, she escaped from the burning Morro Castle.

Herman Panimo continued to run Weiss' department store until his retirement in 1963.

The couple lived in Bethlehem for a time. It is possible they also lived in Easton.

Pearl died before Herman but I don't know when.

Herman died in the Jewish Home of Eastern PA, in Scranton, on Dec. 1st, 1978. He was 84 years old.

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Sea Tales, Inferno on the Morro Castle, A&E Television Networks, 1997
Weird N.J., Edition #25, October, 2005
Picture of the ship’s interior used by permission of Mike Alderson,
Newton, N.J. reference for Herman Panimo,