“I was close to the rail. I’d stand on one foot until it got too hot, then stand on the other. The fire looked like a grass fire running across the deck. Oil in the paint accelerated it. ... The fire was underneath and heating the steel deck.
“We were unable to drop the lifeboats, they were all burning and the power was off. The cables holding the lifeboats up would not work. I saw one lifeboat was dropped which officers took off in. They didn’t try to take anyone else to shore.
We would have liked to get hold of them.”

— Jerry Edgerton, Morro Castle Radio Operator

Inferno at Sea

Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle

By Gretchen F. Coyle and
Deborah C. Whitcraft

11.25" x 10.25"
152 pp.

ISBN 978-1-59322-061-7



Entertaining Hero:


Robert James Smith of Atlantic City was born in 1900. In 1934 he was thirty-four, married to Beatrice Hawkins, and had three children. On March 24, 1934, Bob Smith wrote a note to his son Bobby: “To Bobby Smith from his Daddy, Here’s hoping we travel together on this ship someday soon ‘Big Fellow.’” Sadly, in less than six months-time, the Morro Castle lay on the sand off of Asbury Park, a burned hulk.
Bob Smith was the liaison officer between Acting Captain Warms and the passengers, announcing Captain Robert Willmott’s death by megaphone in the dining room and other public places; then cancelling the last evening’s activities out of respect for the captain. Survivors told of Bob Smith personally addressing groups, starting, “I have some sad news …”
During the fire aboard the Morro Castle, Bob Smith was as natural at organizing and saving people as he was with helping the passengers on a daily basis. Thanks to his people-skills, he tried to stop the ensuing panic. He is remembered as a quiet, unassuming hero by everyone. FBI records reported that Bob Smith estimated, “There were about six inches of water in alleyway.” He tried to bang on cabin doors; then moved “About 125 people to C Deck. Took some up to B Deck. Flames on B Deck in after lobby which rapidly spread aft.”
A man yelled from the water to him, “For God’s sake Smith, send us a boat.” But salvation was out of his hands. Bob Smith told the FBI that men in lifeboats “Were facing the ship, and saw people jumping. There was no attempt to get a boat to ship or pick people up out of the water.” He was the last one to leave B and C Decks. Jumping without a life preserver, he swam around for about thirty minutes and clung to an assistant purser. A life boat from the City of Savannah picked up the cruise director.

“Little did he ever say about the start of the fire, except he had his suspicions,” Janine Smith recalls. “Captain Willmott he considered pleasant, but no strong leader. To implement improvements via games was possibly a bit scary to Captain Willmott. He seemed an insecure gentleman, afraid of change. Even for the better!”

Bob Smith thought George Rogers was a loner. “Chief Officer/Captain Warms was not determined enough to take command. And maybe he was overcome, confused by the happenings.”

As to the devastating fire, “Bob was miraculously not hurt. He was saved by a Coast Guard vessel off the New Jersey coast, very much thanks to his uniform hat he was wearing! He was a strong swimmer, having been a lifeguard in Atlantic City. His thoughts were always that the Morro Castle needed higher standards and upgrades.” Newspapers loved to play up the fact that Cruise Director Bob Smith secured life preservers for those who had not found theirs or neglected to put them on.

PBS’s “Nova” featured survivor Dolly McTigue on a program about shipwreck survivors. She spoke about her experience on the Morro Castle: “The only decent person was Bob Smith, the cruise director. He was yelling like everyone else, but nobody was paying any attention to him. We were running around in circles, it was sheer panic.

Bob Smith was candid about the conditions on board, according to FBI files. Tension existed everywhere from crew members to officers of the Ward Line based in New York. Bob Smith had no respect for Ward Line Vice President Henry Cabaud. He last saw Cabaud in May of 1934, but “No conversation because he avoided Cabaud, who Smith described as the ‘king’ and his office known as ‘the throne room.’” Occasionally, he would see Cabaud and other Ward Line officers walking around the ship when it was in port in New York. Any complaints or suggestions by Bob Smith were quickly put aside by executives of the Ward Line, who did not want to address such problems.

Henry Cabaud was convicted of “fraud, neglect and connivance in violation of law.” His sentence was overturned, as were those of the other Morro Castle officers. No one ever spent a day in prison.

Cruise Director Smith did not go to sleep until 12:30 daylight saving time, he changed his watch to an hour ahead. At 3:30 a.m. he was woken by his assistant Herman Cluthe.

He begged passengers to dive, not jump, into the water. Bob was well-aware of the physical damage if people jumped from such a height into a churning ocean: passengers knocked unconscious, black eyes, and dislocated shoulders were minor compared to broken necks, and drowning that occurred when passengers jumped without knowing how to tie and hold down their life preservers. Keeping track of a group at the stern of the ship, Cruise Director Smith also warned of the danger of being sucked into the propellers while the ship was still moving forward. It has been written that he helped bandage the wounded and even helped keep a woman afloat for hours, but that was speculation on the part of the press.

A former neighbor remembered Bob telling the story of returning to get his white hat so he could be spotted more easily in the water surrounded by passengers who might not be visible. Like others, Bob did not dwell on his Morro Castle fire experience, and rarely talked about the disaster. He prefered to get on with his life and take care of his children. By the next winter, he was Cruise Director on the Monarch of Bermuda. The children did not grow up hearing of his heroism or any stories of the fire.

Bob Smith had worked hard and diligently over the years after his brush with death during the Morro Castle tragedy. Whether because of, or in spite of, the Morro Castle fire, Bob became even more of a leader.

He remained close to the son named after him, working together in the real estate and construction business. Always an extremely hard and an inspirational leader, Bob became the owner of three Atlantic City hotels — the Belvedere, the Seaview, and the Bouvier.


GRETCHEN F. COYLE, an author and magazine writer, is a graduate of The Baldwin School and Hollins University. As a past president of the Long Beach Island Historical Association and the Tuckerton Seaport Board of Trustees, she is a well-known authority on maritime history. She and her husband John enjoy exploring the waters between their homes in Beach Haven, N.J., and Useppa Island, Fl.

DEBORAH C. WHITCRAFT, a former owner of Triton Divers and the Black Whale fleet of passenger boats on Long Beach Island, N.J., served two terms as mayor of Beach Haven, N.J. Her collection of artifacts, documents, and photographs of New Jersey maritime history, forty years in the making, is now the foundation of the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, of which she is president and founder.

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