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History's Headlines: Fire at Sea

History's Headlines: Fire at Sea

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - It was the early morning hours of September 8, 1934, several miles off the coast of northern New Jersey and 23 year old Ruth Prince- later Ruth Coleman of Allentown- had a life and death decision to make. She could stay aboard the burning hulk of the cruise ship Morro Castle and run the risk of burning to death or she could take the advice of her older sister Agnes and jump 60 feet to the storm-churning waters of the ocean below. This was not a situation she could have imagined just hours before.

In 1934, the Great Depression was a nightmare from which most Americans were trying to awake. For the lucky few with money, there was a way out. Since 1930 the Ward Line’s cruise to Cuba, on its sleek, white passenger liners Morro Castle and Oriente, offered one.

Known as “the Havana ferryboats,” at first they were highly profitable for the line. Those seeking to avoid Prohibition made the Cuban capital a draw. And the fares were relatively low. It was also exotic and had a touch of glamour. A cruise in the 1930s meant Palm Beach suits and evening gowns, not flip flops and shorts. It was for these reasons that Ruth Prince and her sister Agnes, Pottstown natives, decided to book passage for a 7-day cruise in the late summer of 1934 on the Morro Castle. “My sister was older then I was and she was the society columnist for the local paper,” Ruth recalled many years later. “We did a lot of traveling to Philadelphia and New York.”

Although no one would confuse the Morro Castle, named after the old Spanish colonial fortress at the entrance to Havana’s harbor, with a transatlantic Cunard liner, the 508 foot long ship appeared on the surface to be splendid. The dining room featured elegant woodwork and plenty of food.  The voyage down was pleasant. Ruth remembered Bob Smith, the ship’s cruise director, who invariably wore a white suit and pith helmet, did all he could to keep them entertained. The high point of the trip was at Sloppy Joe’s bar, a Havana haunt favored by Americans. For the rest of her long life, Ruth kept a photograph of Smith, herself and her sister raising glasses in a toast at Sloppy Joe’s.

But all was not well on the Morro Castle. The Ward Line was paying the crew less. Working conditions and food for employees had become among the worst at sea. All this was unknown to the passengers. It only dawned on them one night on the voyage back to New York when Captain Robert Wilmott did not arrive for his usual place at the captain’s table in the dining room. But the real shock came the next evening. It was the last night at sea before arriving in New York, and, as was tradition, a final party was planned. There was surprise that quickly turned to stunned silence when Bob Smith came forward to the head of the dining room and announced Captain Wilmott had died of a heart attack.

Prince recalled there was no panic. But the party was cancelled. Nobody on the ship at that time- at least among the first-class passengers- thought it was more than a tragic act of fate. What they did not know was that suddenly this caused chaos among the crew, who were thrust into jobs for which they had little training.

The sisters retreated to their cabin. Unable to sleep, they sat up talking. Outside their cabin a nor’easter was blowing up gale force winds and roiling waves. But at 2 a.m. things took a new more tragic turn when Agnes Prince told her sister she was smelling smoke. “Ruth, this is serious,” she said. “We need to get our life jackets on and get on deck.”

Looking back many years later, Ruth recalled her sister’s actions. “My sister was always quick-thinking like that,” she recalled. “It’s really thanks to her that we were saved.” Once in the corridor the sisters realized it was even worse than they had thought. Panic-stricken fellow passengers were running up and down the hall. Many died in their cabins by being asphyxiated. No life boat drill or fire drill had ever been held. And the crew was even more scared then the passengers. They rushed the life boats in a frantic effort to escape the ship. “Bob Smith was the only one who made any attempt to help us,” Ruth recalled.

“We are going to have to jump,” said Agnes. “Ruth, I want you to go first because if you don’t I know you will not follow me.” With that Ruth, gripping the sides of her life jacket, jumped over the side feet-first traveling, 60 feet into the storm-tossed sea. “When I hit the water I went down so far I thought I would never come up,” she remembered.

Coming to the surface, Ruth found herself alone.  Her first thought was that she would never find her sister. But by some miracle a half hour later she heard her voice. For the next five hours they drifted and debris and bodies floated around them. To pass the time and to not dwell on their plight, they sang songs and told jokes in the Pennsylvania German dialect.

Finally, out of the fog came the fishing boat Paramount of Brielle N.J. Captain John Bogan had the crew pull both women from the sea. After being treated at a New Jersey hospital they were sent home to Pottstown. Somewhere in that time period Prince talked on a newsreel that people saw in theaters across the country. She did not see it herself until 1982 when watching a television documentary.

The Morro Castle as a burning hulk eventually drifted on to the beach at Asbury Park N. J. Crowds of thousands came to watch her smolder until she was scrapped for salvage. Over the years since the cause of fire has been much debated.

Ruth Prince later married Irving Coleman, a prominent Allentown attorney, and raised a family. Although she never really enjoyed ocean swimming after that, in the 1950s on a cruise to Cuba she was surprised to find Bob Smith serving as cruise director on the New Amsterdam. She also kept up a correspondence with Captain Bogan.  She died at the age of 81 in 1992.                            

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