Another tale of nautical adventure from Hicks (Ghost Ship, 2004, etc.), who here investigates the destruction of a legendary American cruise ship.
Early one evening in September 1934, on an otherwise routine run from Havana to New York, things began to go wrong on the Morro Castle, a luxury liner built four years earlier. The ship’s captain was found dead of an apparent heart attack. A few hours later, fire broke out in the writing room. The author vividly recreates the terrifying hours after the fire began. Panic ran through the ship even faster than the flames. There seemed to be a shortage of life jackets. Some lifeboats failed to launch. People began to jump, only to be pulled into the ship’s turning propellers and “churned to pieces.” All told, more than 130 passengers died. Among the heartbreaking snapshots Hicks presents are images of Doris Wacker letting her father’s corpse float away from her as she climbed into a rescue boat, and of a couple who jumped overboard to their deaths, entwined in each other’s arms. He makes use of newspaper stories and interviews with survivors, lending the narrative a sense of immediacy. The final hundred pages are devoted to tracing the national reaction to the fire. The public was horrified but hooked by the story, and people across the country followed every twist in the FBI’s investigation. Did someone deliberately set the fire? Had the acting captain been paralyzed by fear and missed opportunities to save the ship? What role did radio operator George Rogers play in the disaster? While Hicks doesn’t claim to definitively answer those questions, he offers plausible suggestions.
A suspenseful, highly satisfying read.