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WWII veteran is last living survivor of Morro Castle disaster

The Morro Castle burns off the New Jersey coast in 1934.

NJ.GOV

By EDWARD COLIMORE | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: August 26, 2013

PHILADELPHIA — He was awakened at 2:30 that morning by a clanging gong and the shouts and screams of people just outside his cabin. A fire was quickly spreading across the Morro Castle as the big luxury liner rocked and rolled through a nor'easter off the New Jersey coast.

Jerry Edgerton, a 19-year-old relief radio operator, and others tried to fight the fire, then realized they'd have to abandon ship. The blaze had heated the metal decks, and heavy coats of paint eventually ignited.

"The deck was getting so hot that I would stand on one foot as long as I could and then stand on the other foot, and lift my foot to try to cool it off," said Edgerton, who decided his "best bet would be to leave the ship."

Edgerton, 99, of Elizabethtown, Pa., the last living survivor of the Morro Castle, wrote down his memories for use in talks about that Sept. 8, 1934, when 137 people lost their lives and hundreds were forced overboard.

In fragile health as the anniversary approaches, he doesn't publicly speak of the event anymore, but his eyewitness account still paints a vivid picture of the ship's destruction and the heroics of rescuers.

The story is also told by Long Beach Island authors Gretchen Coyle and Deborah Whitcraft in their 2012 book, Inferno at Sea, which includes interviews with Edgerton and other survivors over the years.

Whitcraft, president and founder of the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, has created a permanent Morro Castle exhibit, displaying artifacts, photos, and documents to recreate a piece of history that left its mark on the Shore.

The museum's researchers are now scanning records at the National Archives to help unravel the mysteries - left unresolved by an official inquiry - that still surround the ship's loss.

What caused the captain's death before the fire? Was it a heart attack or was he murdered, as some believe? Was the fire accidental or was it set, as some have charged?

"Everybody knows about the Titanic; we have called the Morro Castle New Jersey's Titanic," said Whitcraft, 58. "This was a horrific maritime disaster. We wanted to make it known to those who never heard of it."

The smoldering vessel eventually washed up on a beach at Asbury Park, where its towering profile drew hundreds of thousands of gawkers over the next several months.

By that time, Edgerton was glad to have solid ground under his feet. He never forgot his last frightening minutes on the Morro Castle, which was making its usual run from Havana to New York.

"I waited until the ship was on the crest of the wave and as the ship started to go down after the crest had passed, I jumped over the side, feet first," he says in his memoirs. "I was on B Deck when I jumped and knew that it was about 60 to 70 feet above the waterline.

"That sure was a long way down!" he says. "As soon as I hit the water, I started to swim away from the ship toward the shore because I suddenly thought about the ship sinking and I heard that when a ship went down, it created a large whirlpool and I didn't want to be sucked down into it."

Though about 13 miles from shore, Edgerton had a life preserver and felt confident he'd survive.

"What really surprised me, though, was when I put some distance between the ship and me, I looked back and saw that I was on the crest of a wave and the ship was in the trough, and I was able to look right across A deck," he said. "I was actually higher than the ship.

"Boy, did I ever start paddling to put as much distance between me and the ship as quickly as I could," he said.

In the churning waters, Edgerton met a couple of young female passengers. Only one of them had a life preserver, so he grabbed one floating nearby. For the next few hours, the three struggled toward land.

Whenever they were separated, Edgerton "would swim over to the one farthest away and tow her back to the other one so we could stay together."

He remained confident they'd make it to shore.

"In fact, I was so confident that I turned to the girls and said, 'Do you realize that we have something we will be able to talk about for the rest of our lives?' One of the girls said, 'That may be all well and good, but right now all I want is to get out of this water and lay down and go to sleep.' "

They looked back at the Morro Castle and "we could see nothing but fire . . . no rescue ships or anything that would indicate any rescue efforts were being made," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere we could hear a horn blowing."

It was a fishing vessel, the Paramount, which had braved the stormy waters against the orders of the Coast Guard to collect as many survivors as it could. Capt. James Bogan of Brielle, N.J., his sons, and a crew of volunteers pulled 67 people out of the water, including Edgerton and the two women.

In the investigation that followed, criticism was leveled at some crew members for fleeing - with only a handful of passengers - in the few lifeboats that were lowered.

The liner, launched in 1930 and capable of carrying more than 700 passengers and crew, was considered one of the safest on the seas, but the catastrophe led to improved shipboard safety, including the use of shipwide fire alarms, fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, and more attention to fire drills.

Edgerton went on to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II, setting up radar stations in the United States and flying C-47 cargo and troop planes. He once flew a training mission with the Tuskegee Airmen, the name given to African American pilots. His survival during the Morro Castle disaster was one of the stories that stood out, Whitcraft said.

Another involved the third assistant purser, Tom Torresson Jr., who jumped from the ship with a 10-year-old boy on his back, said Coyle, 73. The child had been seriously burned and couldn't wear a life preserver.

"He tried to keep him talking," Coyle said. "But after a couple hours, he stopped. [The boy had] died.

"The Morro Castle was a tragic story, a story of perseverance that showed the best and worst of humanity," she said. "It left a great imprint on the Jersey Shore."
 

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