Useppa author Coyle attends Havana International Book Fair
Gretchen Coyle and Deborah Whitcraft are authors of the book “Inferno at Sea – Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle.” A few weeks ago they headed back to Cuba to attend the largest book fair in the world, the Havana International Book Fair. The book fair draws 600,000 people to Cuba over a two week period.
“This is our second trip to Cuba,” Coyle said. “We were here to research the book a few years ago but this time we were scheduled to give presentations about our book. It’s just a huge book fair and spread over I don’t know how many square miles. The fair has 12 venues throughout the country. Part of the book fair takes place in the old prison where the Castro brothers executed and imprisoned a number of people that were part of the Batista regime. They’ve changed the name of the prison to the Fortress of Books.”
Coyle and her husband, John Coyle, reside 6 months of the year on Long Beach Island in Beach Haven, N.J. The other six months they spend on Useppa Island.
“We’ve been coming to Useppa for 35 years now,” Coyle said. “We happen to be the longest residents on the island of Useppa. I love the area and it’s a great place to live.
“I’ve been a freelance magazine writer for years,” Coyle said. “I write a lot of Florida history and a lot of New Jersey history. My focus has always been on the maritime history. I was volunteering at the New Jersey Maritime Museum with my friend Deb Whitcraft, who is my co-author when I discovered that the museum has the largest collection of memorabilia, photographs and artifacts of the Morro Castle disaster in the world. So we said facetiously, ‘Somebody should write about this.’ We were very fortunate to find a publisher that believed in us and hired us on the spot to write this book.”
The Morro Castle disaster is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in history. The SS Morro Castle was an ocean liner built for the Ward Line 18 years after the Titanic disaster. The ship made weekly round trips between New York City and Havana. The ship was labeled the “pride of the Ward Line.”
The ill-fated voyage of the Morro Castle began when she left Havana for New York on the morning of Sept. 6. Aboard were 318 passengers and 231 crew members. On Sept. 7, the passengers learned that their captain, Robert Willmott, had died under suspicious circumstances and later in the afternoon, as the ship skirted the coastline, the ship was hammered by a nor’easter with gale force winds, heavy rain and high seas.
Early in the morning on Sept. 8, around 2:45 a.m., Cuba time, the ship was off the coast of New Jersey when steward Daniel Campbell was told by a passenger that there was a smell of smoke coming from the Writing Room. Campbell quickly located the fire in a storage locker and attempted to put the fire out himself but was unsuccessful.
The stage was set for one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
Within the next 30 minutes the ship was engulfed in flames. All power was lost as the fire destroyed the ship’s electrical system plunging the ship into darkness and incapacitating the ship’s steering. The radios went dark after just one SOS was sent.
Coyle and Whitcraft wrote in the preface, “Imagine the collective terror that gripped the 550 passengers … as fire raged through the Ward Line’s 508 foot pride and joy … Imagine nostrils and eyes clogged with smoke as people fought their way through the darkness, as they tried to climb up to a deck they hoped was free of smoke and fire … Imagine burned soles of feet on the decks as flames rolled across the thick oil based paint.”
The aftermath of the disaster literally floated into public view when the ship beached herself off Asbury Park, N.J. Tens of thousands of people flooded the boardwalk to get a glimpse of the ship before the ship was towed off and scrapped.
“When we began researching this in New Jersey, I was amazed how many people had some connection with this disaster,” Coyle said. “Either people who were alive then or their children and grandchildren knew about it.”
The book is filled with personal accounts of survivors telling their stories. Family and friends share narratives of those lost that night, rescuers and volunteers all contribute to give us a rare glimpse into the events of the Morro Castle disaster on Sept. 8, 1934.
The book contains hundreds of photographs from the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History Inc., a museum organized exclusively for educational purposes. The corporation’s educational purposes include, among other things, providing a facility for the public display of a significant number of maritime artifacts.
“We went to Cuba 4 years ago (2011) to begin research for the book and made a great friend in Roberto Gerardi, who introduced us to Ciro Bianchi Ross, who is Cuba’s official historian,” Coyle said. “We were probably the only Americans to ever have access to the Cuban National Archives.
“We returned this year with the finished book,” Coyle said. “We traveled under a special license from Cuba International Travel as part of a ‘people-to-people delegation,’ one legal route around the travel restrictions. I think one of the most impressive things I learned is the number of young people that read in Cuba. In fact, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
“Our trip to this book fair turned out very well. Right now we have two Cuban publishers who are interested in publishing and distributing the book in Spanish,” she continued. “The interesting thing about this book is it comes from a time when the United States and the Cuban government were very close. Maybe now that the embargo is being lifted we can return to friendlier relations.”
“Inferno at Sea” is available at the public library and from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.