Deb Whitcraft is a dedicated collector. The former mayor of Beach Haven figures she's been gathering items related to the Morro Castle, one of the most deadly maritime disasters in New Jersey history, since she was 16 - more than 40 years ago, now.
She has enough of a collection from the ship - on which at least 137 people died after a fire started Sept. 8, 1934 - to fill a room of almost 500 square feet in the New Jersey Maritime Museum. That's the museum, by the way, that Whitcraft opened six years ago in her longtime hometown as a labor of love - and as a place to share her massive amalgamation of maritime memorabilia with the world.
Some people who found their way into the museum had their own memories of the Morro Castle, a 508-foot cruise ship that was on its way from Havana to New York when it mysteriously caught fire off Barnegat Light, at the northern tip of Long Beach Island, and was crippled as it drifted north to Asbury Park in a fierce northeaster.
The fire started after the captain suddenly - and also mysteriously - died. And the ship, which may have been smuggling everything from weapons to drugs to stowaways, burned for eight days just off the beach of then-fashionable Asbury Park, and became a grisly tourist attraction of sorts. It drew crowds of curious visitors to watch its smoldering destruction in the week after Labor Day, and in the depths of the Great Depression.
Gretchen Coyle, who volunteers at the museum when she isn't busy with a freelance-writing career, heard some of the same stories from visitors with personal or family links to the Castle. She and Whitcraft, her friend of 40 years, would talk later about those memories, and how somebody had to collect and publish the stories.
So they did, in "Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle," a coffee-table-sized book recently released by Down The Shore Publishing in Ocean County's Eagleswood Township.
They wrote the book because they want to share those stories, but also because they know from personal experience the Morro Castle name isn't as widely known it should be - even right where the disaster started, and those 137 lives ended.
Whitcraft and Coyle are amazed, and frustrated, at the number of people who come into their museum and ask them about the Titanic. Sure, that cruise ship's 1912 sinking was a great tragedy - one that inspired major motion pictures, starring huge Hollywood headliners. But the Titanic went down 400 miles out in the ocean off Newfoundland, nowhere near New Jersey.
"I tell people, 'We have our own Titanic. We have the Morro Castle,'" Whitcraft says. "When I start telling them about it, most people are fascinated by it. But most of them have also never heard of it before they come in here."
And the tales the authors detail in their book are every bit as dramatic as the ones Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet played out in the latest Titanic blockbuster. Coyle and Whitcraft broke their book up into 24 chapters, most of them concentrating on a single person who survived the sinking - or didn't.
They tell the stories of heroes of the disaster including Bob Smith, an Atlantic City native who was the Morro Castle's hard-working cruise director. On a ship whose crew got much of the public blame for the high death toll, Smith was credited with personally going around and knocking on passengers' cabin doors to warn them about the fire. He also found life preservers for passengers who couldn't, and made sure he was the last person on two of the ship's decks before he finally jumped off himself, the authors write.
Then there was Tom Torresson Jr., a 17-year-old third assistant purser on his first ship who tried to rescue a badly burned, and understandably petrified, Cuban boy, Bobby Gonzalez, who was just 12.
"I had the boy on my back. We were together for hours in the water. The weight around my neck was very painful," Torreson recalled in an interview years later - after he went on to become a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, then to retire to Toms River in 1969.
The younger boy was "very gutsy," Torresson told his daughter, a former newspaper reporter named Sue Torresson Gazzara, in 1999, when he asked her to record an interview of his memories. But young Gonzalez didn't survive his ordeal - after that long and painful rescue attempt, the teenager realized the boy had quietly died right on his back.
Torresson would spend decades defending his much-maligned fellow crew members and denying charges they worried more about themselves than their passengers. He regularly sent letters to authors and reporters who wrote about the once-notorious Morro Castle - usually trying to correct errors he found in their accounts.
He accumulated and left an extensive record of the ship's history behind when he died in 2005, and his daughter donated it to the New Jersey Maritime Museum after she discovered how serious the museum's Morro Castle exhibit is.
But the "Inferno at Sea" writers aren't the first ones to find a memorable villain in the doomed ship's saga. They make it clear that in their eyes, George Rodgers, the chief radio operator, also is the chief suspect in starting the fire. After the disaster, Rodgers was painted as a hero in many accounts he contributed to, but the authors report he had a long history of arson in his past. And years later, he was convicted of attempted murder, and then two actual murders, before he died in Trenton State Prison in 1958.
There is much, much more to "Inferno At Sea." The authors traveled to Cuba to meet some of the families of the survivors, and the victims. In Florida, they met the sister of Bobby Gonzalez - the kid who died clinging to Torresson. And Coyle, on another visit to Florida, once drove close to five hours round-trip across the state to interview a woman she had never met, but who called the Maritime Museum out of the blue one day to report her mother had survived by jumping off the deck of the Morro Castle.
That caller found out about the museum's Morro Castle collection online, the same same way Gazzarra, Torresson's daughter, also learned about it: She went to the website, spotted a small error, and sent an email to report it. That put her in touch with the authors, who invited her to come in, and she was shocked when she got there and found everything they have.
"I could see they had a dedication to it," says Gazzara, 59, of Browns Mills. "My father was a ... real stickler for was accuracy and detail. I saw their pictures and different documents, and I wanted to add to the collection. I wanted to let my dad add to it, permanently. I was very happy - it's someplace my grandson can go to some day and see what his great grandfather did."
Whitcraft believes her Morro Castle collection is the biggest in the world, but she's sure having everything she does, and sharing it publicly, is what attracted some of the best sources she and Coyle found for their book.
"That was a huge contributing factor," Whitcraft says. "The museum and its draw to people interested in maritime history opened the door to donations of other artifacts I would never have had access to otherwise."
And the authors are still gathering stories, and documents, and more items. As they have spoken about their book - which they'll do again next Saturday at the Ocean County Library in Toms River - they have heard from other people who came forth to add their pieces to the Morro Castle's many puzzles.
So they're always adding to the museum's collection. They also may add to their book - or write another one. And they definitely believe there's a movie in all those Morro Castle mysteries, which go way beyond the few listed above. If that movie ever gets made, maybe New Jersey's answer to the Titanic may finally be famous too.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
'Inferno at Sea'
Authors Gretchen Coyle and Deb Whitcraft will speak about their book and sign copies 2 to
4 p.m. Oct. 13 in the Wheeler Room at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library, 101 Washington St.. Seating is limited, register by calling 732-349-6200. The library also has its own Morro Castle exhibit.; for details on it, see
New Jersey Maritime Museum
Located at 528 Dock Rd., Beach Haven - about 7 miles south of the Long Beach Island causeway. Current hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or by appointment. Summer hours are longer. For more details or directions, call 609-492-0202 or visit