Donna's Reviews > When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake

When the Dancing Stopped by Brian Hicks
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's review
Feb 06, 13

bookshelves: ships-and-explorers, library, not-for-kindle
Read from January 29 to February 03, 2013

The shipwrecks I read about are usually age-of-sail affairs that follow the survivors' struggle against their environment (and occasionally each other). But the wreck of the Morro Castle involves more than just the fire, the crew's response, and the rescue efforts. The author presents historical context, personal accounts, and a heaping pile of evidence against one arson suspect, all delivered in an organized, cohesive way.

The story itself is unnerving. There was unrest among the crew, and the captain died shortly before the ship burned. The fire started in one of the few areas that didn't have an automatic fire detection system. Orders to abandon ship or call for help were delayed by poor communication. Many of the lifeboats either burned or launched with only a few people aboard, leading those who couldn't reach them to jump into the ocean and hope they'd get picked up. One of the ship's design features helped to spread the fire, and rough weather made rescue difficult. But the author makes a credible case that the 135 deaths were ultimately the responsibility of radio operator George White Rodgers.

Right after the wreck, Rodgers was called a hero for getting the SOS out before the ship's equipment failed. The last third of the book explores his history of erratic behavior and later crimes, including an attempt to kill a coworker with a homemade bomb. Rodgers went to prison after being convicted of two murders, where he teased reporters about new information on the Morro Castle.

The book is primarily about the ship and the crew member who may have burned it, but it also brings to life a time when ship owners feared communist infiltration and New York tourists cruised to Havana. It was compelling and written well, but the author doesn't address any other theories about the cause of the fire, even to argue against them.

It was also more difficult to get through than it should have been, because somebody decided to get creative and set it in a tall, narrow typeface. I was interested in the story and am not even that prone to eyestrain, but I had to keep putting it down.
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