Shipwreck buffs court disaster


Due to an editing error, a story in yesterday's Accent misstated the fate of the S.S. Morro Castle. In 1934, the ship burned off the New Jersey shore and floated to the Asbury Park beach, where it sat for several months. Eventually, it was towed to Baltimore to be scrapped.

SHELLEY DZIEDZIC was a little girl on the Eastern Shore when she saw a gloomy lithograph in her grandparents' home of the 1912 Titanic sinking.

"It was dark, scary and creepy, the ship was so vulnerable in the middle of the ocean," Dziedzic says.

Not then, but years later, she'd experience what some call the Titanic syndrome. Dziedzic, who grew up in Glen Burnie, graduated from the College of Notre Dame in 1973 and married a Naval Academy midshipman, has just become the president of Titanic International.

It's a 3-year-old national organization of Titanic and ocean steamer buffs who tied up recently at a Rochelle Park, N.J., motel to swap sea stories. Dziedzic and 225 others at the meeting are transfixed by ships and shipwrecks, especially the S.S. Morro Castle, which went down off the New Jersey coast in 1934, and the Titanic.

"Every one of us puts ourselves on board that ship," explains the mother of two, who now lives in Mystic, Conn. "What would we do? We identify with the passengers. They are almost like family. We never get tired of the human nature aspect . . ."

Historians (or disaster fans, if you will) at the New Jersey meeting again confirmed the appeal of shipwreck: the disappearance of a monster-size ship, the human mistakes, the passengers rich and famous and in steerage, the two deaths for every one saved, the long string of events, any one of which, if different, might have saved the vessel.

In search of answers, many attendees were drawn to the meeting by scholarly interests:

Frederick N. Rasmussen of Baltimore (who is a librarian at The Sun), and Robert J. McDonnell, of Lakehurst, N.J., gave a speech criticizing the FBI and Navy, which have not revealed some details of the Morro Castle incident. The pair is writing a book and suing the agencies to open censored 57-year-old records.

Some were fascinated by Morro Castle relics -- melted glass sculptures and fixtures from the collection of Peggy Howard of White Marsh, Md., and her sister Nancy Bordgerding. Their father, Winton R. Jones, worked for the Baltimore company that scrapped the ship in 1935.

But for most at this type of convention, the main attractions are survivors. The 1934 Morro Castle incident took 134 lives. Of 422 survivors, at least 14 are still believed to be living and three traveled to the recent meeting. Some 1,523 people died when the Titanic sank in 1912. There were 705 survivors, of whom 17 are known to be living; only one attended the meeting.

Survivors often wonder what's the fuss; imagine a meeting at which 225 men, women and children come on to them like rock star groupies.

"The Titanic fanatics," the members are called by Titanic survivor Louise Kink Pope, 83, of Milwaukee, a small, feisty woman. "It doesn't bother me they're so interested, but what I know anyone can find out."

The Zurich-born Pope was rescued with her parents when 4 years old but lost her aunt and uncle. She doesn't remember the Titanic sinking. She did bring along and allow friends to examine three prized possessions from her Titanic adventure -- a pair of leather shoes she wore on the ship as a child, a cotton blanket her mother wrapped her in before they entered Lifeboat D (next to last to be launched) and a photo of her mother and her with another survivor with whom she still corresponds.

On a 98-degree day at Ellis Island, Pope cheerfully stood for picture after picture and gave autograph after autograph with the bemused patience of one who has raised four children, has 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren and has fought tuberculosis, cancer and arthritis. "Other than that," she says with a laugh, "I'm doing fine."

At the convention, Pope met and hugged three Morro Castle passengers: sisters Agnes Prince Margolis, 86, of Coatsville, Pa., and Ruth Prince Coleman, 80, of Allentown, Pa.; and Dolly E. McTigue, 78, of Riverdale, N.Y.

McTigue was a 21-year-old bride, model and ex-Ziegfeld Follies child star when she paddled in the Atlantic for seven hours off Asbury Park, N.J. after the Morro Castle accident. The Bogan family fishermen of Brielle, N.J., defied the Coast Guard and rescued her, her husband and 60 others. This was her first Morro Castle reunion.

"The first question is usually, 'What did you think about in the water?'" she says. "You don't think. You're in a daze, you're kicking, something inside says, 'keep going.' I saw a horrible-looking dead man float by and I said, 'I'm not going in my casket looking like that.' "

The sisters from Pennsylvania arrived at the convention with family members including Coleman's husband, Irving, and widow Margolis' children, Ed and Elene Margolis. At her table, Margolis says she was in the water "eight hours." Her sister says, "No, it was seven hours," and later a 1934 news film clip showed a blanketed Ruth saying, "We were in the water five hours."

Everyone laughs. It was that kind of a party.

"We go about our lives and don't think about Morro Castle until these things," says Coleman, who recalls that a Morro Castle crew member tried to rip a life jacket off her back so he could have one.

Margolis was the 29-year-old society editor of the Pottstown Mercury, six years older than her sister. After her rescue, on the way home in a car, she wrote an award-winning first-person survivor story.

"I don't know why people want my autograph," she says. "They have no understanding for when I was in the water. It seems so superficial. But they're all so nice."

The lure of ship disaster tales is different for each person who feels it. Dziedzic's rekindled when she read ex-Baltimorean Walter Lord's 1955 "A Night to Remember":

". . . I couldn't get enough of it. Eighty percent of the Titanic buffs started with Walter Lord . . . the Titanic disaster, those great big ocean liners, the romance of trans-Atlantic travel, people cut off from the rest of the world.

"It was mesmerizing. I didn't do anything about it while growing up in Maryland. But the ship was burned in the back of my brain."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad