Ship: Dolly McTigue
In the early morning hours of September 8, 1934, a fire started in a closet
aboard the cruise ship Morro Castle, which was passing along the New Jersey
coast after a trip to Havana, Cuba. By mid-day, when a Coast Guard cutter
picked up survivors, 134 people had died. Now 86 years old, survivor Dolly
McTigue, who was on her honeymoon with husband Sidney Davidson, recounts her
experience of that fateful night 64 years ago.
NOVA: You were on your honeymoon, right?
McTigue: Yes, I was on my honeymoon, and everything was fine up until the night
before the fire. My husband Sidney and I were invited to sit at the captain's
table that night, but then we were told that the captain had died of a heart
attack. You know, after hearing the captain was dead, you're kind of scared,
you don't know what's going to happen. So we all retired early. At about three
that morning, Sidney woke me up and said the boat was on fire. We could hear
people yelling outside our cabin and see smoke coming in.
The fire on the cruise ship Morro Castle and the chaos that ensued cost the lives of 134 people.
NOVA: There was no alarm?
McTigue: No alarm, just people yelling and screaming up and down the hall. So
Sidney gave me his coat to put on, and we put on our life preservers—the Mae
West kind, the old-fashioned kind. We went on deck to get some air, we were
running all over the place. I guess we were on the top deck, because jumping
into the ocean was a long drop. We were pushed towards the end of the boat by
the railing. People were just jumping in and what have you. Sidney jumped in
first, but I couldn't move to jump in after him because of the crowd. The next
thing I knew somebody had picked up my legs and pushed me in.
NOVA: Where was the crew in all this?
McTigue: The crew? Goodness knows where, because we tried to get to the life
boats, but there was no one to direct us. In fact, we hadn't even had a
NOVA: So when you got on the ship, no one said, "This is what we'll do in an
McTigue: Oh no. The only decent person was Bob Smith, the cruise director. He
was yelling like everybody else, but nobody was paying any attention to him. We
were running around in circles. It was just sheer panic.
NOVA: Were you worried when you first got on the ship and there wasn't any kind
McTigue: Well, you don't think of those things. You just hope that the captain
or somebody would eventually tell you to have a drill. I haven't been on a boat
since, so I don't know if they've changed those rules.
NOVA: Could you see the life boats when you boarded?
McTigue: No, we couldn't even see them. And somebody said, "There are no life
boats." You know, they're screaming, "Where are the life boats?" And since
there weren't any that anybody could get into immediately, that's when the
panic really started.
NOVA: So you jumped overboard.
McTigue: I fell next to Sidney, thank God, and a lot of people were falling
around us. There were about 30 people around us, and we decided that if we made
a circle, and we could hear the planes over us, they would notice us quickly.
NOVA: How were you able to communicate with all those people and make that
plan? It must have been chaotic.
McTigue: Well, we kind of held hands. The next thing I knew a little boy fell
right next to me. He was about seven years old. I held him for awhile, and then
I couldn't hold him anymore, so I gave him to the next person. And the next
person kept trying to hold the little boy and then the next person. The next
thing we knew he had disappeared. It was black, and the waves were so high, and
those darn life preservers—you had to kick your feet to stay up and keep
your head above water. It was tiring, you know. We just floated around and
around until daylight came.
NOVA: How many hours was that?
McTigue: Well, I was in the water seven hours.
Dolly McTigue's determination to survive gave her the strength to swim to a distant lifeboat.
NOVA: Was it cold?
McTigue: Freezing. And somebody yelled, "Sharks." Of course, that started
something. And when you looked around at daylight, most of the people were
gone. The elderly people just couldn't hold on any longer, so they just
disappeared, drowned. At one point I saw this young girl, and she was all
burnt, her face was all burnt. She had this long black hair. It was such a
horrible sight, I thought to myself, "My God, I can't look like that." I said
"I won't die, I refuse to die." I just banged on the water and said "I won't! I
That went on until I guess 11 o'clock the next morning. We could see lifeboats,
but we couldn't get on them because they were so crowded. We were so exhausted,
and we thought, "This is the end, this is the end." Then Sidney saw a life
boat. It seemed so far away, but he said, "Let's make it." Where the heck we
got the strength to swim that far, I don't know. When we got there, they said
"No, no, no" because it was so crowded, they thought the boat would overturn.
But Sidney wouldn't give up. He jumped on the boat first, then pulled me up.
That's when he broke his fingers, pulling me up.
Dolly McTigue and her husband, Sidney, finally made it aboard a crowded lifeboat.
Then we saw a big boat, I don't know the name of it. The next thing I knew they
wrapped a rope around each of us and hoisted us up. They put us in the boiler
room where the fire was, and they told us to take our wet clothes off. They
gave us blankets, and we all lay there.
Then somebody said, "Is Davidson around?" And we said, "Yes, we're Mr. and Mrs.
Davidson." And he said, "The captain wants to see you." We couldn't understand
why; to this day I don't know why. We went to his cabin, and he was so
charming. He sat us down and he said, "This is off the record," and he gave us
a little drink and the paper—it was Sunday morning, because the Funnies were
there. And he said, "Just relax." Meanwhile, they were trying to send out names
of all the deceased and the living, and we weren't even on the list because we
were in the cabin. So that was a happy point.
NOVA: Maybe he knew it was your honeymoon.
McTigue: I guess so. We felt very special anyhow that this happened to us. Once
we got ashore, we were interviewed by the Daily Mirror and then were rushed to
a hotel. I had nightmares that night.
The couple's heroic survival story made headline news.
NOVA: What was the most frightening moment in the whole experience?
McTigue: I think seeing all these dead people around me and seeing what they
looked like. It was such a horrible, horrible sight. It was not like one person
or two; it was dozens of them just floating. And seeing boats pass you by and
knowing you can't save yourself. Because you can't get to them, and even if you
could, you couldn't get on them. They just kept going. So there you were
stranded. That was the most disappointing thing of all, I think.
NOVA: Do you think there's something about the kind of person you are that
allowed you to survive?
McTigue: To this day I can't imagine why. Here I am 86 years old and still
living. All these people died, and I survived.
NOVA: You never went on another cruise ship again?
McTigue: No, thank you.
NOVA: Never even crossed your mind.
McTigue: No way. Not only that, but I went to the beach at Atlantic City, and I
didn't even want to look in the water, because it reminded me of what went on.
You know, in those days you didn't have therapy afterwards. The funny part of
it was that Sidney had had a hernia operation, and the doctor had suggested he
take a trip on a boat to relax and rest. That's why we went on the Morro
NOVA: Has it been hard to talk about it?
McTigue: Well, not now, because it's like 64 years ago. The memory is still
there; I guess it will always be there.