At around 2:50 a.m. on September 8, while the SS Morro Castle was sailing around eight nautical miles off Long Beach Island, New York, a fire was detected in a storage locker within the First Class Writing Room on B Deck, which quickly spread within minutes.
Captain Warms attempted to beach the ship, but the growing need to launch lifeboats and abandon ship forced him to give up this strategy. Within 20 minutes of the fire's discovery (at approximately 3:10), the fire burned through the ship's main electrical cables, plunging the ship into darkness. As all power was lost, the radio stopped working as well. The crew only got off one SOS call before the radio was silent.
Cut off by the fire amidships, passengers tended to gravitate toward the stern. Most crew members, on the other hand, moved to the bow, in pitch darkness. In many places, the deck boards were hot to the touch, and it was hard to breathe through the thick smoke.
As conditions grew steadily worse, the decision became either "jump or burn" for many passengers. However, jumping into the water was problematic as well. The sea, whipped by high winds, churned in great waves that made it extremely difficult to swim.
Some crew members were incredibly brave as they tried to fight the fire. Others tossed deck chairs and life rings overboard to provide persons in the water with makeshift flotation devices.
Only six of the ship's 12 lifeboats were launched—boats 1, 3, 5, 9 and 11 on the starboard side and boat 10 on the port side. Although the combined capacity of these boats was 408, they carried only 85 people, most of whom were crew members.
Many passengers died for lack of knowledge on how to use the life preservers. As they hit the water, life preservers knocked many persons unconscious, leading to subsequent death by drowning, or broke victims' necks from the impact, killing them instantly.