When he was seven, my father bore witness to one of history’s great maritime disasters. It was Sept. 8, 1934, a Saturday, and the New Jersey coast was being battered by a nor’easter.

Earlier that day the radio reported a luxury cruise ship, the Morro Castle, had caught fire off the coast and rescue operations were underway.

In the evening dad’s family drove to Asbury Park so the kids could go to the arcades.

When they arrived, there were huge crowds on the boardwalk. Only an hour earlier, the Morro Castle had run aground. They returned the next morning to see the damage in daylight.

He recalled: “The ship was lodged on a sandbar. The bow pointed north. The beach was crowded. The ship was not shiny, it was a black hunk. While we were there, they put a line over to the ship and a man went across in a bucket. It was still smoking.”

“The fishing boats had all gone out on Saturday in the storm. They picked up a heck of a lot of people who jumped overboard. The water wasn’t so cold in September. The life guards from Point Pleasant and Sea Girt swam out with belts hooked to ropes so they could be pulled in.”

The Morro Castle was was built four years earlier and could make the run from New York to Havana in 60 hours. It was popular in the early 1930s because you could drink aboard, avoiding Prohibition.

The fire broke out at 2:50 a.m. in the middle of the vessel and spread fast. Within thirty minutes the ship was engulfed in flames.

Due to poor communication, an SOS wasn’t sent until 3:23 a.m. The radio operator reported the fire and ended his dispatch: “Can’t hold out much longer.”

Shortly thereafter, the fire knocked out the electrical and hydraulic systems. That left the ship rudderless, without communications and plunged into darkness.

The flames drove passengers toward the stern, while the crew was mostly stuck near the bow. There were 548 people on board. The lifeboats were designed to hold 408. Half of the 12 lifeboats were destroyed by fire. In the confusion, the others launched with only 85 people.

Disasters portrayed in movies always seem to unfold with more time.

Passengers on the Morro Castle had about 40 minutes from the time they smelled smoke to the time they started to jump into the water.

The ship was being tossed by six foot waves. It was six miles from shore. Many could not swim.

People spent as many as seven hours in the water. Some swam to shore; others were plucked from the sea. Newspapers were filled with inspiring and heartbreaking stories. About 128 people died.

The Morro Castle became a tourist attraction in the weeks after.

As the vessel lay wedged against the coast, the tide came and went, creating a sandbar to the beach.

My father joined thousands who walked out to the ship.

He remembers the steel hull which had been so hot felt utterly cold.

(Part of a series based on conversations with my parents about their memories and life lessons.)