Boiler Room & Engine Room Workers

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Most of the vacationers returning to New York City from their Havana holiday aboard the ship were sleeping peacefully in their cabins in the small hours of the morning on September 8, 1934. Later, nobody knew for sure just how the fire started in the locker located in the ship’s First-Class Writing Room on Deck B. Once it had started however, it quickly burned through the main electrical cables, cutting off all of the ship’s lights. Next, it cut the hydraulic lines, and the ship’s rudder became useless.

The fire moved on, ravenously feeding on the flammable varnishes and ornate carved wooden furnishings and fine carpets. Within an hour, flame had engulfed the darkened ship; in the ensuing chaos, visibility was almost nil between the darkness of night and the billowing smoke. Only half of the ship’s lifeboats were launched, and only 85 of the 549 people traveling on the ship – mostly crewmembers – were aboard them.

135 people died as a result of the tragic fire aboard the S.S. Morro Castle that day. What happened in response, however, turned out to create an even greater tragedy.

Preventing Fires at Sea

Asbestos Exposure InfoThere is almost nothing that mariners fear more than a fire at sea. As a result of the S.S. Morro Castle tragedy, Congress passed laws requiring mandatory crew training in fire fighting, the use of emergency generators, automatic fire doors and the use of fire-retardant materials in shipbuilding.

In the 1930s, that material was asbestos. Over the next forty years, asbestos was used to insulate nearly every shipboard component. This is especially true in the engine and boiler rooms of old steam-powered vessels. Over the years however, this insulation had a tendency to become brittle and begins to crumble into dust, producing free-floating, microscopic fibers of asbestos.

Corporate Crime

The corporations that produced asbestos products were well aware of the health dangers of asbestos. To allow this to become public knowledge, however, would have meant that the shipbuilding industry would have had to find a different fire retardant – which would have cost these corporations billions in profits. It was decided in the late 1930s to hide this information from the public. The information was an “open secret,” but there was no proof until the discovery of letters in 1977, clearly showing that the two largest asbestos corporations – Raysbestos and Johns-Manville – had agreed to hide findings of scientific studies they had commissioned which confirmed the link between asbestos and respiratory diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.


Liability is often difficult to determine in asbestos cases. One reason is the latency period: symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear for decades after exposure. Another problem is that many asbestos companies have gone bankrupt because of litigation costs and judgments against them.

In asbestos cases involving the maritime industry, it can be even more complicated. If a plaintiff were to sue a shipping company, it would need to be proven that the company had full knowledge of asbestos dangers and failed to take action to prevent injury.Asbestos Legal Action

It is also possible to sue the vessel; under maritime law, a ship is considered a “legal entity,” much like a corporation or an estate. However, damages are limited to the value of the ship at the time the suit is filed.

Only a knowledgeable mesothelioma lawyer with experience in asbestos litigation can determine the most effective course of action in pursuing a particular asbestos suit. However, this will probably consist of action against the asbestos manufacturer, or more likely, its successors; even companies that have become bankrupt are usually bought up by larger corporations. When this happens, the corporation that purchases another company incurs its liabilities as well.