Prior to coming to the Havana International Book Fair, as I researched to figure out who was speaking when and where, I read about two American authors, whose book was being featured this year. So I went to their talk. The presentation prior to theirs was not finished on time, because one of the recently released members of the Cuban Five was talking. So, standing outside the door in the hot sun (the first time it was actually hot during this week) I got to learn all about the authors, their current book, how they got invited, and their past and future works. Both authors were delightful, interesting and engaging, and they gave me a signed copy of their book just because I write and had gone to listen to them. The book is called Inferno at Sea. It is a non-fiction account of a tragic sinking of a ship named Morro Castle, after El Morro, the fort where the majority of events of the Havana International Book Fair take place.
I learned that the connection of the ship to Havana was that Havana was its weekly destination, and it many passengers and crew were Cuban citizens. I learned that it actually burned off the coast of New Jersey. Gretchen Coyle and Deborah Whitcraft are maritime historians, and Deborah has a museum named New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, New Jersey, full of artifacts, writings, historic pieces and information about many historical matters. They came to Cuba to see the book fair and perform research previously, the same year I first attended, in 2011. While they had sought information about survivors and facts from U.S. records, what they finally received was insufficient and heavily redacted.
They found significantly more information about the ship and passengers from Cuban records, and even the day of the talk discovered a plethora of details and many more passenger names at the National Archives in Havana. One of the passengers, Franz de Beche, who was a famous Cuban swimmer, gave away several life jackets to young women, saying that he could swim, jumped into the water holding hands with one, but disappeared. It is believed he may have been sucked into the propellers. There is a sports arena named after him. He is considered a hero in Cuba.
The authors have interviewed a number of passengers, and family members of passengers who died. In some cases the authors have provided information to family members that they were unable to learn from other sources.
One passenger who is over a hundred years old, and lived in Daytona Beach, Florida, traveled north to meet the authors and be interviewed.
Now, with the new information they acquired on this trip, they may write a second volume of the book, with descriptions of more people.
The authors have the support of well-known Cuban historian, Ciro Biancho Ross, (the man in the gray shirt who presented a lengthy introduction). They introduced me to him, and I talked to him again the following day. i learned from several Cubans that he really is probably the most famous historian in Cuba, and has written a number of well-respected books.
You won’t believe the photographic evidence of the size of the berths and common areas in those days, and the real wooden furniture that looks like it’s in a hotel, not on a ship.
The book is full of clear and descriptive photographs, and devotes chapters to the ship, the trip, individual heroes, deceased passengers, surviving passengers, all along with some mystery and intrigue.
I read the whole book while sitting in the Jose Marti airport in Havana yesterday.