By the book

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“When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake,” by Brian Hicks. Free Press. 346 Pages. $25.

A few days aboard an ocean liner like the lovely Morro Castle offered a brief escape from the dreariness of the Depression for those who could afford it – a brief world of its own traveling between New York and Havana.

Until Sept. 7, 1934, when disaster struck along the New Jersey coast. The captain died mysteriously and then fire swept the vessel, claiming 134 lives.

In his new book “When the Dancing Stopped,” Brian Hicks reconstructs the tragic events of that night and the aftermath – the efforts to launch lifeboats, the work of many crew members to help passengers while others dithered, and the accounts of the frightened passengers themselves.

It’s a riveting story, with Hicks bringing several key personalities to life and following a few in the months and years afterward:

• Thomas Torresson Jr., a young assistant purser on his first adventure before college. He falls in love with the Morro Castle and provides a first-person account of the working of the vessel and many of the people aboard. Torresson died in 2005.

• Radio operators George Alagna, an agitator accused of Communist sympathies, and George White Rogers, hailed as a hero of the disaster who later turned to crime.

• Eben Abbott, chief engineer and technically the highest ranking officer after the captain dies, but who defers to first officer William Warms as acting captain.

• And passenger Doris Wacker, who, staying up late so as not to miss a moment of the music and dancing aboard ship, comes across crewmen throwing water on a fire. When she asks what to do, she is told to be quiet and not frighten other passengers.

How did the fire start? Probably arson, but no one has ever been charged with the crime, and it remains an official mystery, despite an extensive investigation by Dickerson N. Hoover, brother of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and head of the Commerce Department agency that supervised steamships.

But Hicks doesn’t let it rest with the official investigation. He follows the footsteps of one key player in later life and pulls together enough evidence so that by the end of the book, the reader will be sure who the killer was.

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