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Donora physician, wife were victims of disaster

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Henry J. Strauch

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 1 of 2

Much has been said and written over the years about the ties the mid-Monongahela Valley has to the disaster involving the RMS Titanic, the British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912.

The Titanic was making its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City when it collided with an iceberg on the night of April 14 and sank less than three hours later. The tragedy claimed the lives of 1,502 passengers and crew members, and among the victims and survivors were a number of people bound for Monessen and Coal Center.

Their stories have been chronicled many, many times by area newspapers, historians and authors.

But that hasn't been the case with another disaster involving an ocean liner, a deadly fire aboard the Morro Castle in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1934. Dr. Henry J. Strauch and his wife, Ruth C. Strauch, a registered nurse, of Donora lost their lives in that accident, while Norman Witherspoon of Monongahela survived.

The Morro Castle, part of the Ward Line (officially known as the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Co.) of cruise ships, was returning to New York City from Havana, Cuba, when, according to reports, fire broke out in the closet of a writing room around 3 a.m. The luxury liner eventually beached itself near the boardwalk at Asbury Park, N.J., but not before 137 passengers and crew members among the 550 persons aboard the ship had been killed by the fire or after jumping into the ocean.

Headlines about the catastrophe dominated newspapers.

A Page One story in The Herald-American in Donora on the day of the tragedy carried this headline: 133 Missing In Fire, Donorans Unreported. The subheadlines alerted readers this way: No Word From Doctor, Wife On Vessel; Dr. And Mrs. Henry J. Strauch On Passenger List On Havana Cruise; Monongahela Youth, A Crew Member, Reported Safe.

The localized story read as follows:

“The tragedy of the SS Morro Castle by fire off the New Jersey coast this morning was brought to the vivid attention of Donora residents today when it was learned that Dr. and Mrs. Henry J. Strauch of Tenth Street and Meldon Avenue were aboard the vessel and, up until 4 p.m., were unreported.

“A Monongahela youth, Norman Witherspoon, a member of the crew, wired his family that he was safe in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

“Dr. and Mrs. Strauch left here on Friday, August 31, sailing the following day on the Morro Castle for a week's cruise to Havana Cuba and return. They were due back in New York City aboard the ship today. Their names were included in the passenger list released by the Ward Steamship Line's offices in New York city, but no further information regarding their fate could be learned.

“Both are well-known residents of Donora.

“Dr. Strauch has practiced medicine here for the past four years. His parents reside in Pittsburgh. He is a graduate of the Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and served his internship at the Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh. He and Mrs. Strauch were married five years ago.

“Mrs. Strauch is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Verner Rose of 604 Castner Avenue, Donora. She has two sisters, Mrs. Regis Schmitt and Miss Catherine Rose, both of the same address. She was graduated from Donora High School in 1926 and from the Western Pennsylvania Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1929.

“It is the widely expressed hopes of Donora residents that the local physician and his wife are safe and the delay in finding out definitely where they are does not signify that they have met with disaster.

“Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Witherspoon of 704 Fourth Street, Monongahela, received the following telegraph from their son this morning: ‘Ship Burned – Safe and sound at Spring Lake, New Jersey. (Unsigned) Norman.'

Area newspapers confirmed on Monday, Sept. 10, that Dr. and Mrs. Strauch were among the missing.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.