Appeals court refuses to open records from investigation of 1934 ship fire
PENNSYLVANIA — Historical records that could shed light on the intriguing 1934 Morro Castle ship fire will stay secret under a checklist of Freedom of Information Act exemptions raised by the government, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled in late September.
Writers and Morro Castle buffs Robert McDonnell of Toms River, N.J., and Frederick Rasmussen, Towson, Md., had sought the nearly 60-year-old records the government collected in its investigation of the destruction of the luxury liner by fire near the coast at Asbury Park, N.J.
The fire, which may have been set by the ship’s radio operator, left 134 people dead after the crew abandoned passengers and took the lifeboats.
McDonnell asked for records of the government’s investigation of the Morro Castle and of George Rogers, the radio operator, through an FOI Act request first filed in 1985.
The government denied records under the exemptions for national security (Exemption 1), for privacy (Exemption 6), for law enforcement records that would intrude upon privacy or reveal confidential sources (Exemption 7(c) and (d)), and for confidentiality provisions in other laws (Exemption 3), including a rule protecting grand jury information and a law protecting juvenile delinquency proceedings.
The writers sued in 1988, claiming that release of the old records would cause no of harm the exemptions were enacted to protect.
In September 1991 a federal district court in Newark, N.J., upheld most of the government’s denials, including protection for the privacy of persons involved in the disaster or its investigation. However the district court rejected privacy arguments protecting information about witnesses and others, saying the public’s interest in full details of the disaster outweighed those privacy interests.
The lower court also refused to protect source information where the government claimed only an implied, not an express, promise of confidentiality.
The appeals court reversed these orders of disclosure, but asked the lower court to reconsider the confidential source material in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case requiring a court to take into account whether the nature of a crime and the source’s relation to it raise a presumption of confidentiality.
The appeals panel also ordered records of juvenile delinquency proceedings against Rogers released. The federal law cited to protect that information did not apply to state court proceedings in which Rogers had been involved as a juvenile.
(McDonnell v. Department of Justice)