Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Disaster in New York Harbor

June 15, 1904, a day meant for sunshine and picnics, is the date of one of the most senseless disasters in maritime history.

Almost 1,400 people, hundreds of them children, were on board the paddlewheel steamboat, the General Slocum, as it steamed across New York Harbor that morning. Most of the passengers were from New York's Weiss Garden community of German immigrants, on their way to the annual Sunday school picnic at Locust Grove on Long Island Sound.

A fire broke out on board, and though the steamboat was never far from shore, a thousand lost their lives during the half-hour ordeal. At least some of them might have been saved, but for useless fire-fighting equipment and the refusal of the boat's captain to put to shore to allow passengers to escape.

The General Slocum was later described as a "deathtrap," "nothing but tinder and fresh paint." There had never even been a fire drill, but this was typical pleasure ship operation for that time. The fuel for the fire was loose hay stored in a closet with oil lanterns the night before the excursion. The hay had been removed from crates packed with drinking glasses, and deck hand Dan O'Neill stowed it in the closet, against regulations which prohibited loose hay on board. When the hay somehow ignited during the excursion, perhaps from the careless toss of a match or a cigarette, it was described to have taken only seconds from when the first smoke and flames were observed and the entire forward section was ablaze.

The steamer had been inspected by Henry Lund, assistant inspector of hulls, and found seaworthy just one month earlier. He also certified the boat to have satisfactory fire equipment, but his inspection was only superficial. Lund checked that water valves would open, but not to see if water actually came out of them, and though he never climbed up to examine the fire hoses on board, he asserted that they were in good condition. It was true that there were enough life vests on board for at least 2,500 people, and Lund checked to see if the straps were safe, but the vests were filled with crumbling cork. Some were even found to have been filled with metal to give them regulation weight.

Neither the fatal breach of regulations by deck hand Dan O'Neill, nor the negligence of inspector Henry Lund, was ever held accountable under law. Captain Van Schaick was made the scapegoat for the entire incident.

He was 68-years-old, seasoned in command of the General Slocum, with ten years of experience with a crew of about 25 men. Under his command, however, the General Slocum had been involved in a number of mishaps in the past, however, including running into mud, sand bars, tug boats, and piers. Van Schaick had also been in command during passenger injury-incidents as well. Though none of the incidents were very serious, the number had mounted, and Van Schaick was under some pressure from authorities which threatened his command.

Though Van Schaick wasn't informed by his crew that there was a fire until it had been blazing for at least ten minutes, when a young boy had came running up to the pilot house to report a fire, he dismissed the news as a prank. When the crew was alerted to the source of the fire, one crewmember threw two sacks of flammable charcoal on the fire to try to smother it, compounding the flammable combination of hay and lamp oil.

Van Schaick's fateful decision to keep going remains controversial. When people first smelled smoke, there was time to spare to at least bring the boat ashore, but the captain refused. He claimed other boatmen, who shouted to him that the blaze might spark an explosion among the oil tanks and lumber ashore there, warned him from coming in that area. Instead, he steamed full ahead into the wind for another mile, determined to get the boat to North Brother Island off 149th Street and beach it there.

As the General Slocum paddled on for 30 long minutes, the wind from the boat's speed fanned the fire and it became an inferno of flames and smoke. Desperate passengers threw themselves into the water to escape. Small craft followed behind the steamboat and tried to rescue passengers from the deep, swirling water, but the unlucky ones who had put on lifejackets could not stay afloat. The useless vests became waterlogged and dragged them down under the water, and most people could not swim in those days anyway.

One survivor recalled mothers and children with clothes ablaze jumping overboard, cloth and bodies becoming enmeshed and shredded in the paddlewheel mechanism. The lifeboats had been wired in place and burned before they could be launched. When the inexperienced crew tried to use the fire hoses, they were so rotten and cheaply made that the water pressure made them burst.

Captain Van Schaick's clothes were on fire as stood at the wheel, finally piloting the ship to a place on shore he believed safe, but the waters around were still deep and dangerous. Of the boat's *1,331 passengers, *1,021 perished in the fire, or drowned in the perilous whirlpools of the East River. Most who died were women and children. It was said that the "river ran thick with their bodies for days." Whole families had perished together, and 61 bodies were never identified. Many of the dead found on board were huddled in each other's arms.

Although there were inquiries for weeks and angry recriminations against the ship's owners and crew, only Captain Van Schaick was convicted of any crime. Though he had been blinded and crippled from burns in the accident, his very survival was held against him, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served three years in Sing Sing until President Taft pardoned him at Christmastime in 1912. To the end of his life, he admitted no wrongdoing and insisted that he had done everything he could to save his passengers.

Many heroes saved peoples' lives that day, among them a measles patient from the hospital at the spot where the General Slocum came ashore. She dove into the water despite having a fever to save some children, and a nurse from the hospital saved many more, even though she didn't think she knew how to swim. A tugboat captain braved the flames from the burning ship and brought his own boat into danger to pull over a hundred from the water. However, there were also many ghouls who hunted for souvenirs from the disaster and stripped charred bodies of their jewelry. One yachtsman disgusted onlookers by staying safely at a distance, watching the disaster through binoculars.

The General Slocum fire is considered the worst steamboat disaster in history. Afterward, maritime safety standards were improved and procedures implemented to protect the public. However, the Little Germany community in New York City was so devastated by the tragedy it never recovered. The shocking loss of so many children to the fire was heart-breaking, and many bereaved survivors who had lost their entire families committed suicide afterward. Most families moved away, abandoning the neighborhood that is known today as the East Village to new waves of immigrants.

Few remember the General Slocum disaster of a century ago. There is a monument at the Lutheran cemetery where the unidentified victims are buried. A neglected pillar of pink marble still stands at a memorial fountain in New York City's Tompkins Square. Inscribed are the images of a little boy and girl looking toward the sea, and the words, "They Were Earth's Purest Children, Young And Fair."

The hull of the General Slocum was raised, renovated, and relaunched as a coal tanker, the Maryland. The ship's new life was also ill-fated, and it sank off Atlantic City in 1910.

Source of quotes for this story: (1)

Other resources: (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)

*The exact number of passengers and victims has varied among sources. There were approximately 1,000 ticket holders, but only adults required tickets. Children rode for free. Some sources say there were as many as 2,000 on board. One source said there were less than 90 male passengers on board that day, and that the rest were all women and children.

2nd Sight art works can be used as screensavers or shared via the web so long as credit is given to 2nd Sight, with a link back to 2nd Sight Magazine. E-mail the Editor for info. See our page at Webshots to send these pix and many more as e-greeting cards.

2nd Sight Sites

Criminal Minds News Page Index
Back to: The Get Away With Murder Club
Gallows Humor
Criminal Minds Yahoo! Forum
2nd Sight Magazine