Though not well known, 109 years ago today the PS General Slocum caught fire and sank in the New York East River. At the time she on a chartered run carrying members of St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church to a church picnic. The Slocum had over 1,400 passengers, many of them women and children.
It is believed the fire started in the Lamp Room, possibly by a discarded cigarette. Fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil, the fire began to spread. By 10:00 a.m. the fire was noticed and Captain Van Schaick was notified of it. Rather then running the ship aground or stop at a landing, he continued on course. This likely fanned the flames and with flammable paint spread the fire out of control.
Worse though was that the safety equipment–fire hoses and life jackets– and been left to rot. The fire hoses came apart, the life jackets were in poor condition and some filled with weights, and the lifeboats were tied up making them inaccessible. Also the crew had never had a fire drill so they did not know what to do. People had to jump into the water. Most could not swim and were weighed down by woolen clothing. Worse the life preservers helped children sink rather than float (some of them simply came apart when touched). By the time the General Slocum sank in shallow water at North Brother Island, an estimated 1,021 had burned to death or drowned. Only 321 survived and five crew members died. Captain Van Schaick survived. There were many stories of heroism both on ship and from people ashore trying to help people by forming human chains to pull them out of the water.
Eight were indicted by a Federal grand jury but only Captain Van Schaick was convicted and served time for criminal negligence (though pardoned by President Taft in 1912). Despite evidence of fraudulent inspection records, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine. The incident led to state and federal regulations improving emergency equipment aboard ships.
There are two memorials to the victims of the General Slocum. One is at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, New York where many of the unidentified victims are buried. It is also where the annual memorial service is held. The other is a memorial marble fountain erected in 1906 at Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.
1. General Slocum Victims Remembered 109 Years(14 June 2013, New York Daily News)
2. PS General Slocum (Wikipedia)
3. The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea (Jim Kalafus, Encylopedia Titanica)