The true story of one of the greatest tragedies in New York history
On June 15, 1904, the steamship General Slocum was heading from Manhattan to Long Island Sound when a fire erupted in one of the storage rooms. Faced with an untrained crew, crumbling life jackets, and inaccessible lifeboats, hundreds of terrified passengers--few of which were experienced swimmers--fled into the water. By the time the captain found a safe shore for landing, more than 1000 people had perished. It was New York’s deadliest tragedy prior to September 11, 2001.
The only book available on this compelling chapter in the city’s history, Ship Ablaze draws on firsthand accounts to examine why the death toll was so high, how the city responded, and why this event failed to achieve the infamy of the Titanic’s 1912 demise or the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Masterfully capturing both the horror of the event and heroism of men, women, and children aboard the ship as the inferno spread, historian Edward T. O’Donnell brings to life a bygone community while honoring the victims of that forgotten day.
O'Donnell (1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History) trains his historian's eyes on one of New York's greatest but little-known disasters a 1904 steamboat fire that killed more than 1,000 people. He leaves no aspect of the General Slocum tragedy unturned as he lays out the life of the New Yorkers around the turn of the century who became major players in the ship disaster as well as the significant role newspapers played in shaping public opinion. He then details the lives of residents of the mostly German Lower East Side, who were on their way to a church picnic when the boat fire started. Using newspaper as well as second- and firsthand accounts, he then details the fire itself. The event was not inevitable, he emphasizes; it was mainly caused by a lack of safety measures poor organization of life jackets and outdated, unchecked fire hoses, for example and by the poor swimming skills of most of the ship's passengers. He also recreates the panoply of emotions on that June day: the panic felt by the ship's passengers as it burned, the heroism demonstrated by rescuers and the despair in the community afterward. With an eye toward today's tragedies, he shows how victims felt little solace from investigations, which became largely an attempt at scapegoating the ship's captain. In O'Donnell's deft hands, the disaster becomes more than just a historical event it's a fascinating window into an era, a community and the lives of ordinary people.