Friday, June 15

The General and the Captain

Firefighters working to extinguish the General Slocum
By Grant Davies

On this day in 1904, an unlikely series of events led to one of the most horrific maritime tragedies in American history. Unlike some tragic events where it just seems everything goes wrong by chance, this one was brought on by the most astounding string of incompetent decisions the mind can contemplate. And the consequences were deadly.

The "General" in the title was the General Slocum, a fourteen year old riverboat steamer which had operated as an excursion boat around New York City since it was launched in 1891. The "Captain" was Captain William Van Schaik, the inept skipper of the craft.

As to the ship, its historical rap sheet looked like the plot for a novella titled "Jinxed." In the years leading up to the calamity the steamship had run aground four times, collided with other ships twice, and survived a riot on board by a group of anarchists. To top it all off, in a way, it was a ship that actually sank twice. After the initial trip to the bottom on the day of the final incident, the remains of her hull were dredged up and re-manufactured into a barge, which sank in a storm in 1911.

As to the Captain, his multiple blunders led to the deaths of 1,021 of the 1,342  passengers aboard her when she went up in flames, collapsed into herself, and sank to the shallow bottom of the East River, just off the Bronx shore. The vast majority of the victims were women and children from a Lutheran Church picnic outing. His irresponsibility had been festering for a long time and it came to a head when he left the dock in Manhattan badly overloaded with passengers. The earlier mistakes of omission he made were about to make the errors of commission all the more fatal.

You see, the ship might have been better named the "USS Deathtrap" because of all the safety equipment that didn't function. Some of that equipment, like the life preservers, was worse than merely useless, it actually caused deaths. The filling  inside them was mostly made of non-buoyant material which was used to meet minimum weight requirements. They had been manufactured in 1891 and had been left hanging outside exposed to the elements for thirteen years, so it's not known if they would have helped in any case. On many, the canvas that held them together just disintegrated with handling. Of the ones that held together; the children who were put into them sunk to the bottom and drowned immediately.

The tragedy unfolded as the ship made its way down the river. Somewhere between 90th Street and 83rd Street, a twelve year old boy tried to warn the captain and crew that there was a fire burning in a storeroom. Depending upon the account, either he was told by the captain to "shut up and mind his own business", or the crew merely ignored him. Either way, by the time they figured out he was right, the fire was out of control and the boat was doomed.

The fire hoses had never been checked or tested and they were rotted out. When the crew attempted to use them they just fell apart. The ship blazed on. The hapless captain decided not to dock at the nearest pier, and  instead made course for a small island in the river. That decision was the worst of the lot. He sailed into headwinds which fanned the flames. The lifeboats were tied so tightly to the ship they couldn't be moved and launched. (Some survivors later reported they were wired and painted into place.)

The Captain later explained his decision by saying he wanted to make sure the fire didn't spread if he docked at a pier. Umm.. I don't think so. No one at the time believed him either.

So, the General went to a watery grave and took over a thousand people with her, Captain Van Schaik went to Sing Sing for a few years, and this blog gets to tell the story of one of the most tragic and preventable calamities in New York history. (Just for the record, this blog would rather tell stories about cool inventions and interesting people.)

There are many more gruesome details to be told, but I'll spare you. That way at least someone can say they were spared some of the stupidity of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company.

Source material - 

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