PS General Slocum- June 15, 1904
1,021 of 1,342 passengers killed
The PS General Slocum was a sidewheel steam passenger ship owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company in New York City. It was a tour ship, and took regular trips around New York with tourists, as well as chartered trips with groups from the city.
On June 15, 1904, a group of mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Little Germany, Manhattan chartered the General Slocum for $350 to take them on a scenic ride from Long Island Sound to Locust Grove for a church picnic. At 10 am, 30 minutes after the ship departed, a small fire of unknown origin (probably a cigarette) broke out in the Lamp Room, and was fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. A 12-year-old boy ran up to Captain Von Schaick to tell him about the fire, but the captain thought that he was kidding. The crew didn’t notify the captain about the fire until 10 minutes after they first noted it.
After that, the events became one big mess. The firehoses on the ship had been ignored and allowed to rot for over thirteen years, and fell apart when the crew tried to use them to put out the fire. There had never been a fire drill run on the ship, and the survivors reported that the lifeboats on the ship were unusable. They were inaccessible, tied up, or painted in place, depending on who you ask; no matter what, they never made it to the water, and probably would have fallen apart had they been moved.
The life jackets were useless and fell apart when they were put on. When mothers would put them on their children and throw their children into the river, they would watch in horror as the kids would flail and sink straight to the bottom. The company that produced the life jackets was suspected of putting low-quality cork in them, adding small iron bars in the bottom to meet weight requirements, and they dragged those who put them on to their deaths Not that it would have mattered if they were well-made; as with everything else, they were left out in the elements for over 13 years and would have fallen apart no matter what.
The captain of the ship opted not to ground the ship when he was noted of the fire, instead steering it into a headwind so as to “not catch ablaze the docked ships” (there were reportedly very few ships near where he would have run aground). The headwind fanned the flames, and killed hundreds on board. It was rare that one knew how to swim during this time, and most that jumped overboard drowned. Even if they could swim, heavy wool clothing and women’s clothing of the day would have become waterlogged and too heavy to swim in.
By the time the ship grounded itself on North Brother Island off of the Bronx, it had burned down to the water line. 1,021 people were killed in the fire or drowned. Only 321 survived, including the captain and 28/30 crew members.
The captain was eventually tried and convicted of three counts of criminal negligence, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He spent 3.5 years in Sing-Sing before being paroled. The disaster was a significant factor in the passing of new laws and regulations regarding emergency equipment on board ships.