June 15, 1904
East River, New York City, New York
The PS General Slocum catches fire and sinks, killing an estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 on board
The General Slocum was ferrying a group for an annual church function when a fire started in the steamboat’s Lamp Room. The flames spread rapidly due to oil-soaked rags, lamp oil, straw, and other flammable materials spread across the room. A delay in informing the captain of the fire also contributed to the speed in which it spread.
As passengers attempted to evacuate the steamboat, another issue arose: the boat’s owner had allowed safety equipment to fall into disrepair. When some of the crew attempted to extinguish the flame with a fire hose, the hose was unable to withstand the water pressure and fell apart in their hands. Mothers put life vests around their children and threw them into the water to spare them from the fire, but the canvas surrounding the inner cork had rotted. The canvas tore away and many of the children drowned. The life preservers, which should have been filled with solid pieces of cork, were instead filled with cheaper, granulated cork. Even worse, to meet the minimum weight requirements of the life preservers, iron bars were added. The canvas on the life preservers was compromised from years of exposure to the elements, as well. One piece of equipment not suffering from decay were the lifeboats, although they were reportedly wired into place.
Adding to the poor equipment, the crew was largely untrained in proper evacuation procedures. Some even pushed passed women and children to abandon ship.
Women’s garments at the time were largely heavy and woolen, further complicating rescue efforts. As the women jumped into the river to avoid the fire or to rescue their drowning children, they were weighed down by their clothing absorbing water. Many could not swim at all and those who could were pulled down by drowning victims around them. Others died aboard the boat from the fire or smoke inhalation, and still more were crushed by the steamboat’s paddle-wheel when the boat capsized.
The boat’s captain, two inspectors, and several people in high-ranking positions at the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted. Only the captain was found guilty of criminal negligence. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and paroled after 3 years and 6 months.
The bodies of some of the victims.