On a bright June day in 1904, a tragedy befell the citizens of New York City, one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the city. A steamship, the General Slocum, hired for the annual one-day excursion to Long Island Sound, boarded a group of church members, most of them women and children. For many of the residents of Germantown, the outing was much anticipated, certainly as close as most would come to any kind of vacation. Whole families dressed up in their Sunday best.
The General Slocum wasn’t far from shore when flames erupted from below deck. The panicked travelers rushed back and forth to escape the fire that was spreading rapidly. Most of the passengers couldn’t swim and were further weighted by their clothing as they jumped from the burning vessel. Rotten life preservers turned into twenty pounds of dead weight as those who wore them jumped into the water, never to resurface. Moreover, the crew made no effort to fight the flames or assist the desperate passengers, a fact that turned crisis into catastrophe.
In 1904, fire was a fact of life in New York City, especially along the waterfront. In fact, mandatory inspections were made of such vessels by special oversight agencies; however, in the case of the General Slocum, the inspector failed to note the deterioration of the life preservers or firehoses that were the original ones installed thirteen years prior.
The author puts a human face on the events of that fateful day, introducing captain, crew and passengers in the moments before the horror began, then describing the chaos that ensued when the flames raged around the unsuspecting victims. This is a well-documented and moving account of the tragedy. The decisions made in the moment of crisis only added to the number marked for death.
When it was all over, thirteen hundred people had perished. The majority of those who died were women and children; row upon row of hastily assembled coffins lined a makeshift morgue as relatives searched for loved ones. Public outrage was immediate, and an inquest was called to deal with the aftermath of the fire. Someone needed to be accountable.
Above all, the people of New York City, especially the decimated population of Germantown, needed to know that the city would prevent another accident like this. But by the time of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire, people had, indeed, forgotten about the General Slocum. All but the inhabitants of Germantown, who lost loved ones, some of whom were never recovered. These people couldn’t forget the day they lost so many of their community, an event that changed the terrain of their lives forever.