The Flames Of Hell Gate

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Meanwhile, the ship was catching on fire. It probably began when a carelessly dropped match or cigar ignited loose hay in a barrel. The place was the “forward cabin” below decks, used as a storeroom and lamp room. Quick work with an extinguisher might have smothered the blaze in seconds, but nobody, apparently, was there when it flared up. Nor was it visible to the excursionists, most of whom were closer to the stern, out of the wind that swept the bow, and beyond the midship bulge that cut off a direct line of vision. Least likely of all to notice either smoke or flame were the men in the pilothouse, directly above the forward cabin but three decks higher. The captain had gone there, as was his custom, to see his ship through Hell Gate, the narrowest passage along the East River and still treacherous despite the dynamiting of subsurface ledges in 1876. Van Wart was at the wheel with Weaver watching beside him. Men on other vessels, however, could see the smoke. William Halloway, captain of a dredge near the Astoria shore, sounded the standard nautical warning, four blasts of his whistle. He noted the time—10:05. If Van Schaick or his pilots heard the signal they did not heed it. It was no time for an interruption, and when Frank Perditski, a boy of fourteen, burst into the pilothouse with excited words about smoke, the captain dismissed him curtly: “You get to hell out of here and mind your own business!”

As the Slocum emerged from Hell Gate into more open water, men on both shores could see the fire clearly. Superintendent Grafting of the gasworks at Casino Beach, on the Long Island side, saw a wisp of smoke and reached for his field glasses. By the time he found the range, flames were visible and shrieks of terror audible. On the Bronx shore opposite, the alert watchman in the tower of a refrigerating plant at the foot of 138th Street reached for his telephone. His call to police headquarters, the first alarm received, set in motion a swift and massive response by city employees.

The Slocum sped on, headed into the wind that fanned the flames toward the stern. Another boy, exploring the ship as boys will, saw the fire and ran to tell a deck hand, who went to see for himself before reporting to the mate, Edward Flanagan—who in turn insisted on seeing for himself before notifying the bridge. All of this while the fire grew worse by the second, working its way sternward along the lower deck and accelerating with frightful speed. Here is how one youngster, John Tischner, recalled it: “We were sitting on the lower deck eating ice cream and smelling the clams they were frying, thinking how nice they would taste. All of a sudden everything around us got afire.…Finally I got a life preserver for Ida, and she gave it to a woman with a baby. I tried to get another, but it stuck in the rack and I couldn’t reach it well enough to pull it down.” He and-Ida were lucky; a typical Slocum preserver was nearly as deadly as the flames.

Mate Flanagan’s agonized message, crackling through the ship’s speaking tube, gave the men in the pilothouse their first knowledge—pathetically tardy—that the Slocum was ablaze. Captain Van Schaick apparently panicked, inexplicably ordering Van Wart to steer for a grounding at North Brother Island, a mile farther on, rather than the Bronx Waterfront a little over a hundred yards away. Workmen on the waterfront dropped their tools in astonishment as the ship raced past. Like the chorus of a Greek play, they could do nothing to influence events; but they could form opinions. Beaching where they and other men close by could help get the passengers off in time seemed to them the most obvious course. At the very least, the captain should have reversed the engines to bring the ship to a halt and give small craft a chance to reach her sides. Naval and revenue cutter officers subsequently endorsed these opinions, citing a law that required a captain to halt any vessel in such distress. One of the officers said of Van Schaick: “With the strong wind blowing…directly over the bows of the Slocum and the boat rushing against it, he could not have destroyed the boat quicker had he wished to do so.”

On the last mile to North Brother the flames feeding on the weathered, brittle wood mounted to the upper decks, and frantic mothers fought each other for lifejackets, only to have them come apart in their hands, spilling out dry cork dust. Those who could find their children in the chaos herded them toward the stern. So many crowded against the rail that a section gave way: a mass of debris and screaming passengers plunged thirty feet into the river.

The pastor of St. Mark’s, the Reverend George C. F. Haas, was better able than most of his flock to put experience into words. “I was in the rear of the boat with my wife and daughter,” he remembered. “Women were shrieking and clasping their children in their arms. Our case seemed hopeless. Death from fire was to be escaped only to die in the water. When the fire shot up to the top deck and drove the crowd back the panic was terrible to witness. The crush from the forward part of the boat swept those in the rear along.…I believe that the first that fell into the water [when the rail collapsed] were crushed over. When they went there seemed to be a general inclination to jump. The women and children went over the railings like flies.…In the great crush many women fainted and fell on the deck, to be trampled upon. Little children were knocked down. Mothers, with their little boys and girls in their arms, would give wild screams and then leap into the water.”