- Historic Sites
The Flames Of Hell Gate
Her life preservers weighted with scrap-iron, her lifeboats mere decoration, the excursion steamer General Slocum left New York’s Third Street pier at 9:30 on the morning of June 15,1904, with thirteen-hundred picknickers bound for a Long Island beach. Less than an hour later, she was afire.
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Haas was pushed over the side by the pressure of bodies, along with his wife and daughter. “When I struck the water I sank, and when I rose there were scores about me fighting to keep afloat. One by one I saw them sink.…But I was powerless to do anything. I was holding my wife and daughter up in the water…almost under the side of the boat, when someone, jumping from the rail directly above me, landed on top of us. My hold was broken, and we all went under together. When I came up my wife and child were gone.”
Along that fatal last mile the Slocum ’s wake was strewn with hundreds of the pastor’s parishioners—about half of those who had boarded so happily less than an hour before; and very few of them were picked up alive. Even good swimmers—and there were not many in those days—had little chance, what with the waves whipped up by the wind and the long dresses and layers of petticoats that dragged them down. Passengers still on the ship were not much luckier. Some bought time by mounting the paddle-wheel boxes, well above the level of the top deck and farthest from the ship’s center. Others somehow found spots the fire had missed. A few of the more agile climbed down the ship’s sides on ropes and hung, just above the water they feared, until rescued by men in small boats. But no place on or off the Slocum offered any real assurance of survival.
Henry Iden lost four sisters, and Amelia Swartz her mother, grandmother, aunt, and niece; but the pair kept alive, as Henry told their story: “Miss Swartz and I went to the rail. We saw a lot of people waving their arms at us. We stayed close to the rail where it wasn’t so hot, until the steamer grounded. Then we jumped into the water. I couldn’t swim with Miss Swartz, so we held onto the boat. It got so hot in two or three minutes that I had to keep ducking her to keep her hair from being burned, and had to duck myself. We were finally saved by a towboat, but not until our faces had been blistered and our eyebrows burned off.”
The grounding, at an angle to the North Brother shore, was far worse for most still on board. The captain and his pilots, being near the bow, were able to drop into shallow water and work their way to land—not too easy for Van Schaick, whose ankle was fractured and his spine injured in the jump. But the passengers, most in the stern amidst a swirling mass of flame and smoke, could neither see the island nor brace for the impact. It catapulted a number into the hold, now a yawning pit of fire. Others, their clothing afire, were thrown down to a tugboat, the Wade , which had eased alongside. As the flaming victims hit the deck, her crew doused them with buckets of sea water. More might have been saved in this way if the Wade had not caught fire herself and been forced to withdraw.
More vessels soon arrived, including a city fireboat, the Zophar Mills, whose crew trained her great hoses on what was left of the decks. This wet down a few small areas from which passengers could jump, all that there was left to do. Dry land, they knew, was not far away, and dry land meant people who would do what they could to help.
North Brother Island was the site of city hospitals, but with few able-bodied men and no special equipment for coping with disasters. The personnel rose to the occasion admirably, but before they could turn their attention to saving the passengers, they had to calm patients in buildings nearest the site of the grounding, who went wild at the horror they could see only too well from their windows. In one contagious ward the patients actually rioted, and it took some fifty staff members to restore order. The patients quieted down only when the burning wreck floated off the rocks, after about an hour and a half, and drifted away on the strong tidal current. It settled finally off Hunt’s Point in sixty feet of water, where divers later recovered the charred, sodden dead from the hold and dislodged broken bodies from the paddle-wheel blades.
Meanwhile, doctors and nurses, matrons and orderlies, formed a human chain and hauled about seventy of the excursionists ashore, a score of them still living. Dr. McLaughlin, head of the tuberculosis unit, rowed out alone and saved six. Another six were rescued by Nellie O’Donnell, an assistant matron, before she dropped from exhaustion; she had never been able to swim before. A group of nurses waded out up to their necks, pulled or pushed bodies ashore, and revived some of the drowning by the latest method of resuscitation. Thomas Cooney, a reserve policeman, saved eleven, only to drown as he returned for a twelfth.
If there are degrees of courage, the highest was shown by Mary McCann, a fourteen-year-old convalescent patient. Though still running a fever, she pulled nine small children to safety. (Five years later, she was located after a long search and was awarded a silver lifesaving medal, one of nine granted by Congress for heroism during the Slocum disaster. The other eight went to men.)