On a warm spring day in June 1904, the steamboat "General Slocum" left its dock in New York City's East River, carrying members of a German-American church group on a holiday excursion to Long Island. Most of the passengers were poor, working-class citizens from a single neighborhood, and they were predominantly women and children, since the excursion took place on a weekday, when the men had to work. Within minutes after departing, the ship caught fire, and the combination of the speed with which the fire spread, the lack of adequate fire prevention equipment, the uselessness of the years-old lifejackets, and the incompetence of the crew led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, the greatest loss of life in New York history prior to 9/11.
The "General Slocum" fire was a tragedy in the truest sense of the word, and O'Donnell provides all of the details of this easily preventable disaster. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute account of the blaze and its aftermath, he offers insightful, sympathetic portraits of the various passengers on the trip, and he shows how the tragedy affected the families and their community – and, ironically, how the disaster ended up having little effect on establishing laws and regulations that might have prevented other ship disasters.
This report prepared by James Keenley