Read an Excerpt
From the Chapter "A Faint Ray of Hope"
To those standing on shore or on the decks of nearby rescue vessels, the sight of the Slocum as it steamed at full throttle upriver almost defied description. "No artist," wrote a journalist in the aftermath, "unless he dipped his brush in the colors of hell, could portray the awful scene of a majestic vessel, wrapped in great sheets of devouring flames…"
Superintendent Grafeling of the gas works at Casino Beach near Astoria noticed smoke coming from near the port bow of the steamboat. He grabbed his field glasses and trained them on the strange spectacle. Immediately he saw bright orange shards of flame shooting out from the clouds of smoke. He knew then the boat was on fire, but wondered why the band continued to play.
William Halloway, an engineer on a dredge at work just off the Astoria shore saw the burning vessel and let fly four loud blasts from his steam whistle as a signal to other boats that the Slocum was in trouble. He then set off in hot pursuit. He was followed by Captain McGovern of the launch Mosquito who was employed on the same project and countless others, including eleven members of the Bronx Yacht Club put out in three small launches.
On the Bronx side, Officer John A. Scheuing of the 34th Precinct was walking his beat along 138th Street near the water when he heard someone shouting about a steamer on fire. Looking down a side street that led to the river, he saw the Slocum coming upriver covered in flames. He bolted across the street to where a soda wagon stood and ordered the driver to take him to the river's edge. With a crack of his whip they were off, scattering pedestrians and other vehicles that lay in their path. At the water’s edge and Scheuing jumped from the wagon and ran for the pier. Up ahead he could see several small boats and beyond them the burning wreck of the Slocum as it approached North Brother Island. He jumped in a small rowboat and rowed as fast as he could to the scene of the disaster.
Scheuing was followed almost immediately by several other policemen who likewise put out in boats. Officer James A. Collins was at the East River near 134th Street when saw "a solid mass of flames" moving upriver. He ran to a nearby call box and got word to the fire department. Then he sprinted two blocks to a dock at 136th Street and with another policeman, Officer Hubert C. Farrell, commandeered a nineteen-foot boat and instructed its mate to make for North Brother Island.
Moments after they cast off, Engine Company No. 60 and Ladder No. 17 roared to the river's edge expecting to find the Slocum at one of the nearby piers. In frustration they watched the burning boat moving away from them and knew there was nothing they could do. Nearby, however, one piece of fire fighting apparatus was heading off in pursuit, the fireboat Zophar Mills.
Out on Rikers Island where the city maintained a prison workhouse, two inmates saw the Slocum pass and ran for a boat. John Merther and Dan Casey knew they were taking a big risk, for their actions might easily be taken for an escape attempt, but there was no time to seek permission. Fortunately, when they reached the small skiff, they were met by one of the workhouse doctors who joined them.
Some who saw the Slocum that morning were in a better position than others to offer assistance. One of them was John L. "Jack" Wade, a tough harbor rat of a tugboat captain. Somewhat slight of build, he nonetheless exuded strength and self-assuredness. His tug, named John Wade in honor of his father, was a workhorse of a boat -- not much to look at, but capable of performing all manner of jobs on the New York waterways. While many of his fellow captains piloted a tug for one of the big towing companies like Moran or for one of the railroads, Wade was an independent operator. He owned the John Wade outright and earned his living working job to job along the busy waterfront, "in the manner of a cruising cabman on land," according to one description.
He was working on North Brother Island when he spied the Slocum charging upriver, a mass of smoke and flame. Some captains in his position that morning hesitated and some looked the other way, certain that others would come to the steamer's aid. They had in mind men like Jack Wade, tug captains who acted on instinct when sighting a boat in distress. It did not matter if he knew the vessel or the captain -- though in this case he certainly knew both -- for among men of his breed there was a code of honor that demanded only one response: to offer immediate assistance. This was not a job, but an obligation.
It took Jack Wade only a second or two to act. From a distance the steamer -- the Slocum by all appearances -- looked to be in bad shape and getting worse by the second. But Wade had seen a lot of ship fires in his day, including that day four years earlier when the four German Lloyd liners caught fire in Hoboken. Wade and his men had been in the thick of it that day on the Hudson and witnessed truly horrifying scenes of death and destruction -- scenes not soon forgotten, even by a hardened tug captain. This situation looked bad, but obviously a far cry from the day when nearly four hundred perished on these waters. Or so it seemed.
Wade rushed into the pilothouse and shouted to his pilot Captain Robert Fitzgerald to go full throttle for the burning steamboat. Half a minute later the grimy, soot-covered tug was picking up steam, plodding out into the channel to meet the oncoming Slocum. Suddenly the blazing vessel thundering along at top speed passed before the intrepid tug. Wade and his men could scarcely believe their eyes. Two-thirds of the steamboat was engulfed in a fire sending sheets of flame thirty feet into the air. Women and children could be seen racing about the decks on fire, while others cascaded over the sides into the dark water below. Here was all the horror of the Hoboken fire now concentrated on a single wooden steamboat.
Fitzgerald instinctively swung the Wade into the wake of the passing Slocum and began following the stricken vessel. Where was Van Schaick going, Wade and Fitzgerald wondered? They'd seen the old man and his pilots struggling in the pilothouse as the ship passed. He'd better stop soon, they agreed, or he'll have no boat left to land.
As the tug began its pursuit of the Slocum, Wade realized he was not alone. For a dozen or more captains had had the same reaction. The moment they saw the Slocum on fire they put on steam and gave chase. The tug Walter Tracey was heading upriver not far behind the Slocum when its captain realized what was happening and called to his fireman and engineer for top speed. Moments later the tugs Arnot and Wheeler turned and joined the race, followed by the Sumner, Margaret, and Goldrenrod. Several of them towed barges and sloops which they simply cut loose in order to catch the Slocum.
Some passengers, their vision obscured by panic or smoke, never noticed armada of rescue boats in pursuit of the Slocum. Most, however, did see the boats putting out from shore or changing course amid stream to give chase and it encouraged them to hang on a bit longer. Haas later remembered that when he and his family saw the boats as they clung to the railing at the far end of the promenade deck, "a faint ray of hope came to us." They just might be saved after all -- if the boats could only catch the steamer.
Wade and his fellow tugmen had the same goal in mind: to pull alongside the burning vessel and take off as many passengers as possible. This desire grew more urgent as the growing number of bodies floating in the wake indicated that people had begun to jump -- or fall. "To see the faces of those little ones, who drifted by struggling against death, but just out of our reach," recalled one pursuer, "was agony to every one of us." Some captains unable to bear the agony and seeing no sign that the Slocum was about to slow down or stop, gave up the chase and began plucking victims dead and alive from the water.
The rest pressed on, but few boats could match the Slocum for speed. "She went like the wind," noted Captain Hillery of the Goldenrod. Only one managed to get alongside long enough to rescue some passengers. Captain Flannery of the Walter Tracey drew his tug alongside the burning steamboat and in an instant a shower of children spilled across his deck from above. Some jumped, others were simply thrown by parents and bystanders. Anything to escape the flames. A few seconds later and the dauntless rescuers pulled away, fearful of setting the Walter Tracey on fire or getting blown to bits should the Slocum's boilers explode. In his heart and head, Captain Flannery knew he'd done all he could to save dozens, but the decision to retreat did not come easily, nor would it be one easily forgotten. "Until my dying day," he later told reporters, "I will hear the anguished cry that went up as I cut loose the burning boat."
From the Chapter "Dead in the Water"
Jack Wade's tug was not the first on the scene, but it immediately proved the most important. Knowing his smallish tug drew less water than most (just four feet), Wade threw caution to the wind and ordered Fitzgerald to pull alongside the Slocum at the stern. In seconds they slipped past the Franklin Edson and Massasoit standing fifty feet off the burning hulk and edged closer. The heat was unlike anything they'd ever experienced -- even in the Hoboken fire of 1900. It rose steadily by hundreds of degrees as Fitzgerald looked for a place to draw up. The scene before them took on a watery appearance, as waves of radiated heat warped their vision.
At twenty feet off the stern the 2000 degree heat caused the tug to groan, but Wade ordered his helmsman to press on. They cringed and shielded their eyes as one by one the pilothouse windows shattered, kaposh, allowing smoke and fumes from the Wade's bubbling deck paint to waft in. Still Wade kept his eyes fixed on the hundreds of helpless passengers clinging to the Slocum. He could see them waving at him, beckoning him to save them from the horrible death now bearing down on them. He might share in their fiery demise, but it was a risk he was prepared to take. He wasn't going to get this close to hell only to turn away.
You'll lose your tug and livelihood, Fitzgerald shouted just before they hit.
"Damn the tug!" shouted Wade, "Let her burn."
Two of those helpless victims waving to Jack Wade were Rev. George Schultze, Rev. Haas' guest from Erie. Pennsylvania, and Mr. Muller, a Sunday School teacher at St. Mark's. To them, the sudden appearance of Jack Wade through the curtains of smoke surrounding the Slocum seemed like nothing short of a miracle. When the general panic broke out on the boat, they had managed to corral about fifty terrified children into a corner of the Slocum's stern. Knowing that few of the little ones could swim, they determined to keep them on the steamer as long as possible. Despite the pitiful pleas to be allowed to jump over the railing, the men refused. They put their backs to the flames to shield the children, urging them to remain calm while silently uttering prayers of desperation. Just as they had about given up hope, Schultze spied the answer to his prayers -- the bow of a small black tugboat moving steadily in their direction.
As soon as the John Wade nudged against the Slocum, Schultze and Muller offloaded their precious cargo. "Mr. Muller and I dropped the children into it one by one," Schultze later recounted, "until there were fifty on board." Then the two men followed.
Clara Stuer described a similar moment of deliverance, though possibly by another tug other than the Wade. Convinced of the need to jump overboard, she'd stripped off most of her clothing to improve her chances in the water. "I started down the side of the boat," she recounted, "when I heard a voice calling me to hold on a minute. I turned and saw a man standing on the bow of a tug which was approaching." In an instant she fell to the tug's deck, followed by many more. Similarly, eleven-year-old Catherine Gallagher was clinging to a railing when a man picked her up and dropped her onto a tug.
As the pell-mell offloading from the Slocum proceeded, two of Wade's crewmen, Ruddy McCarroll and Tony Marcetti, took to the water and returned moments later with sputtering victims. Again and again they ventured out amidst the frantic victims clawing at water that inexorably drew them downward. As McCarroll approached a drowning woman, he was immediately surrounded by five more. Several latched onto him, pulling him under. Luckily for McCarroll, there was enough life left in them that the quick immersion caused them to release him. Still gasping for air and vomiting water, he snared one of the women and pulled her to the Wade where they were both pulled aboard. McCarroll had just passed out when the woman he'd saved suddenly came to life and began shaking him.
"Wake up! You, wake up! There is my Claus in the water!" With that she picked him up and hurled him over the side. Revived somewhat by the cold water, he made for the boy, grabbed him and with the last ounce of strength in his big frame, pulled him to the tug's side. Back on board a second time, McCarroll passed out once again. Jack Wade then plunged into the roiling waters and saved three more.
But even Wade -- as real a Jim Bludso as New York had ever seen -- knew they couldn't keep at it indefinitely. He'd lost all the hair on his arms and several of his men had their shirts burned right off their backs. His tug was on fire in several places and the Slocum might blow at any moment sending the rescued and rescuers alike to eternity. Reluctantly -- for he could still see people trapped on the steamboat -- he gave the order to back off.
Suddenly a frantic Fitzgerald was shouting something about the propeller. In all the excitement no one had noticed they'd become immobilized, the victim of a loose line snared around the propeller. As the deckhands scrambled to fix the problem, the small fires on the tug grew larger and began to threaten the very people they'd just snatched from the Slocum. Now the very real possibility loomed that Wade's vessel would blow, or at the very least go up in flames. Every second counted and they would need several minutes -- likely five or more -- in order to free the propeller.
At this moment it became Wade's turn to receive deliverance. Out of nowhere there suddenly came a hard stream of cold salt water. It burst into steam upon contact with the Wade's baking deck and pilothouse and stung the skin of Wade, his crewmen, and the passengers. The fireboat Zophar Mills had just arrived and seeing that its streams of water were having no effect on the Slocum fire, began to hose down the Wade and other rescue vessels that had moved in close.
Quite unintentionally, Wade's moment of peril had allowed for still more victims aboard the Slocum to be saved. For as the John Wade lay immobilized yet protected by the fire hoses, dozens more jumped aboard from the burning steamer. More importantly, the Wade's stern swung toward the shore of North Brother Island and into shallow water. "Over this bridge," a reporter scribbled later that day, "seventy-eight persons found their way to safety." Eventually, Captain Hillery threw a line to the Wade and his Golden Rod pulled the tug to safety. All told, Wade and his six-man crew saved 155 souls.
(c) copyright Broadway Books, 2003
Description of the Book
Ship Ablaze tells the extraordinary story of the burning of the steamboat General Slocum, the deadliest day in New York City history before September 11. More than 1,000 New Yorkers perished on June 15, 1904 when their steamboat burst into flames on the East River. A panicked and untrained crew, coupled with rotten life preservers and inaccessible life boats, turned a small storage room fire into a human tragedy of immense proportions. News of the horror made headlines around the world and elicited an enormous outpouring of sympathy and donations. Later, as evidence of negligence and corruption on the part of the steamer's owners mounted, sympathy turned to outrage and demands for justice that were never fully met. Ship Ablaze brings to life this gripping tragedy and the wider, compelling story of innocents lost, heroes made, and a city and people that overcame.
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Praise for Ship Ablaze
"Before the World Trade Center disaster, the burning of the General Slocum ranked as the worst tragedy in New York City history. In less than half an hour it snuffed out a thousand lives and transformed the ethnic map of Manhattan. No one has told this extraordinary story of horror and heroism better than Edward O'Donnell."
-- Kenneth T. Jackson, Columbia University
"The Slocum always held a fascination for me, and it was a thrill to find her scattered remains off New Jersey in 2000. O'Donnell provides a dramatic and compelling narrative of New York's saddest tragedy before 9/11. It's a fascinating probe into the inferno that killed hundreds of women and children, and O'Donnell does a spellbinding job of making the calamity come alive."
-- Clive Cussler, maritime explorer and author (with Craig Dirgo) of The Sea Hunters: True Adventures With Famous Shipwrecks and The Sea Hunters II
"In the riveting storytelling tradition of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, historian Edward T. O'Donnell uncovers the first complete account of New York City's greatest pre-September 11 disaster: the deadly General Slocum steamboat fire that killed more than 1,000 New Yorkers on an excursion. Not only a portrait of a time and a tragedy, Ship Ablaze rises to the highest use of narrative history: that in every time there are the innocent and the brave -- and there is hope."
-- Michael Capuzzo, author of Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 (Broadway, 2001)