. Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on January 1, 2011.

Looking Back
Steamship Fire
Water is sprayed on the smoldering wreckage of the General Slocum, a steamship that caught fire and burned in New York Harbor. (Photo: Corbis)

"The alternative of the river"
A 1904 steamship fire was the single deadliest single-day disaster in New York until 9/11

NFPA Journal®, January/February 2011

"With death by fire behind them, hundreds leaped to their doom in the river."

So said The New York Times on June 16, 1904, speculating that 1,000 people or more might have died when the excursion steamer General Slocum caught fire and burned on the East River off Manhattan the morning of the day before. In fact, the estimate was low: the generally accepted number of victims is 1,021, most of whom were women and children who belonged to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, out for their annual summer excursion. 

Witnesses first noticed the fire in the front of the boat, about half an hour after it left the pier. Instead of pulling into a nearby landing or running the boat aground, however, the captain stayed on course, fanning the flames as he steered into the headwinds. The fire, spreading with "incalculable swiftness," forced passengers to the rear of the boat, according to the Times. Crowding together in the stern, the women and children "waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river." Mothers threw their children, "many of them with their clothes on fire," over the rail before jumping in themselves. By the time the captain finally beached the steamer on the rocky shore of North Brother Island, hundreds were dead.

Contributing to the death toll was the absence of even the most rudimentary safety precautions aboard the boat. According to the Times’ account of preliminary testimony at the coroner’s inquiry, the fire hose "burst when an effort was made to use it" and the life preservers "dropped apart when passengers sought to adjust them." The lifeboats were not launched, and the crew had never participated in a fire drill.

Of the seven people indicted by a federal grand jury, only the captain was convicted. Found guilty of criminal negligence for failing to maintain the fire hose or holding regular fire drills, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

As the Times noted in a story published in March, 2002, it was the worst single-day disaster in New York City history until the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001.

— Kathleen Robinson