Today in History, June 15, 1904:
The General Slocum Disaster. The St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church charters the River Boat General Slocum to transport their teachers and children across the East River to Brooklyn to hold their annual picnic.
Keep in mind this was 1904, and Brooklyn was not part of a metropolis. One of the 1,360 passengers, a child, went to the boat’s captain to report that he had seen fire in a room below decks. The Captain responded basically with “go away kid”. By the time the crew found the fire, it was too late.
The Captain, Captain Van Schaik, decided to beach to boat on an island rather than at a dock where fire crews could have assisted with the fire. The boat’s rescue boats were tied down tight, so they couldn’t be used. The life preservers were not buoyant, so the children that donned them sank to the bottom of the river.
Over 1,000 of the passengers were either burned to death or drowned in the conflagration. The “Knickerbocker Company” was charged, but only the Captain actually served any time for the disaster. President Theodore Roosevelt fired the inspector responsible for the safety of the General Slocum.