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This Day in History, 1904: General Slocum Tragedy

Today is the 106th anniversary of the General Slocum fire, the worst one-day disaster in New York City before 9/11. For some reason, not many people learn about it when they study history. (On a personal note, it's the central event of my novella "Time Ablaze," which was nominated for the Hugo Award.)

Historian Ed O'Donnell, author of the book SHIP ABLAZE, has said this about the tragedy:

"Ask any New Yorker to name the city’s greatest disaster before September 11, 2001 and invariably they offer the same answer: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. That tragic event garnered international headlines as 146 young immigrant women lost their lives in an unsafe garment factory. Yet even though it is certainly Gotham’s most famous disaster, it runs a distant second to a much larger catastrophe which occurred only seven years earlier. On June 15, 1904, more than 1,000 people died when their steamship, the General Slocum, burst into flames while moving up the East River. It was the second-most deadly fire (after the Peshtigo fire of 1871) and most deadly peacetime maritime disaster in American history."

For more information about the tragedy, see the Wikipedia entry on the General Slocum.


Boston's a great town for fires. In 1872, despite a case of epizootic influenza that basically sidelined all the fire department's horses, the city didn't want to rent horses to pull fire engines, deciding that it was better to send an officer to see if it merited dragging a hose to the fire, leaving the engine in the house. A few weeks later, Boston lost several city blocks to the Great Boston Fire. (By then, it was GBF #6, and by no means the last.)
But my favourite fire of all time is the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942-- almost 70 years to the day after GBF #6. The neat thing was that the walking wounded were sent to Mass General, where they were triaged to the waiting room. One by one, they started dropping like flies from smoke inhalation. And that's when the medical profession learned that generally, it's not the fire that kills you. Ironically, their control group was in the ER-- the test subjects were (inadvertently) all those "uninjured" souls who had been triaged to the waiting room.
I don't normally necropost, but I just came across this site that ties into the General Slocum tragedy, and wanted to share it with you and your readers.


December 2016

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