116 Years And It’s Not Enough

People’s responses to tragedy move at their own pace. When I was studying history in grad school I took a course on how memory becomes history, about the process of converting people’s personal memories and current-day news accounts into a historical record. My term paper compared the historical arc of several tragic events, including 9-11, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and the sinking of the PS General Slocum. The fact that everyone has heard of the first two disasters and relatively few have heard of the third is the point.

I’ve written before, tangentially, about the Slocum. On June 15, 1904, the ship set off on a day excursion, taking a community group from Kleindeutschland on the Lower East Side to a picnic site on the Long Island Sound. The ship burned in the East River, killing over 1000 of the 1300 people on board. To put that in perspective, the Titanic sinking killed 1500 of 2200 on people on board, but that was out at sea, visible to no one but the survivors; the Slocum disaster was seen by people on boats in the river and in buildings on the east side of Manhattan facing the river.

The biggest design failure in the disaster was that the porthole windows on the lower decks were too small for a person to fit through, trapping people who might have otherwise lived; maintenance failures include the condition of the storage rooms, fire hoses, and life jackets. Captain William Van Schaick was convicted and imprisoned for criminal negligence related to fire equipment and procedures. He was also widely criticized for his decision to continuing steaming forwards, causing a wind that spread the flames, which he explained as an attempt to ground the burning ship somewhere would it not cause more damage on land. He may have been right about that, which emphasizes a sometimes-overlooked point about technology failures: once they begin, it may well be true that every possible decision is wrong and makes matters worse. As it happens, Van Schaick got the Slocum as far as North Brother Island, where the ship sank as it burned.

The death of 1000 people, mostly women and children, more or less ended the neighborhood they came from. Most of the residents of Kleindeutschland moved elsewhere, many to Yorkville, the other German neighborhood in Manhattan. Not only did the death toll weigh heavily on the schools and the community, the tragedy was hard to explain as anything other than essentially meaningless. Hilton Obenzinger’s poem on the topic is partially written from the perspective of an actual survivor, a boy named Frank Perditsky. The poem ends with a policeman talking to him:

But the cop is not satisfied.

But why did it happen?
What was the cause of so terrible a thing?
How did it start?
How can over a thousand die?

And Frank Perditsky replies

Damned
If I know
Mister.

Structural engineering design, at its core, is about protecting people’s lives. Everything else – efficiency, coolness, cleverness, price – is secondary. In this case, the failures were in mechanical design and maintenance, but the issues are the same: people died because of preventable technical flaws, and the modern obscurity of the event does not change or even hide that fact.

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