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New York marks anniversary of worst maritime disaster

Sunday marked the 110th anniversary of the worst maritime disaster in New York City's history — the day the 235-foot sidewheel passenger steamship General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River with more than 1,000 people aboard.

Only 321 passengers survived from a total of 1,358. Most of the people on the excursion for a church picnic perished. The events surrounding the General Slocum fire have appeared in a number of books, plays and movies.

Testimony that would follow established that there were few safeguards: Thirteen-year-old life vests had degraded to the point of uselessness, life boats were in the same state and the crew had never conducted a fire drill and was not trained to handle the panic that occurred. Eyewitnesses from the shore could see the boat burning and wondered why the captain did not come to shore.

Capt. William Van Schaick decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. By going into headwinds and failing to immediately ground the ship, he fanned the fire. Van Schaick would later argue that he was attempting to prevent the fire from spreading to riverside buildings and oil tanks. Flammable paint also helped the fire spread out of control.

The disaster led to federal and state regulations that improved the emergency equipment on passenger ships.

In memory of the tragedy, a person identified only as “Amy” recently posted a story titled “The General Slocum or How My Great Grandmother Missed the Boat.”

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