On June 15, 1904, the paddle steamer General Slocum caught fire and sank off North Brother Island in the East River. Of the estimated 1,400 passengers on board the vessel, 1,021 died in the disaster, which before 9/11 was New York’s worse loss of life in a single event.
Many of those lives could have been saved. Government investigations showed that the life preservers on the Slocum were so old the cork in them had disintegrated, rendering them useless; the Slocum’s substandard fire hoses, which were declared in “good condition,” burst apart from the water pressure; and the six lifeboats aboard the ship were all tied down and would not budge because they were glued to their chocks from a recent paint job.
Steamship company officials and the federal agency in charge of steamship investigations did not do their due diligence with respect to safety aboard the Slocum.
Fast forward to the recent disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A recent exposé in Rolling Stone magazine has reported in chilling detail the sins of omission and commission leading to the BP oil spill. The application for the rig was a joke. A telling point: In the event of a catastrophe, BP promises to protect walruses and other cold mammals swimming off the coast of Louisiana. Nice plan.
Things do not change much, do they? Corporate greed and lax government oversight still results in horrendous nautical disasters. What a crying shame.
Martin H. Levinson