On June 15, 1904, an annual gala was held on the passenger ship as it steamed up the East River, with about 1,400 people from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Consisting mostly of German immigrants, the boat was packed with women and children, and when a small fire started on the ship shortly after the trip began, faulty equipment was unable to put it out or stop it from spreading. On top of that, the lifeboats were tied up and the crew, which never conducted emergency drills, was unprepared for a potential disaster. When parents put life preservers on their children and then had them enter the water, they soon learned that the life preservers were also faulty and didn’t float. As the disaster unfolded, over 1,000 passengers burned to death or drowned, many swept under the water by the East River’s current and weighed down by heavy wool clothing. Few people on board knew how to swim, exacerbating the situation, and eventually the overcrowded decks began to collapse, crushing some unfortunate victims. In the end, the General Slocum sank in shallow water while hundreds of corpses drifted ashore, and the fallout was immediate. The captain was indicted for criminal negligence and manslaughter, and the ship’s owner was also charged. While the captain would receive a 10 year sentence, the company in charge of the General Slocum got off with a light fine. In a somewhat fitting postscript, the ship was salvaged and converted into a barge, only to sink once again during a heavy storm in 1911.
Charles River Editors (The Sinking of the General Slocum: The History of New York City’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster)