When the Twin Towers Fell

By David Remnick, The New Yorker - September 6, 2011

On the morning of June 15, 1904, a three-deck paddle steamer called the General Slocum headed up the East River toward Long Island Sound. The ship carried hundreds of German immigrants, mainly women and children, who lived around Tompkins Square and St. Mark’s Place—a neighborhood known in those days as Kleindeutschland, Little Germany. The steamship trip was a floating party, an annual ritual of sun, music, and food sponsored by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. At around ten, as the ship was passing Ninetieth Street and the passengers were listening to a brass band, a fire broke out belowdecks, and the oil tanks exploded, engulfing the ship in flames. The captain failed to steer toward shore and instead continued upriver. Lifeboats bolted in place and rotting life jackets proved useless. The crew had never trained for a fire emergency. Many women and children jumped into the river, only to drown under the weight of their heavy clothes and shoes.

The General Slocum, fireballing its way north, finally hit the shore of North Brother Island, between the Bronx and Rikers Island. The city’s health commissioner happened to be visiting a hospital on the island that day, and he told one reporter, “I will never be able to forget the scene, the utter horror of it. The patients in the contagious wards, especially in the scarlet fever ward, went wild at things they saw from their windows and went screaming and beating at the doors until it took fifty nurses and doctors to quiet them. They were all locked up. Along the beach the boats were carrying in the living and dying and towing in the dead.” Of the thirteen hundred people on board the General Slocum, more than a thousand died. Survivors returned to empty homes and silent streets.

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