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Tragic General Slocum fire remembered in Astoria Park

Urban Parks Ranger Eric Handy gives a guided tour of the General Slocum Disaster in Astoria Park. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

Before the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the largest loss of life in the city’s history occurred on a June day in 1904 when more than 1,000 people died when the General Slocum caught fire in the East River off Astoria.

“Before 9/11 it was the greatest disaster in New York City history,” Urban Park Ranger Eric Handy said Sunday as he guided a tour through Astoria Park, telling the tale of the doomed steamship.

The ship was chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church June 15, 1904, to take a group of German Americans, mostly women and children, on an excursion from the Lower East Side, up the East River and out through the Long Island Sound to Eatons Neck, L.I., for a picnic.

The passenger counts vary because every two children under the age of 14 were counted as one adult, but it is estimated the ship was carrying more than 1,300 passengers that day.

“Unfortunately, we’ll never know how many people were on board,” Handy said.

As the ship took off from East 3rd Street around 9:40 a.m., the passengers on board were dressed in their Sunday best, looking forward to a day of relaxation that would have included an ice cream treat — a luxury at the time.

Built in 1891, the General Slocum was the pride and joy of the Knickerbocker Steamship Co.

“It was the top of the line in luxury,” Handy said.

But by 1904, advances in technology had rendered the ship second-class, and by then it was used by union and church groups.

In fact, the Lutheran church’s group consisted mostly of women and children because the men in their families had to work in order to afford the trip.

The Knickerbocker Co. was also less than sterling.

“Profits were more important than safety, and the company was known for paying off inspectors,” Handy said. “In fact, everything passed the day’s inspection.”

As the ship floated upstream and passed where the Hell Gate bridge spans the river today, a little boy noticed a fire in its lamp room just before 10 a.m.

Capt. William Van Schaick had recently received an award for carrying 30 million people without a casualty, but instead of docking the ship immediately he headed toward North Brother Island, fanning the flames.

The crew lacked the proper safety training and life preservers made out of cork were no longer buoyant. Handy said women watched their children drown as they threw them overboard in a desperate attempt to save their lives.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people failed miserably,” he said.

The ranger showed pictures of bodies lined up along the shoreline and in a makeshift morgue, a total of approximately 1,021.

Brooklyn native Howard Weber, 60, said his great aunt, Hermaine Meuller, was one of the passengers who died that day.

“As family folklore goes, her husband Edward goes to ID the bodies, and when he tells her sister, Theresa Panzel, she has a heart attack or stroke,” he said. “Two weeks later she was dead.”

Weber said he owns the deed to Meuller’s grave in the Lutheran All Faith Cemetery in Middle Village, where he attended a ceremony the day before commemorating the disaster and the victims buried there.

Weber, who now lives in New Jersey, said the guided tour combined two of his interests.

“I’m a history buff and a genealogy buff, so this kind of puts them together,” he said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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