The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea

Panic ensued. Sheets of flame followed the roiling clouds of smoke, and the fearful rush began to the sides of the boat.

Gare Maritime

12 year old John Klenck, of 113 St. Marks Place was, if possible, even less fortunate than the surviving Richter children. His father had died some time prior to 1900, leaving the support of his family to oldest son, William, who worked as a store clerk. Bertha Klenck, 40, and two of her three children, William, 20, and Charles, 7, were lost in the disaster.

‘My mother tried to put life preservers on us, but the straps broke. I don’t know how I got ashore. Somebody pulled me out, I think. I don’t know where I am going to live. I haven’t any home now. I’ll go uptown with my aunt a while. I don’t know where I’ll go after that.’

As of 1920, John Klenck was unmarried, living with his widowed aunt, Anna Eichler, and her brother in law Fred Bayer at 804 West 180th Street. He worked as a credit investigator for a Trust Company. His date of death is not listed in the Social Security Death index.

‘I had to send my little Hattie away. She is all I have left, but she couldn’t go out on the street because everyone would talk to her about the boat, and she couldn’t stay in the house with nobody to take care of her. I would be in the river if it wasn’t for her. For years we struggled and struggled and we got things piece by piece.

‘One month ago we moved in here. I think it must have been for the funerals. My month is up now and I will have to go- I don’t know where. There is no one to make a home for me and my Hattie.

A 1904 interview with Mr. Fetzke of 211 East Fifth Street, husband of victim Gusta Fetzke, 38, and father of victims Elizabeth,14, and Herman Fetzke, 8 months. Hattie, 12, was the only survivor.

In spotless rooms lived the Rosenagel family, husband and wife, their little daughters, Lucy and Grace, and the old grandmother.  Mrs. Rosenagel had promised to take the little girls on the Sunday school excursion if the day was fine. When the panic came on the boat, she was separated from her daughters and was lost.

‘She was such a good mother’ the little girls lamented, ‘always making nice things for us and giving us pleasure.’

As an evidence of her thoughtfulness, the confirmation dress that she had made for the older girl was pointed out with the remark ‘That’s all hand work. She did it.’

‘Ach, yes,’ moaned the aged mother of the dead woman. ‘I have had thirteen strong children and I have lived to see them all die but one. Who will take care of me now she is dead?’

Annie Rosenagel, of 129 East Fourth Street, was 43 when she died. Grace was 7, Lucy was 13, and her mother, Margaret Dressler, was 79. The 1910 census found the Rosenagel family living in Brooklyn. Charles Rosenagel, 38 at the time of the disaster, had remarried, and fathered two children, Margaret, 4, and Clara, 2, with his new wife, Margaret. Margaret’s aged parents, Peter and Margaret Christ were living with the Rosenagel family at that point.

I know Lillian did not die with my wife. My wife was drowned, but she looks peaceful and there is a smile on her face. She'd never have looked that way if she hadn't known the baby was safe. Maybe Lillian was lost afterwards, but when my wife died the baby was safe. Her face tells me that.
Walter Peters

Walter Peters, 50 Avenue A. Helen Peters, 28, was issued death certificate #2982. Lillian, 1, was issued #3603, so presumably she was among the last found.

We left the Third Street Dock at 10a.m. I was polishing brasswork soon after, when a deck hand called my attention to smoke coming out of a forward cabin. IO ran forward, and helped the first assistant engineer to stretch a hose.  We could not get any water. The fire spread so rapidly that we were driven to the forward promenade deck, which was covered with panic stricken women and children. I pulled down an armful of life preservers and distributed them. I then put a life preserver around my shoulders and jumped overboard with two children.

They were torn away from me by the impact of the water. I managed to grasp one of the blades of the paddle wheels and climbed up in the paddle box. The water beneath me was a perfect hell. Men and women were clawing at my legs as I climbed, and my trousers were torn away in my efforts to escape from them. I was subsequently rescued by a row boat and put on shore.

Peter J. Tremble, General Slocum deckhand

Charles Schwartz, Jr., 18 year old machinist's apprentice, was one of the few General Slocum passengers proficient at swimming. His rescue of at least twenty-two of his fellow travelers earned him much praise in the press, ‘though he took pains to downplay it.

"I was on the hurricane deck of the General Slocum and when I knew there was a fire, the first thing I did was to put a life preserver on my little brother, Louis, who is ten years old and I got him to stand by me. Then I saw that there was going to be a panic and I thought that in the water was the best chance for him, so I threw him overboard. Louis is alright.

I noticed that two or three boats were coming, and I backed up against the rail, calling out that there was a good chance and pleading with the passengers to keep cool and not shove. I carried my grandmother to the rail to await the approach of some boat, but suddenly the rail gave way and with scores of others we were dumped into the water.  In the struggle of the mass who were fighting to keep up, my grandmother was torn away from me

The first person I saw was Mrs. Adickes, who keeps a candy store and she called me by name and I went over and helped her by keeping her chin above water and towing her. She got to shore alright and was not much hurt. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me. I got into the water again and helped Miss Emma Haas, the sister of the pastor, until a boat came to take her, and then I saw my mother and grandmother. They were floating face downward. I got them both ashore and helped the doctors with them on the lawn. 'It's no use' said the doctors 'we can't do anything for your people.'

Then I looked out upon the water and saw that there were yet men, women and children who might be saved. A man came along in a little boat and I swam out to him and worked with him. I went overboard whenever I could and swam up with people and helped them into the boat. Many of them grabbed at me, but I was able to keep off enough to prevent being dragged down. I felt hands way down in the water holding at my feet. Hands caught me everywhere, and above me was the fire raging and roaring. We brought ashore many bodies, too, and not until there was no chance of saving anyone did I quit.

Hero? Oh, I’m nothing like that. I happened to have the knack of swimming a little better than some other persons and so I thought it was my duty to do the best I could. Besides, I’m not thinking much of that kind of thing with my mother and grandmother lying there in the room. I did all I could for them, but the smoke must have suffocated them before they were in the water.

"Mrs. Adickes" was actually Margaret Stuve (65) grandmother and  chaperone of the Adickes children. John Adickes (15) and his adopted sister Margaret Heidekamp (12) were lost in the fire. Sister, Annie (8) survived. In the Slocum program for June 15th 1904, the Adickes’ business is advertised: E ADICKES Fine Confectionary and Ice Cream Saloon, 49 Avenue A, between 3rd and 4th Streets. The family lived upstairs over the store.

Despite the deaths of Louisa Schwartz (43) and her mother, Charles Schwartz' family was luckier than most, for all four children aboard the General Slocum (Emily, 20; Charles, 18; Anton, 16 and Louis, 10, survived.

14 year old John Tischner, of 404 East Fifth Street, saved the life of his companion of the voyage, neighbor Ida Wytska.

I was down on the lower deck with Ida Wytska who lives in the same house with me. We were eating ice cream when the flames burst out right near us. Everybody seemed to be yelling 'Fire!' and I saw a lot of women with their hair and dresses burning jump into the river long before any boats came near us.

My friend was going to faint, but I kicked her in the shins and woke her up. Then I got a lot of life preservers, most rotten, and after a long time I got one on Ida.

The tugs were coming up near us then, and I told her to jump. She wouldn't jump and I pushed her over. Then I jumped in the water and I got hold of her hair and I held her up until the tug came and we were pulled out."

"As soon as I hit the water I started to swim out towards the center of the stream, but the tide was so strong I went back five strokes every time I took one, so I made up my mind I would not tire myself out. So I just turned over on my back and floated.

So while I was floating, they were jumping over the side of the steamer. Twenty would jump at once, and right on top of them twenty more would jump. Then there would be a skirmish of grabbing at heads and arms, and the fellows that could swim would be pulled down and had to fight their way up. Two women who got near me shouted for me to help them, and I tried to, but they were too big and I had to break away to save myself.

When I was in the water about half an hour they pulled me on a tugboat and chucked me up on the dock."
Willie Keppler

Albertina Lambeck, 33, of 427 East Ninth Street, was observed by a reporter from the New York Times, at Lincoln Hospital. Her head was bandaged, and she was shrieking with grief over the deaths of her five children. This easily found reference has made Mrs. Lambeck one of the better known survivors. Here is her less well known personal account:

My attention was first attracted to the fire by the screams of the women. I saw a big sheet of flames shoot up the stairway, and gathering my five children about me I told them to cling tight to me. Pastor Haas ran forward to try and calm the women, and Mrs. Haas got her child and told me to stay on the boat as long as we could. Then there was a fearful rush. People ran to the rail, and it gave way letting most of them fall into the water. In the rush three of my children were swept away. Taking the two remaining under my arms, I prepared to jump. The flames had ignited my clothing, and my face and neck were burned. A man rushed past me and jumped. I think it was one of the crew. As he jumped his arm struck me and I fell into the water with my children. I don't remember anything more until I found myself in Lincoln Hospital.

Albertina was fortunate. She later learned that two of her children, Herman, 14, and Dora, 11, survived by clinging to one of the paddleboxes. However, her other children, Ernest, 9, Henry, 6, and Albert, 3, were lost. Herman Lambeck, who was rescued by the launch Kills, gave this interview:

I was with my mother, two brothers and two sisters on the hurricane deck. We saw a lot of smoke and flames coming from below and mother got scared. Just then, Dr. Haas, the minister, came running up to us. He said it was nothing but some coffee burning, and begged us to be calm.

He then went looking for his own family.  We all stood holding on to mother, and then the deck broke underneath us. I lost hold of mother and fell into the water. When I came up, I saw my sister, Dora, hanging on to the paddle wheel. I looked for her after I was picked up, but she had gone.

Mrs. Lambeck died, in Queens, NY, in 1930.  Dora, who gave the name of Dorothy to the 1930 census taker, was unmarried and living with her father, Henry, and mother at the time of Albertina’s death.


John Kircher, of Brooklyn, when interviewed at the morgue, angrily declared

My wife and our three children went on the excursion. My wife is a fine swimmer, and perfectly at home in the water. When the fire broke out and the panic started, she gathered the children together and thought out the best thing to do. She decided to put a life preserver on Elsie, as she could not swim. Thinking the little girl would be perfectly safe with the preserver on, she lifted her to the rail and dropped her over the side. She waited for Elsie to come up, but the child never appeared. She had sunk as though a stone were tied to her. Then my wife and the other two children jumped in, and mostly by her efforts, all three got safely ashore. The only one lost was the one who wore a life preserver.

In addition to his daughter, Elsie, 7, John Kircher lost his mother, Catherine, 62, his sister-in- law Margaret, 34, and his nephew, Harold, 3.  His 7 year old niece, Stacey, survived, as did his wife, Lizzie, 37, and his sons Frederick, 9, and George, 3.

My life was saved by clinging to a paddle blade while the fire burned around me, blistering my hands and face. I had lost my baby and was separated from my three other children, one of whom I have since heard from. When the fire started, I picked up my baby and told my other children to cling to me. I was close to the rail when a crowd of frenzied women and children forced us overboard. I was about to let go, for the blaze was right over me, when a rowboat came along and I was picked up.

Mrs. Antoniette de Luccia, 31, of 54 East Seventh Street, and her daughter, Rose, 12, returned to their building alive and uninjured. 54 East Seventh had the grim distinction of being one of the hardest hit buildings in the East Village. Among those lost were Mrs de Luccia’s children  Agnes, 6, Frank, 8, and Nicholas, 4,(Nicholas was never recovered) Mrs. Sophie Siegal, who was pregnant, Margaret Clow, 40, Flora Galewski, 36, (never recovered) and her children Helen, 6, and Morris, 3. Flora Galewski was the equivalent, in 1904, of a day care provider for the working women of her block: she would take their children to Tompkins Square Park for the day and allow them to play as their mothers worked. Frank de Luccia was identified by a metal school I.D. tag sewn into his clothing. Louis and Antoniette DeLuccia appear, along with their daughter, Rosie, in the 1910 census. Rosie, at 18, was unmarried, and the de Luccias had not had any children in the intervening six years.

Eleanor Wiedemann Reichenbach, 23, of 241 Stockholm Street, Brooklyn, was on the middle deck with her two year old son, Herman Jr., when the panic broke out. Eleanor obtained a life belt and placed it on herself:

The life preserver caught fire. There was a rope hanging over the side of the boat, and I grabbed that. The rope also caught fire. The flames of the life preserver were licking my face. I dropped the baby into the water to prevent his clothing catching fire. He sank at once. That is all I remember. When I became conscious, I was in the arms of a Negro who had saved me.

Herman Reichenbach Jr. was lost. Eleanor’s only other child, a daughter named Madaline, was born in 1905.

Valentine and Magdalena Kolb were typical of the successful first wave of German immigrants to the US. Magdalena was born in 1832, Valentine in 1836.  Both came the United States in 1853, where they met, married, and raised 5 children. By 1904 they had been married for fifty-one years. Valentine’s success as a barber had allowed them to move away from Little Germany to the solidly middle class Fordham Road section of the Bronx.  But, as did most who left Little Germany for more upscale environments, the Kolbs maintained ties to the old neighborhood. The Sunday School excursion would have been a pleasant way for the old couple to catch up with friends and enjoy an atypical midweek day off. Neither survived.

Two brief accounts by passengers who owed their lives to the deaths of others:

I didn’t have no life preserver at all. I went down twice and I swallowed a whole lot of water, but pretty soon I caught hold of a dead woman and then somebody grabbed me with a hook. If it hadn’t been for that dead woman I’d been drowned sure.
Henry Ferneisen, 10

The Ferneisen family, of 40 East Seventh Street was exceptionally lucky; Emma Ferneisen, 33, and her three children Henry, William, 8, and Marie, 7, all survived.

Instead of being supported by the life preserver I wore, I found it was of no use to me at all. I could not keep my head above the waves. In my desperation I grasped for anything that might be within reach, and my hand fell across the corpse of man that was floating past. Getting a secure hold on it, and kicking my feet as fast as I could, I managed to keep alive until I was picked up by a tug.
Catherine Jordan

Catherine Jordan,20, of 37 Third Avenue, who survived with burns. Her sister Pauline (16) with whom she traveled, also survived with injuries.

One of the flotilla of small craft performing body recovery on the day of the fire, found the body of a 12 year old girl adrift in the river. It was tied to the craft, by a rope around its waist, and towed to the Bronx Shore with other bodies and brought to the Alexander Avenue Police Station, where it was tagged #24 and laid out on the floor with the bodies of other victims. That afternoon, one of the few “miracles” of the day occurred when the body convulsed, vomited up river water, and began to breath again.  Clara Hartmann, 12, of 309 East Tenth Street, “Body #24” gave this widely quoted account:

I shall never forget when Mamma and sister said 'God Help us!' when they saw fire come up out of the front end of the boat, and the people, many of whom we knew, began to rush around. Mamma called me to her and she took hold of Margery's hand and mine and she said 'stay with me'. Mamma, Margery and I remained on the boat, still holding hands, until the flames got awful close and hot. Everybody was then jumping into the water, and as we did not want to get burned up, we decided to jump too. There were so many in the water near where we wanted to jump that we had to wait a while before space was clear, and then we all jumped together, still holding hands. But the moment we got into the water we had to let go of each other to do what we could for ourselves. Seeing Mamma and Margery struggling nearby, I tried to save them, for they were struggling awfully. Then a lot of swimmers got around us and we were separated. I heard Margery say again 'God save us' then she gave a gasp and sank out of sight. Mamma I didn't see after that.

While I was keeping afloat a man came near me, and I grabbed him around the neck. He was awfully mean, for he tried to push me away, but I just hung on to him as hard as I could. He pushed harder than ever, and my head went under the water. Then I felt him sinking, and I let go, and I must have fainted. I don't know what happened to me after that until I came to life, they tell me, in the Alexander Avenue station house, but I must have floated and been picked up by a boat. They told me afterwards that I was towed behind a launch, but I did not feel it. When I got out of my faint, it was in the afternoon, I thought it was yet morning. I heard men tramping on the floor and felt that I was lying on something hard and that my head was covered. Then there was talk about taking the dead people away and I remembered the fire and the people drowning all around me. I thought that I was still in the water too. My stomach got sick- I had swallowed a whole bunch of salty water. Then it began to gush out of my mouth, and a woman said 'this little girl ain't dead' and she called 'Doctor! Doctor!' just like that. They pulled the cover off of my head, and I began to feel much better and the air came to me. They took me up from the floor and put me on a couch, and then I was taken to the hospital.

I cried when I remembered mamma and Margery, but the hospital nurses told me they were safe, but they haven’t come home yet.

Willie Reitz, my cousin, found me in the hospital and I was glad to see him. He is only thirteen, but he went around to all the hospitals looking for me, Margery and mamma, he told me when the nurses let him come to my couch. He hurried home, and they brought me clothes and took me here.

The miracle did not extend to Margaret “Margery” Hartmann, 15, or her mother, Mary, 45. Both were lost. Clara’s father, Jacob, 54, and older siblings Jacob Jr., 22, and Mary, 20, did not attend the excursion.

Clara Steur, whose name cannot be matched to any on the printed survivors list, spoke of the loss of the Mannheimer family:

I was sitting on the upper deck with some friends. They were Miss Mamie Mannheimer, Miss Lillie Mannheimer, her niece, and Walter, the latter’s brother, aged 11. We had just passed the entrance to the Harlem River, and were going slowly, when Lillie, who was looking forward, called to her aunt saying ‘I think the boat is on fire. Look at all the smoke,’  ‘Hush’ replied her aunt, ‘you must not talk so; you may create a panic.’

Lillie would not be silenced, however, and it seemed but a few minutes later that there was a roar as though a cannon had been shot off, and the entire bow of the boat was one sheet of flames. The people rushed pell-mell over one another and in the rush I lost track of my friends. Hundreds of people jumped overboard, being so caught by the flames that escape was impossible.

I began to dispense with my clothing, so that I would have a better chance in the water. Then I started to climb down the side of the boat when I heard a voice calling to me to hold on a minute.

I turned and saw a man standing on the bow of a tug which was approaching. I held on, and was soon taken off with a number of other persons who had been rescued from the boat and from the water.

As I left the dock I saw, it looked to me, two hundred bodies, mostly women and children, along the shore, lying on the ground. Physicians were working over many of them.

36 year old Mamie Mannheimer, of 87 East Seventh Street, was lost, as was 11 year old Walter Mannheimer.

Heroic work by tugboats and harbor craft of all sorts saved the vast majority of the 350- 400 General Slocum survivors. The official government investigative report states that had it not been for the appearance of this impromptu fleet, the death toll would have approached 95%, for only about 70 people were pulled, or swam, to shore on North Brother Island. Dozens of survivors wrote of the miraculous last-second arrival of tugs that appeared through the smoke, sailed up close to the side of the vessel, and allowed passengers who were fortunate enough to be in the right place to leap down to safety.

"The fire was burning the upper decks forward and the women and children had crowded aft. Those in the rear part of the boat were swept into the water by the onrush of those from the forepart. The pressure against them carried away the bulwarks, which were of joiner work and rope. Their giving way allowed great numbers to fall into the water. Others went overboard all afire, and some with their hair and hats- it was hard to see which- burning. I did not see the worst at that, for when the affair was at its worst I was dragging the women and children aboard and did not have time to look."
Captain McGovern, steam launch Mosquito

Damn the tug! Let her burn! What’s a tug to a human life?
Captain James L. Wade, tugboat Wade

Wade ordered his tug, representing ten years of savings, grounded at an angle between the General Slocum and shore. At least 78 of the fewer than 400 survivors were able to use the badly damaged Wade as a bridge to safety.

I was sitting on the rear of the upper deck with Otto Hans and Albert Greenwall. We were just passing out of Hell Gate when I smelled fire. I looked toward the front of the boat and saw a big cloud of smoke. Otto, Al and I jumped upon a seat and grabbed life preservers. They were rotten and all the cork came out of them. Women and children were yelling around us something awful. Just then, a big blaze of fire came up through the center of the boat and the people began to jump overboard.

The first tug to reach us was the Director. It was a big boat, and came right up close as we were going toward the island. I jumped toward the boat, and a lot of people jumped on top of me. Half of them fell back into the water between the tug and the boat. In a minute there were so many on the tug that her stern was way down in the water. They kept jumping, and slipping off the tug and going down. I got hold of the leg of a little girl who was sliding off, and pulled her back, and then I sat on her to keep her from being pushed overboard.

When the other tugs came up everybody that was left tried to jump on them, and they jumped on top of one another. Lots of them fell off and were drowned.

The women and kids were crying and yelling so we couldn’t hear the men on the tugs, who were waving their arms at us not to jump. I saw men jump into the river long before the tugs came, and not one of them could swim. They all went down. I thought the Director would sink or turn over when she started for shore, there were so many on her. When we got off, we were taken in wagons to the elevated road.

George Gray, 13, of 309 East Fourteenth Street. His friend Albert Greenwald, also 13, of 326 East Fourteenth Street survived as well.

It is difficult to tell what to do in such an emergency as that which confronted us in the Slocum disaster. I had just left the Edson, which had come in at the Board of Health Pier at 132nd Street, when I heard five whistles from my boat. I was down there in a moment, and as I was going across to the Slocum the engineer yelled up that he had water in three lines of hose. We soon saw that water wasn’t needed, but quick work to save lives. Everything in the way of life preservers we had went overboard, and then the heaving lines.

Fifty feet was as near as I thought it safe to go, for although the windows of the pilot house were down in their frames, I could hear them crackling and the paint was blistering on the woodwork.

It was hard work in many cases, for there were several large and heavy women, whose weight was increased by their water soaked garments. We got all those who came our way. Some may think that we ought to have taken the rescued ashore right away for medical attention, but I considered it best to save as many as we could.

Captain Henry Rick of the tug Franklin Edson.

Mrs. White, the Superintendant of Nurses on North Brother Island, briefly described her role in the rescue efforts that morning:

As soon as the General Slocum came around the point, I sent back for cheesecloth and bandaging muslin. While Mrs. Smith and the nurses were busy bringing the victims to, I went back and got whisky and more bandages and cheesecloth. I tried several times to get out to the wreck but the heat was so intense I could not, until I put the skirt of my dress over my face. In that way I was able to wade out up to my knees. The call came for ladders- there was no one to go for them so I went. They were 35 feet long and dreadfully heavy, but we dragged them down to the water. I never could have done it if I had been in my senses. I did not know anything or feel anything.

I saw a boy and his mother drifting in. I lay down on the sea wall on my stomach and called out to him to hold on to his mother and I would get her out. He had his hand under her chin and was paddling along as best he could. She was unconscious and weighed, I should think, about 250 pounds. Somehow I got her over the seawall and kneaded the water out of her. She lived, I think. In reading over the list of injured I fancied the boy might be #47 in Lincoln Hospital.

As soon as the injured revived we wrapped them up in blankets and brought them up to the hospital. We stripped the place of blankets. The nurses had their shoes and uniforms destroyed by the mud and water, and torn to pieces on the rocks.

I hoped to find a first person narrative by heroine Pauline Fultz. This 1904 account is the best I have read:

Pauline Fultz, a comely 18 year old nurse employed in the North Brother Island Hospital flung herself into the water, swam into the midst of the struggling women and children, brought five little tots safely to shore, and then battled until overmastered by a powerful woman who dragged her to the bottom and from whose death clutch she escaped exhausted and helpless. She was pulled ashore by nurses, and carried to the hospital.

When Dr. Stewart, the superintendent of the hospital, sounded the alarm, Miss Fultz was among the first to reach the beach. With the other nurses and men she waded into the water and helped ashore all those within reach.

Fifty feet away the surface of the water was dotted with the heads of struggling women and children. Some were making feeble efforts to keep afloat, others drifted helplessly, kept up by their clothing.

‘I am going out to them’ cried Miss Fultz, as she pulled off her shoes and skirts.

Several nurses caught hold of the girl and tried to restrain her.

‘Let me go’ she cried. ‘I can swim; I must go to their rescue.’

She flung the nurses off, and jumped into the water. With quick, strong strokes she soon reached a little girl. Taking the child’s hair, she turned and swam to the shore, delivering her charge to the nurses who waded out to meet her.

Then she turned back. She grasped another child and took the little one to shore. Notwithstanding the pleading of the nurses, she returned again and rescued another child.

Five times she reached the shore with her human burdens.

The sixth trip almost proved her last. As she passed close by a woman, who gave no sign of life, the latter’s arms suddenly clasped around the girl’s neck. Those on shore saw a short struggle and then both disappeared. They arose again, but Miss Fultz could not break the woman’s hold. Finally, she placed her hand under the woman’s chin and pushed her off. Before the woman could recover her hold, Miss Fultz had passed around and caught her hair and started to pull her towards shore.

When they were within a few feet of solid footing the woman suddenly turned and grasped the girl again, both sinking. Soon the girl’s body appeared on the surface. Her strength had been exhausted. She was dragged ashore more dead than alive and sent to the hospital.

‘It wasn’t anything to do’ said Miss Fultz, later, ‘What could I do? I saw the women and children struggling in the water, and what could I do but go to their rescue?’

‘I was after the children. I wanted to save the women, too, but my first resolve was to bring the children ashore. The woman who got me nearly took me down with her. If she hadn’t been so excited, I would have saved her. It wasn’t much to do. I learned to swim at Asbury Park last summer.’

The children Miss Fultz brought ashore were all unconscious, but they were quickly revived and will recover.

Miss Fultz nearly fell victim to the reflexive response to grab and to climb atop, that makes rescuing people in the panic stage of drowning difficult and occasionally lethal.  More than a dozen Slocum survivor accounts were given by people who admitted that, in their terror, they had possibly drowned other people. There are considerably more accounts by those who had to fight their way clear of hands that grasped their necks, their clothing and their feet, as unfortunate fellow travelers reached the blind panic stage of drowning.  Eleven year old Salome Klein recalled:

I was eating lunch when the fire started. On the deck where I was sitting with my basket some children came running and I heard shouts. Then somebody said 'Fire!'

I dropped my basket and looked around for the family. I was left by myself. The flames came up and black smoke, too. I don’t think I was afraid. I don’t know. I just know that I ran away from the fire and when I got to the edge of the boat I heard everybody screaming and crying and I jumped into the water.

A man and a woman were in the water where I jumped. I caught hold of the man's hair. He went under the water, then I grabbed the woman by the foot. She went down, too.

A boat passed, and a man threw me a rope, but I could not catch it and the boat went on after the others. I paddled near to a big rock. A man and a woman were on the rock. The woman held the man's hand, and he held his leg to me, and I was pulled up on to the rock. Some of my clothes had been pulled off in the scuffle and the rest of them were taken off me. Then they gave me hot milk and took me to the hospital.


I was sitting on the upper deck with the two smaller children, and the others were playing around the boat. When I heard the cry of ‘Fire!’ I yelled for my children. They ran to me, and I told them to stay near me and they would be saved. I climbed over the railing holding the baby tight in my arms. Somebody loosened my hold on the stanchion. At that time a tug came alongside and I fell right on to its deck with the baby in my arms. The other children called after me, but when I looked up they had disappeared. I was taken to North Brother Island and from there came home. I got word that William is in Lebanon Hospital. I can only hope my other children are saved.

Mrs. Katherine Mettler

Mrs. Katherine Mettler, 32, of 338 East Fifth Street lost her children Elsie, 15, Albert, 11, Robert, 10, and Fred, 8. Her 4 year old son William survived, as did her two year old, George. Catherine and Robert Mettler had another son, Theodore, in 1906 and a final child, Arthur, in 1912. In 1930 the family was living on upper First Avenue, with Catherine widowed and working as a building janitor, and George, Theodore and Arthur Mettler all unmarried and all working as machinists in a factory.

Herbert S. Nulson, who witnessed the fire from the tower of the Delavergen Refrigerator Company factory, at the foot of East 138th Street, gave this description:

I looked down the river and saw the steamboat which I was sure then was the General Slocum. The flames were just beginning to make headway when I first saw her, and by the time she came opposite us I could see that her decks were crowded with women and children who began to jump into the water.

Tugs began to put out to the burning boat, but they could not get near enough to do any good on account of the heat and the flames.

A lot of rowboats had put out by this time, and those, with the tugs, went as near the General Slocum as they could, but the water was so full of bodies that they made their way only with difficulty and the smaller of them were in danger of being swamped by those trying to climb over the gunwales.

I saw one tugboat push right up through the smoke and flames. She had a long, flat, empty barge in tow and I suppose she ran this against the Slocum and took off many people in it.

When my Great-grandmother died, there were at least 10 General Slocum survivors still living. An issue of Disaster Magazine, from that era, had a surprisingly tasteful (considering the venue) recounting of the fire and interviews with four of the survivors who attended the memorial service at the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens - Minnie Muller Rolka, Martha Stricker Dietz, August Hauser and Edna Doering. A haunting view of the Slocum I’ve not seen used since appeared in an American Heritage article around the same time, but most of the coverage of the General Slocum disaster in the 1980s would come in conjunction with a survivor obituary.  The best, by far, work about the Slocum during that time came in Jeff Kisselhoff’s 1989 work You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan From the 1890s to World War II. Among the book’s many highlights was an interview with survivor Edna Doering, who gave an exquisitely detailed account of the nightmare that claimed most of her family. Edna escaped easily from the General Slocum, but her brother Gustav, 9, and sister, Ida, 11, died in the river. Her badly burned mother was brought home to die a protracted death in her own apartment, during the course of which, Edna recalled, she called for the two children who died, and did not understand why they would not come to her. Gustav was recovered quickly, but Ida was missing for a time, and when she was found her body was brought back to the family apartment in a coffin.

The first truly outstanding General Slocum book, Ship Ablaze, by Ed O’Donnell, was published in 2003, to excellent reviews. The book, a well-done television documentary, and the 100th anniversary of the fire helped elevate public awareness of the disaster to the highest it had been in decades. Minnie Muller Rolka had died in 1986, Edna Doering in February 1992. Catherine Gallagher Connolly, who lost her mother, Veronica, brother, Walter, and infant sister, Agnes, in the fire, died at age 107, the next to final General Slocum survivor.

By the fall of 2003, only Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon remained of the 378 known survivors. Ed O’Donnell generously sent me copies of some fascinating Slocum reports from 1905, and even more generously, provided me with an address and phone number for Mrs.Wotherspoon after being told of a project with which I was helping my friend Anthony Cunningham.  Anthony made contact with Adella, who audiotaped her Slocum-related memories for him. The tape arrived shortly before her death in early 2004, and the interview may well be the last words about the General Slocum spoken by a survivor. Excerpts from Mrs. Wotherspoon’s audiotape:

It was a real family occasion... It was rare in those days to get so much time off work so the adults must have been looking forward to the trip immensely.  Later on my aunt said that everyone was so happy boarding that boat.  She said everyone was laughing and talking and the children were romping about.  The weather was beautiful and it looked like it was going to be a wonderful day out.

It seemed that my parents didn't notice the fire for a while.  There was a big puff of smoke which startled everyone but someone said it must have been something burning in the kitchen and they all just laughed it off.  But then there was a sheet of flame which appeared from nowhere and everyone panicked.

The life preservers were hung about eight feet above the deck and my father recalled seeing dozens of people reaching up desperately trying to get them, arms straining.  He said that many of them were actually wired in place and it took some time to pull them free.

A few men were trying to free up some of the lifeboats but again they wouldn't budge because they were tied down and secured with wire.  Nothing they could do would shift them so they had to simply leave them.  My father said the speed with which the decks were burning was incredible, but even so he saw some people actually rushing into the flames trying to find their children.

I have no idea how I was saved - it was a miracle really.  My mother had held me  in her arms and jumped onto a tugboat that had come to our rescue.  Her left side and arm were badly burned where she had shielded me from the heat.  She was put down onto the beach at North Brother Island and sat there in shock.  There were bodies floating about in the water and more bodies laid out on the beach.  She had no idea what had become of my father...

The body of my sister Anna was later found - but Helen, my other sister, was gone - missing forever - as was my cousin Emma.  Some time later my cousin Frank's body was recovered, but he was barely recognizable and was only identified by his clothing.  He was buried in the family plot.'

The whole of Little Germany went into mourning.  Nearly everyone was affected by the tragedy because it was such a small tight-knit community.

Complete interview available in:

The Titanic Diaries by Anthony Cunningham
Silver Link Publications Ltd
The Trundle
Ringstead Road
Great Addington
North Hamptonshire
NN14 4BW

Thanks are extended to Ed O’Donnell for trusting us enough to provide us with Mrs. Wotherspoon’s contact information. Gratitude is extended to Craig Stringer for providing me with the "missing" name of Emilia Richter's son who did not attend the excursion. Thanks, as well, to “the usual suspects” who I can always count on for help, advise, and unbiased critique not at all hindered by the scientifically proven fact that I am always correct - even in the face of unimpeachable evidence that I am not. So, Mike, Marty, Tim, Anthony, Harald, Brian, Peter, Zoomer, Kyle, I look forward to the next installation of Gare Maritime and many more enlightening conversations.


Jim Kalafus