One hundred and fifteen years ago this month, the second worst maritime disaster on U.S. waterways took place in the East River of New York City. Over 1,020 men, women, and children tragically perished when the PS General Slocum caught fire and sank into the depths. Sadly, it likely could have been prevented through some pre-trip inspections and common sense.
On June 15, 1904, this passenger steamboat set sail from Manhattan with nearly 1,400 members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on board. This excursion was part of the church’s annual celebration as they cruised toward a picnic location on Long Island.
After getting underway at 9:30 a.m., all were enjoying the ride when someone noticed smoke. Reports conflict as to the fire’s origin, but when a 12-year-old boy alerted Captain Van Schaick, he was disbelieved because of his age.
When the flames became apparent, the ship’s crew sprang into action and attempted to use the fire houses to extinguish the blaze only to find they had rotted and were falling apart. As frantic passengers grabbed life vests, they discovered that they too had disintegrated and were of no use. Horrific reports endure of mothers placing their children inside the life rings and tossing them into the water only to watch them sink beneath the surface. What began as an unfortunate event was quickly turning into a terrible disaster.
Amidst the fear and confusion, other passengers attempted to employ the lifeboats. When they did so, however, they discovered that they were chained fast and could not be dislodged. After all, lifeboats had never been needed before.
Finally, instead of running the crippled ship aground immediately, the captain fired the engines full steam trying to rush forward to a better landing point. Unfortunately, the headwinds fanned the flames and the fire escalated, further endangering all those on board.
Many passengers perished as the floor eventually gave way while others attempted to jump to safety only to be pulled under as their woolen clothing absorbed the water. Most could not swim and a cascading series of events led to the greatest loss of life in New York until the 9-11 attacks in 2001. The captain survived the ordeal and eventually did prison time for gross negligence.
The lessons from this tragedy are numerous. Certainly, it underscores the importance of constant vigilance. Fires and similar tragedies are always unexpected and the need to have safety equipment present and operational is obvious as is the need for drills and training beforehand. Once an emergency occurs, it’s too late to prepare.
Most importantly, the sinking of the PS General Slocum highlights several spiritual truths. Sooner or later, all of our ships will go down and we will meet our earthly end. It’s vitally important to ensure the beliefs and philosophies we depend on to save us at that time will actually do so.
Like the useless life vests, many people trust their own good works. Compared to God’s perfect holiness, however, these are lead weights that will sink, rather than save us. Some depend on church membership or their parents’ or spouse’s faith. These too will be unavailable as each individual must personally trust Jesus.
In addition, it’s wise to heed warnings of spiritual danger even when they come from individuals we might consider too unintelligent to be reliable. We ought to at least investigate their claims before dismissing them altogether especially when the stakes are eternal.
Ultimately, we need to examine the credentials of our captain. Piloting our own ship will prove disastrous. Only Jesus has a perfect record and can guide us safely through life and death. Alternate religions and belief systems are numerous and now is the time to test their reliability before we trust them with our eternity. Once we die, our options disappear and the time for decision making is past.
As we remember the tragic sinking of the PS General Slocum, may it remind us of spiritual truths and motivate us to take precautions now. It’s too late once our ship goes down. June blessings, George