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CATASTROPHE: Death of van Schaick

4 minute read

Shifty and absend-minded, Death is seldom timely in his remembrances. Last week, 23 years too late, he sought out William van Schaick, once Captain of the famed excursion boat General Slocum.

The 15th of June in 1904 was a blue and shining day. There were a few white patches of froth against the china sky and a warm wind loitered in the air, as gay as a song. The people who boarded the General Slocum that morning — mostly women who were bringing their small children on the annual outing of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church Sunday School — felt the presence of this singular perfection. So did old Captain van Schaick who stood on his deck cocky and smiling, proud to be the skipper of one of the best excursion boats in New York Harbor. He took one little girl by the hand and let her tweak his moppish mustachios. The band was playing “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott.” A woman, the last of the 1,400 passengers, waving her hand kerchief to someone on shore as if she had been going on a long journey, ran up the gangplank. There was a jangle of bells, a fountain of spray as the paddle wheels rolled the water; all the passengers cheered and laughed when the General Slocum backed into the East River.

That was at a little after 9 o’clock. The boat moved up the river. A deckhand threw down his whiskey bottle and started for the galley; on the way he noticed a little fire that was burning brightly on the floor of a storeroom; the deckhand threw some charcoal on top of the flames and then went to look for the mate. By the time the mate saw the fire, it had crept farther; he stared in be wilderment and then spoke to the Captain through a tube. Suddenly every one on the General Slocum knew that the boat was on fire. Alarms rang and passengers started to strap life preservers to their waists. Captain van Schaick waggled his head in perplexity and steered for an island two miles away.

Twenty minutes after the boat had scuffed out of her dock, a great flower of flame was growing through her decks, sprouting in the passageways, flourishing suddenly out of the port holes. Captain van Schaick watched his passengers who were discovering to their horror that all the life pre servers were full of dust, not cork, that all the life boats sank as soon as they were launched. He watched a few deckhands trying to attach the hose which was so old and frail that it broke in their hands. There was a whining report as the port rail of the after deck collapsed and then the screams of children and women who soon blackened in the heat. A little boy climbed the flag pole, trying to get out of the flames. The flag pole broke and the little boy was pitched into the bonfire where he burned….

The flames reached Captain van Schaick but they did not kill him. He beached his burning boat 45 minutes after he had taken her out into the East River. Not quite 500 out of his 1,400 passengers were still alive; some of these had swum to safety.

That would have been the best day for Death to have waved a hand at William van Schaick. An investigation proved that despite a record of 40 years’ service he had been guilty of criminal neglect in not having useful firehose, staunch lifeboats, life-preservers that would float; for allowing rubbish to collect in the store rooms; for having a crew made up, without apparent exception of yokels, cravens or imbeciles; for not giving this crew fire drills.

Many people also thought it strange and unfortunate that a Captain should survive so many of his passengers.

Before he went to prison Captain van Schaick, then 71, had persuaded a woman to marry him. When he arrived at Sing Sing he said: “Today, instead of being a criminal, I should be considered a hero. I hope for a pardon.” This, when Mrs. van Schaick pleaded, U. S. President William Howard Taft despatched to Captain van Schaick.

After his release, which had cut six years from his ten-year term, the old man went back to his young wife. Soon they separated; Captain van Schaick, a thin, rickety man, his face always lighted with a tardy and now unnecessary diligence, went about from place to place.

He died, last week, in Utica.

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