Forgotten Disasters

Time buries old wounds.


A. Kam Napier
Have you ever heard of the General Slocum disaster? Probably not. The General Slocum was an excursion steamer that caught fire in the East River, by New York City, killing more than 1,000 people, most of them families on a Sunday outing. The fire started from a match carelessly tossed into a barrel of straw. The tragedy was in all the papers when it happened-you know, back in 1904.

Still, I had never heard of the General Slocum until I stumbled across the account in a New York Times article about last year's Staten Island Ferry accident (remember that one? Where the ferry rammed into a pier, at speed, killing 11 people?). The Times dredged up the General Slocum story for historical context, as both that disaster and the 2003 ferry accident led to the rarely used criminal charge of "seaman's manslaughter." But that snippet of maritime law history didn't grab me as much as the idea that 1,000 people could die in a single horrific fire, and I'd never heard of it. The General Slocum doesn't seem to have entered our cultural vocabulary at all. No one ever says, "Be careful with that match-remember the General Slocum!"

The tales of some disasters flourish, while others die of neglect. You've no doubt heard of the Great Chicago Fire. From the cow barn behind Patrick O'Leary's cottage, the fire spread and burned for more than a day, killing 300 and leaving 90,000 Chicagoans homeless.

But have you ever heard of the Great Peshtigo Fire? No? Me neither, until I started looking for these forgotten disasters. The Great Peshtigo Fire was the worst forest fire in recorded North American history, burning up thousands of acres of Wisconsin and Michigan and killing as many as 2,400 people. It started on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, Sunday, October 8, 1871. Two fires on the same date and we forget the bigger, deadlier one? Bizarre.

Hawai'i has a forgotten modern disaster, too. Everyone has heard of the Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. But have you ever heard of the West Loch Disaster? On Sunday, May 21, 1944 (what is it with Sunday and devastation?), 29 ships were massed in Pearl Harbor's West Loch, loading up for an invasion of Saipan. The ships were full of fuel and ammunition. Unfortunately, one of them exploded, just why no one is exactly sure. In minutes, explosions and fires tore through the fleet. By the time the blazes were put out, 163 men had died, nearly 400 others were wounded, six of the landing ships had sunk and some 20 shoreside buildings were damaged.

Ships burn during the West Loch
disaster of 1944. Photo: Courtesy USS Arizona Memorial

So why do we remember, say, the 1,500 lost when the Titanic sank in 1912, but not the hecatomb of the General Slocum? Perhaps it's because no one ever boasted that the General Slocum was "unburnable." I can't imagine that anyone still grieves for the Titanic's casualties, but we do still love the story of pride going before a fall. The investigation into the General Slocum's ghastly fire led to safety reforms for steamships, but, a century later, those lessons seem irrelevent to jet travelers worried about terrorism.

It's the story and not the disaster that seems to matter. The Chicago Fire probably just got better press than the Peshtigo fire-the big city being full of photographers, writers, journalists, and so on, who actually found themselves living in the middle of a great story. Fewer people died in the Chicago fire, but 90,000 people made homeless in a single night is a big tale, as was the Phoenix-like reconstruction of the city in a few short years. Plus, the Chicago fire has the absurd element of having been started by a cow. It was a great story, affecting tens of thousands willing to tell it.

As for the West Loch disaster, even kama'äina could be excused for having never heard about it. The Navy kept it quiet, and, once the war ended and the story could be told, hardly anyone wanted to hear it. Less than 200 dead? Such a comparatively small horror for its day. No one vists the rusting hulk of LST-480, still jutting out of Pearl Harbor today. It was just an accident victim, after all, with no larger lesson to impart.

We can't go through life remembering every bad thing that ever happened. A hundred years out, there's no use lighting a candle for the General Slocum's dead. Maybe that is the General Slocum's lesson for us.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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