Ferry Crashes in East River

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On Wednesday, early morning commuters at Pier 11 on South Street, Lower Manhattan witnessed something not often seen: a ferryboat crashing into the dock.  The Seastreak Wall Street, a high-speed commuter ferry that operates between New Jersey and Manhattan, evidently rammed into the dock at a high rate of speed (over ten miles per hour).  Dozens of passengers were hurtled to the deck, with several severely injured, including one man who fell down a flight of stairs and landed on his head.  Fortunately there were no deaths.

The mishap reminded many of a more serious accident that occurred October 15, 2003, when a Staten Island ferry missed the dock and struck a maintenance pier.  Eleven people died and 70 were injured.

The worst river disaster in New York City occurred on June 15, 1904.  The steamboat General Slocum was ferrying 1,300 German American residents of Little Germany in the Lower East Side to an annual picnic on Long Island Sound.  Minutes into the trip a fire erupted onboard ship.  The flames spread so rapidly that the ship had no time to disembark the passengers.  The final death toll was 1,021 people, mainly women and children, who either burned in the blaze or drowned in the East River (few people in the early 20th century knew how to swim).  It was New York City’s worst tragedy until 911.

The fire was supposedly caused by a discarded cigarette or match in the Lamp Room, which contained straw and oily rags.  But the disaster was exacerbated by the fact that the life preservers were rotten, lifeboats were permanently tied up (some so old they were wired and painted in place), and there had been no fire drills and only cursory ship inspections.   Mothers who survived the tragedy recounted putting life jackets on their children, throwing them overboard, then watching in horror as their children sank immediately.

Shockingly, only one person was convicted in the disaster: the captain, who many considered to be a scapegoat of the negligent Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the General Slocum.  The disaster traumatized Little Germany.  The tight-knit community never recovered and eventually dispersed into greater NYC.  The last survivor of the tragedy died at the age of 100 in 2003.  Her name was Adelia Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), who was only six months old at the time of the tragedy.  Her two older sisters died in the fire.

As of this writing, investigations are ongoing into what caused the recent Seastreak crash.  The captain was supposedly extremely competent, and there is no evidence of intoxication.  The most plausible theory is that the propeller system acted up.

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