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Snapshots of Bellevue

Karen Lamberton

Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001

As word of the bombing spread, the city responded. Adjacent piers were pressed into service collecting victims for transport away from Ground Zero. Triage and trauma centers were hastily constructed around the perimeter. Family members wandered the streets in a daze trying to find word of the missing. They covered the 27th Street entrance to Bellevue Hospital with pictures and descriptions on their loved ones.

Wednesday morning, June 15, 1904

The day could not have been more perfect. That summery morning gave no hint of the impending calamity. By noon, the world knew that this day was a tragedy. When the General Slocum burned and took at least 1,031 souls down with her, she became the single largest fire, the greatest loss of life, and deadliest marine disaster in New York’s history. 

The “Slocum,” was the biggest and fastest harbor day-liner. That day, about 2,000 passengers, mostly women and children, embarked from the pier at the foot of East Third Street in lower Manhattan for an annual Sunday School excursion to Long Island. The ship sailed north along the East River as the passengers watched Manhattan on the left and Queens on the right glide by. Near the northern end of Manhattan, as the ship approached the Bronx, fire broke out.  The “Slocum” was now at Hell Gate, where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Since the days of the early Dutch, this stretch of water has consistently earned its reputation as the most notorious and treacherous half mile of navigable water on the East Coast. Passengers crowded the upper decks as flames fed on freshly painted woodwork. With a muffled explosion, the fire leaped out of control and raced up the stairways. Vessels in pursuit watched as blazing bodies rained down on the river. Most died before they were rescued. The General Slocum grounded at North Brother Island near the Bronx, where fireboats hosed the inferno as small craft darted in to pick up survivors. Tugs risked incineration by coming alongside. Fifty- to seventy-five people at a time hurled themselves from the upper rails to the tugs’ decks. Then the deck collapsed pitching hundreds into a cauldron of fire below.

The city’s police, fire, and medical communities were marshaled to the scene or to adjacent piers and station houses to handle the crowds. Doctors and nurses immediately packed what supplies they could carry and left for the scene hitching rides with police and fire units. Citizens commandeered rowboats crossing some of the worst water in New York harbor to help.

Personnel from the Tuberculosis Hospital on North Brother Island formed human chains pulling victims from the water. Triage was set up. The lawns became neat rows of corpses; the wards filled with dazed survivors. Word of the disaster flashed across the city. At Bellevue Hospital, Dr. P. Bellows Brooksand his staff left for the scene and worked alongside police hauling bodies from the water and setting them in coffins for transport. A morgue appeared on the 138th St. pier, then another at 26th St., on the Charities Department pier. The charities facility and the New York City Morgue, at Bellevue Hospital, were as close to the disaster as many of the loved ones could get. Hollow-eyed family members wandered from one hospital to another, one morgue to the next seeking the missing. Day and night they shuffled back and forth along the rows of pine coffins. Victim and missing lists were reported daily in the papers.

Another of Bellevue’s staff, W. D. Howard, spent several days watching for signs of impending suicide among the mourners. Many times a father, upon finding his family, made a wild dash for the edge of the pier seeking oblivion with his loved ones. Each time, police diverted and subdued the mourner, leading him to a quiet place where Dr. Howard could convince him of his folly. 

Bellevue, Lincoln, and several other hospitals also became the scene of joyous reunions as wide-eyed children were reunited with loved ones. Nurses happily crossed names off lists as their charges headed home. Once there, these little ones joined the chorus of baby voices asking when Mommy would be home.

It was said that when night fell on the East Side that night, it never lifted. The largest German neighborhood in the United States fell silent and within two years was gone. The final count, probably underestimated, was 1,031 dead, hundreds injured, and an unknown number washed out to sea 

New Yorkers opened their hearts to the victims and their families. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars was raised to help with burials and hospital expenses. Families came forward to adopt orphans. Several cemeteries offered burial plots. In the end, the Germans, proud of their independence and their accomplishments, accepted only a fraction of their entitlement. The remainder went into an educational fund for the children. 

The city buried sixty-one unidentified victims in Middle Village, Queens, at Lutheran Cemetery. The following year the plot was paved in marble and a breath-taking monument was erected by the newly established General Slocum Survivors’ Association. The center column supports a plaque of the ship in flames. At either end of the patio, other columns rise crowned with angels. One cradles a toddler in her arms. At the dedication of the monument, German banners proclaimed a parent’s prayer; “Let not their deaths be in vain.” About two miles north of Ground Zero, at the heart of the old German community is Tompkin Square. In the park, a small bronze plaque simply states “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”