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Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum Hardcover – June 10, 2003

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From Publishers Weekly

O'Donnell (1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History) trains his historian's eyes on one of New York's greatest but little-known disasters-a 1904 steamboat fire that killed more than 1,000 people. He leaves no aspect of the General Slocum tragedy unturned as he lays out the life of the New Yorkers around the turn of the century who became major players in the ship disaster as well as the significant role newspapers played in shaping public opinion. He then details the lives of residents of the mostly German Lower East Side, who were on their way to a church picnic when the boat fire started. Using newspaper as well as second- and firsthand accounts, he then details the fire itself. The event was not inevitable, he emphasizes; it was mainly caused by a lack of safety measures-poor organization of life jackets and outdated, unchecked fire hoses, for example-and by the poor swimming skills of most of the ship's passengers. He also recreates the panoply of emotions on that June day: the panic felt by the ship's passengers as it burned, the heroism demonstrated by rescuers and the despair in the community afterward. With an eye toward today's tragedies, he shows how victims felt little solace from investigations, which became largely an attempt at scapegoating the ship's captain. In O'Donnell's deft hands, the disaster becomes more than just a historical event-it's a fascinating window into an era, a community and the lives of ordinary people.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-It is hard to deny that a tragedy makes for a great story. This is certainly the case with this account of the disastrous fire that wrecked the steamboat General Slocum in 1904 and took over 1000 lives. O'Donnell recounts the doomed ship's final minutes, then draws readers alongside the authorities as they chase down the facts and the guilty parties in the days following the disaster. This is a classic tale of horror and heroism, yet the author uses the event as an opening through which he can take readers into New York City at the start of the 20th century. He discusses topics from government to the press to immigration into and migration within the city and even the mores and ideas prevalent at the time. These myriad views, served up almost as vignettes, are as gripping as the tale of the fire and of the investigation and prosecution. A map of the ship's journey and a diagram of the ship with useful captions is included for easy reference.
Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; 1 edition (June 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767909054
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767909051
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,644,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Brian D. Rubendall HALL OF FAME on June 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Edward T. O'Donnell's "Ship Ablaze" is head-and-shoulders above the glut of historical disaster books lining the shelves these days. O'Donnell's well written narrative history has all of the elements that make a book like this compelling: it details a tragic and nearly forgotten event, it paints the event on the proper historical backdrop and also tells the stories of the victims in a sympathetic and unsensationalistic way.
Though it is not well remembered, the fire and sinking of the steamboat General Slocum near New York City was the city's deadliest disaster prior to September 11, 2001. Over 1000 people, mostly women and children, perished in a few horrifying minutes. What is more disturbing about the story is that the disaster was completely preventable. Had the General Slocum's fire safety equipment been properly inspected and maintained and had the crew been trainbed in fire safety, it is unlikely that there would have been any loss of life.
All of this O'Donnell describes in vivid detail. He also describes life in turn-of-the-century New York, particularly the so-called Little Germany section where the victims were from. The latter part of the book is dedicated to the legal battles that resulted in the imprisonment of the General Slocum's captain, but not the federal inspectors or boat owners who were equally responsible for the tragedy.
Overall, an outstanding work of narrative history that will appeal to history buffs as well as general readers.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on September 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Too many "disaster" books leave you with little or no feeling for the actual victims, survivors, and relatives. That is certainly not the case with "Ship Ablaze." The book is, at times, almost unbearable in its unrelenting intensity. Mr. O'Donnell sets the scene well: a church group, in a tight-knit Lower East Side German community, preparing for and embarking upon a weekday steamboat excursion/picnic. We get to know the pastor, and we get to know some of the families. As the ship leaves the dock, we know what's going to happen...but that doesn't matter. We are horrified as the fire starts and spreads, and over 1,000 people (mostly women and children, with more than one member from many families) die from burning or drowning. We are outraged by the negligence of the shipowner (too cheap to buy new lifejackets and fire hoses, to replace the old equipment which was, literally, disintegrating), and the captain (too "proud" to instruct his crew in fire prevention or to hold fire drills), and the safety inspectors (who "passed" equipment they knew to be not in proper working order- and who most likely pocketed some payoffs). Mr. O'Donnell leaves no area unexplored, although you might sometimes wish he had: he goes into detail concerning the different ways a person can drown- either by "inhaling" water or by lack of oxygen; he talks about people drowning in 5 feet of water, because they were so frightened they didn't realize they could just stand up; he talks of black hearses being used for adults and white ones being used for children; he talks of "survivor guilt" and suicides and undertakers taking advantage of bereaved people by engaging in high-pressure sales tactics and by charging double the normal price for burials.Read more ›
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Kevin M Quigg VINE VOICE on September 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
One hears about some very familiar disasters, but I was not familiar with the General Slocum steam boat disaster. Over 1,000 people (mainly women and children) died in this disaster on the East River. O'Donnell does a superb job of detailing New York at the turn of the century and the dangers associated with steamship travel. Then he goes into great detail about the disaster and the aftermath of the sinking of the General Slocum.

I believe O'Donnell does a fair job of detailing who failed in this disaster. The owner, USSIS, and the Captain all were to blame for this dangerous situation. The result was the decimation of a large German immigrant church community.

O'Donnell's short chapters, and his coverage from all angles gives the reader a clear picture of the disaster. One can understand the nature of this tragedy and the effect on New York City.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Rocco Dormarunno on June 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
For the thousands of descendants of the General Slocum fire victims, overdue tribute has come. Edward O'Donnell's SHIP ABLAZE serves as a stinging reminder of not only a catastrophe of enormous proportions but of a deliberate and unjust society determined to forget it. While the tragic event of June 15, 1904, in which over 1,000 mostly German-Americans perished, is the star of the book, Mr. O'Donnell's outrage at the people responsible for it and the court system that allowed all but one of the culpable to go free is palpable.
There is no point in my retelling the sad story; anyway, I couldn't begin to approach Mr. O'Donnell's engaging and gripping style. But the compelling questions that emerge from the pages deserve consideration. How could human beings who are responsible for the lives and safety of other human beings behave so indifferently to their jobs? A more pressing question: are things any better today?
At the root of this book, however, is the inevitable question: Why don't more people--especially New Yorkers--know about this cataclysmic event that happened in the East River? Mr. O'Donnell offers a few convincing reasons:
1) the pervading sexism and xenophobia of the times had only so much sympathy for the over 1,000 deaths of mostly female foreigners;
2) unlike the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, there was no overtly political or socio-economic connection to the disaster;
3) the First World War wiped out any sympathy for anything German; and
4) unlike the glamour, wealth, and fame surrounding the victims of the Titanic, the Slocum victims were poor working class hacks (I believe it is also for this reason that the deaths of almost 100 commuters in the Malbone Street subway wreck of 1918 is all but forgotten too).
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