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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Eastland Disaster - Another Reason To Vacation On Land

I wrote yesterday about the Italian Cruise Ship Tragedy, which was indeed a tragedy, plain and simple – and for which the cowardly Captain of the vessel needs to be hung by his feet and hit with a stick, multiple times, by a stout citizenry. Just my opinion, of course, but to me a dozen dead and two dozen dead are three dozen too many, especially when the disaster was so unnecessary. It seems that the Captain was not only cowardly, but also neglectful and prideful, all of which add up to the disaster at hand. Or a really bad meal at Benihana.

This whole situation set me off into internet-hell, bouncing from historic disaster to disaster, reading about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and the Beer Flood of 1814, which cost 9 souls their lives – 8 from drowning, one of alcohol poisoning, which made me smile and sent me off in yet another internet direction, researching to find whether or not I had any ancestors in the area at the time and the over and under on whether I was related to the single soul lost to alcohol poisoning.

The disaster that truly caught my eye, however, was the sinking of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915. A tour ship, this vessel capsized and took over 800 lives in less than twenty-five feet of water. I remembered reading a riverside plaque about the tragedy when wandering the streets of Chicago back in the latter part of the 1990’s and looking into the murky waters and marveling over just how narrow the waterway was. The idea of a great vessel tipping over, just feet from shore and stealing over 800 lives was inconceivable. Heck, I thought, even if a boat tipped over into the water, I would simply swim to the shore.

I moved on down the river, in more respects than one, leaving the disaster of the SS Eastland behind me to manufacture equally tragic disasters of my own in the names of the SS Mrs. Ford I and the SS Mrs. Ford II. Sure, no lives were sacrificed in these historic dramas, but many souls were damaged beyond repair and some still struggle mightily with their dark undertow. Not me, but then again, I am a man without conscience.

It wasn’t until today that I revisited the facts of the Eastland Tragedy and read through the facts of the tragic mishap. The SS Eastland was a ship designed for the shipping of materials that had been re-fitted as a cruise liner for the Great Lake of Michigan. It had been commissioned on this June morning, to transport some 800 workers of the Western Electric Company from Chicago to a picnic set up in Michigan, just across the lake.

The ship welcomed its passengers (numbering some 2500) and by 7AM was ready to disembark. The vessel, however, was unstable by nature and prone to listing and had recently made alterations to accommodate national regulations for lifeboat-capacity, thanks to the recent Titanic Disaster, and as a result had become extremely top-heavy. When the masses on the top-decks rushed to wave goodbye to their land-locked well-wishers, the ship began to list to the side. Engineers aboard began to fill the ballast tanks to compensate as dancers on the below-decks ignored the pitch of the dance floor. When the revelers realized that the ship was tilting, the dancers – as well as the folks above-decks – rushed to the other side of the boat and caused it to tip radically. Once the lower levels began taking on water, it didn’t take long for the ship to capsize onto its side and rest in the shallow muddy waters of the Chicago River. Those topside either scrambled for purchase or jumped overboard, while those below decks were either crushed by furniture or immersed in the rush of incoming water. Many of those who leapt into the river were crushed into the muddy floor of the river or dragged down by the backflow of the great ship. Others were weighed down by layers of petticoats and over-dresses and the inability to swim or the efforts to keep both themselves and their children afloat in the chaos.

Many were rescued by a nearby tugboat, hustling from the overturned hull of the ship onto the deck, or were pulled from the water by those on shore. These were the lucky ones, saved from a murky death by happenstance or will. The rest perished. The local businesses were turned into makeshift morgues, including a warehouse that would one day be the home of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. It was the largest loss of life in the history of the Great Lakes and it all occurred within feet of the river’s bank.

This not only cements my fear of water in general, the sea in particular and the muddy waters of our country’s Great Rivers in my own private fresh-water hell, but the need for us to realize that we never know when the Grim Reaper will wield his bloody scythe. But when assisted by the ineptitude and cowardice of the Italian Captain Schettino, his work seems all too effortless.

If have learned nothing from The Titanic, The Eastland and The Costa Concordia, it is that on-shore vacationing is a fine idea – my investment in on-shore vacation destinations notwithstanding.

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