- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

Though I can’t find it in my 1968 Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, it’s a sailor saying often repeated: “A fire at sea can ruin your whole day.” The breezy cynicism covers a true paradox. With all that water around, fires on shipboard are among the most pernicious, swift and deadly disasters known to man. For as both these nonfiction histories of fires at sea reveal, ships are little more than floating tinderboxes waiting for the match, stuffed with fuel or flammables, and always ill-equipped to fight the enemy spreading in their own bowels.

As Joe Jackson relates in A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet (Free Press, $25, 304 pages), the New York Harbor steamer General Slocum was one of those workhorse ferries that used to be as familiar as an old boot around Manhattan at the turn of the century: 264 feet long, tall smokestacks, two huge enclosed paddlewheels, a three deck wedding cake of a ship which made two daily voyages from downtown to Far Rockaway Beach every day of the summer, as well as charter excursions. For 50 cents, passengers in the summer of 1904 got a two and one half hour trip through one of the world’s grandest harbors.

Just so does Edward T. O’Donnell set up the machinery of disaster in telling his tale Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum (Broadway, $24.95, 333 pages) of what happened to the 1,300 members and friends of the German American community’s St. Mark’s Church in lower Manhattan. It was Tuesday June 14, perfect weather. They were to take their annual outing to Locust Grove, L.I., picnic, and return, for a day casting off the cares and labors of home, office and factory.

But long before that day was over, 1,021 of them would be dead, drowned or dying of burns. A spark, or a lamp, or a careless cigarette put aside by a deckhand, had ignited the “great menu of flammable material” stored in the steamer’s lamp room deep in her innards. “Stacked in one corner were cans of kerosene for the boat’s lanterns, and jars of polish for its brass fixtures.

Along the walls on pegs hooks and nails hung clothing, scraps of wood lay in a pile against a wall beneath a shelf loaded with oil based paint,” Mr. O’Donnell writes.

The ship, basically a wooden crate, takes fire with wicked speed. The firefighting equipment is worn out, corrupt inspectors have failed to note the life preservers are rotten; to compound these horrors, the 67-year-old captain makes a disastrous decision to beach the blazing Slocum on an Island in the East River — about a mile distant. Racing for this supposed relief turns fire into inferno.

Using the extensive newspaper archives, plus three “instant” books published, as they are today, to take commercial advantage of a horrific news story, Mr. O’Donnell’s narrative is nearly drowned in detail. Relying on the eager and competitive newspaper reporters for New York’s score of dailies, weeklies and specialty papers has a definite downside for the “serious historian” Mr. O’Donnell wishes to be. Perhaps without meaning to, the author is drawn into the reporter’s love of purple prose, his longing for the poignant detail, the ironic twist, the turn of the screw, and every other evergreen cliche in the reporter’s notebook.

Thus the viewpoint is always that of the newspaper reporter, interviewing, paraphrasing, always under the pressure of deadline, and always from that rather strange platform where the journalist lives, observing, judging and concluding,but never really a part of the action. Reporters may lay the groundwork for history, but their perspective is always limited to the next day’s horizon. We see the Slocum disaster unfold, followed by the inevitable funerals, the investigation, the trial, even the erection of a memorial. In newspaper jargon, what Mr. O’Donnell has delivered is a very superior “clip job” distilled out of yellowed press clippings.

The events that lead to the 1866 sinking of the clipper Hornet in mid-Pacific are essentially the same: an insignificant act. An experienced sailor opens the tap on a keg of varnish deep in the hold; a lantern tips over, flame gushes up, the tap remains open as the man recoils …

Hornet, one of the fast ships which made young America a world trading force in the second half of the 19th century, was truly a floating bomb. A wooden ship with all sail set in near calm conditions, Hornet was loaded with 20,000 gallons of kerosene and 6,000 boxes of candles, plus iron and small steam engines, all bound for the California gold fields. There was no hope of extinguishing this blaze and the crew of 29 plus two passengers had to scramble to get into the longboats before the heat fried them alive.

At 111 days out of New York and over 1,000 miles from land, Hornet had rounded Cape Horn without incident. But now she was gone, flaming like a candle for almost 24 hours under a calm sky, leaving her people in four small boats.

Former Virginia Pilot reporter and Pulitzer nominee Jackson has done a seamless job of storytelling, wisely following the fates and life stories of the various personalities among the survivors to create his narrative. The story shifts gear — from the fire and its aftermath, to a remarkable 43 day 4,000 mile small boat voyage across the Pacific, the separation and loss of most of the tiny flotilla, and the survivors’ final arrival on the beach in the Hawaiian Islands, where they become a press sensation, drawing one reporter fated to become a remarkable writer, Samuel Clemens, pen name: Mark Twain.

The richness of this story relies on diaries kept by survivors, documents of a kind of desperate reality: and there are three of them. By pure chance, the intellectuals of the crew were among those in the one longboat of three, which survived. Besides the captain, Josiah Mitchell, were the two wealthy and well-educated passengers, Samuel and Henry Ferguson.

These documents speak of hope, fear, despair, rebellion, near mutiny, and even cannibalism. The day before land was sighted; after eating the leather chafing strips on the oars, the 15 men on board Mitchell’s longboat were determined to eat human flesh. The only question was whose.

One of the most interesting themes Mr. Jackson pursues is the question of social class, which in 1866 was a near absolute of the human condition. Not only is it notable that the most educated survived the ordeal, but also that these three individuals managed to keep control of the boat, and in spite of numerous errors of action and judgment, sail to the Islands with their crew intact.

By contrast the boat commanded by the Hornet’s second mate, John Parr, who refused Mitchell’s orders on rations and other matters, was lost with all seven sailors who took their chances with him. But the third boat, captained by the agreeable first mate Samuel Hardy, was also lost with all hands.

Is some kind of friction — rage against authority, fear of mutiny — actually necessary or helpful within a cadre of survivors? Does it supply a kind of energy? Mr. Jackson implies it may be.

This and a most thorough job of research mark Mr. Jackson as an author with inexhaustible curiosity. He has produced a book of far wider scope than its disaster and ordeal outline; The Hornet voyage under Jackson’s skilled pen is a looking glass put to the human spirit under ultimate stress.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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