Volume 73, Number 7 | June 16 - 22, 2004

Villager photos by Bonnie Rosenstock

Speakers at the ceremony at Tompkins Sq. Park’s Slocum memorial fountain last Sunday.

Remembrances and memorials at Slocum centennial

By Bonnie Rosenstock

On Sat., June 12, the General Slocum “Voyage of Remembrance” and on Sun., June 13, the plaque dedication, procession and memorial service in the former Little Germany neighborhood, now the East Village, brought together descendants of the deceased, survivors and their brave rescuers. It was “by far the largest celebration in terms of numbers of people showing up since the 1930s,” declared Edward T. O’Donnell, whose 2003 critically acclaimed book on the disaster, “Ship Ablaze,” which he began work on in February 2001, has become even more significant since Sept. 11. (A paperback edition was published this month to coincide with the centennial.)

“[Recognition of the event] periodically came back in the 1920s when there were more and more episodic mentions of it,” said O’Donnell. “Then in 1954, on the 50th anniversary there was a little coverage and a small museum exhibit. Then every now and again, on the 75th anniversary, a couple of times in the ’80s and ’90s, there were stories in The New York Times, for example. But they were very small until September 11. That’s what really drove the story back out.”

Descendants came from across the country and Canada to reunite with loved ones, to share family histories with others, to find and give thanks to rescuers and caregivers, and to celebrate the human spirit. Most of the 250 passengers aboard the sold-out Circle Line cruise were direct descendants. Many people had to be turned away. The boat left from the South St. Seaport at 9 a.m. and cruised along at a leisurely pace against the tide, tracing the route of the General Slocum (which was going with the tide) up the East River, past Hell Gate — “a place the Atlantic Ocean fights itself,” said Frank Duffy — past Ward’s Island, Randall’s Island, Sunken Meadow and Riker’s Island to stop in front of North Brother Island, the site of the tragedy that left 1,200 dead.

Duffy, executive vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum, Ft. Schuyler, the Bronx, eloquently narrated the story in detail over a loudspeaker during the boat trip. The solemn waterborne memorial and wreath-laying ceremony was accompanied by the mournful wailing of a lone bagpipe, played by a member of the New York Fire Department. Descendants cast white carnations into the quiet waters. On a boat on the river, U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers stood at stiff attention, a police boat patrolled the waters and the fireboat John Harvey (an historic vessel, which a private society is refurbishing) propelled dancing streams of water high into the clear blue skies, reminiscent of the beams of light that illuminated ground zero for a time. This year’s trip took approximately one hour and fifteen minutes, but it had been 100 years in the making.

Officiating at the centennial plaque unveiling at the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 325 E. Sixth St., now the Community Synagogue, were Frank Duffy; Father Arthur Wendel, pastor of the Most Holy Redeemer Church — a German parish on E. Third St., founded in 1844 — who gave the invocation; and Max Isaacs, an officer of Community Synagogue, who gave thanks to Duffy for giving him the honor and privilege of unveiling the plaque (the words on the plaque were written by members of the synagogue). Isaacs noted that the exterior of the Community Synagogue is exactly the same, and the interior is 90 percent the same as when it was first turned over to the synagogue in 1940.

The speakers at this year’s annual wreath-placing ceremony in Tompkins Sq. Park included Father Wendel (who decided to sing the dedication this time); Rev. Everett J. Wabst, chaplain, former F.D.N.Y. firefighter, Engine 28 Ladder 11 on E. Second St.; William Hetzler, assistant to the Governor for German Affairs, who read a proclamation from the governor; Captain Daniel R. Croce of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve; Jack Lynn, assistant commissioner for Citywide Services, who unveiled a commemorative historical sign in Astoria Park on Tues., June 15 in a site overlooking Hell Gate; Brian Anderson, Commissioner of Records; and a representative from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, who also read a proclamation.

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