Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lessons of the Eastland Lost:: When Technology and Profit Trumps Humanity:

Early, one sunny Saturday morning, July 24, 1915, 7,000 eager and excited men, women and children, dressed in their summer Sunday best, prepared to board chartered lake steamers that would carry them across Lake Michigan, from the Chicago River piers to the picnic site in Michigan City, Indiana for Western Electric's 5th annual company picnic. The festive mood was thoroughly contagious.  Laughter and shouts filled the air as a mandolin-and fiddle orchestra belted out upbeat ragtime tunes, making the tens of thousands of people gathered at the dock, looking out at the "sea of white shirts, white duck trousers, and fluttering white handkerchiefs" waving from on deck of the large steamship, [1] totally immune to thoughts of potential tragedy.

Of all the chartered steamers, it was the SS Eastland that was the star. Bold and breathtaking, with her sleek lines, twin funnels from which rose tall plumes of smoke, at 265 feet long, 38 feet wide, weighing 1,963 tons, she was built for speed; her reputation, the fastest boat on the lakes. Despite, the Titanic tragedy, just three years prior, "newspaper ads heralded her as: 'the Twin-Screw steel ship, Eastland, Largest, Finest, and Fastest Excursion Steamship...' The ads neglected to mention that the Eastland had a history of being an unstable ship." [2]

It wasn't long before hints of impending disaster became obvious to anyone paying attention; however, the jovial atmosphere, and the encouragement of uniformed officials, and crew blinded all, but the most observantly realistic to what was to become one of the greatest and heartbreaking maritime tragedies in recent history. Oh, people noticed the tilt of the massive ship, especially upon embarking, but, apparently, thought nothing of it, given the celebratory festivity, and, even more importantly, the emboldening promotions of authority. 

Yes, the star of the show, the Eastland, was listing at an angle of at least thirty degrees! That's before the massive ship even departed. People were herded like cattle, pressed cheek to jowl, on the upper deck, waving their handkerchiefs in the air as the captain gave the order for the tug to pull her down the river, out into Lake Michigan
“When boarding the boat we all remarked jestingly: ‘The boat is listing!’ Reaching the big dancing hall on the lower deck where many hundreds of excursionists were enjoying the music, we noticed that the floor was strongly tilted. Then a man cried: ‘All hurry to the other side, lest the boat tip!’ Even now we enjoyed rushing up the sharply inclined dance floor, when suddenly the mighty boat rolled to the opposite side, and all occupants were hurled into a helpless heap. In the dance hall the furniture, the tables and chairs, the heavy piano, the large icebox and counter of the tavern, crashed upon the poor victims, so that many were killed outright. Those who had been on deck were trapped deep down in the river, under twenty-three feet of water.”

“I was one of the few who came out of the water although I was imprisoned inside the dance hall. I could swim well and tried to rescue a little girl, but a man took hold of my arm and pleaded, ‘Lady, please save me!’ I screamed: ‘Let me go! I have all I can do to save myself and this child!’ Then the fellow pulled me and the child down to the bottom. I fought him off, and in the scuffle I lost hold of the poor child. Only five other girls and men were swimming within the dance hall. Luckily they found a ledge to which they now clung, and they called me to come and hold on. For half an hour we took this rest, but the suspense became unbearable. We screamed for help. Finally we were noticed and strong arms drew us through a porthole.” - an anonymous passenger gave her account to a news reporter after she was rescued
While still moored to the dock, all aboard suddenly noticed that the ship was tipping over into the river.  After a moment of surreal silence, the horrified screaming began. "Men, women and children slid from her like ants brushed from a plank. ... The entire surface of the river was black with writhing, drowning humanity." [3] Out of the 2,500 on board, 812 met their death in all of six terrifying minutes. The death toll later reached up to as many as 1080, wiping out 22 entire families.

Later, it was disclosed that the SS Eastland was known as "the crank ship of the Lakes." This was not the first time the ship started to tip. Several times before, passengers had been ordered to shift from side to side until she stabilized. However, on this perilous day, the passengers couldn't have shifted if they wanted, they were so tightly packed together. In fact, reports of the Eastland's instability had become so widespread that in 1910 her owners, the Port Huron firm,  had run an ad in the newspaper offering $5,000 to professionals who would claim her seaworthiness.

People lined up outside the temporary morgue at the Second Regiment Armory to identify victims of
the Eastland disaster
All of the evidence pointed to the fact that the only goal of the shipbuilders was "a ship fast enough to make the 170-mile round trip between Chicago and Grand Haven Michigan, twice, in 24 hours", safety, be damned. Lawsuits were brought into the courts, by survivors courts as late as 1935.  Despite overwhelming evidence of neglect and conspiracy to cover up life threatening flaws, no one one was indicted for contributing to the disaster.

The entire Sinclair family- all eight members -perished on the Eastland
Fireman holds dead child after the Eastland tipped over.
Moreover, in a tragic twist of fate, the mandated - by the 1915 federal Seaman's Act passed because of the  Titanic disaster - complete set of lifeboats, absent on the Titanic, made the already top heavy Eastland, more so.  Although the lifeboats required by this act were said to have the potential to cause many Great Lakes boats to capsize, it was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, anyway. Never mind that the SS Eastland was already so top-heavy that it had special restrictions concerning the number of passengers that could be carried. The additional weight of the new lifeboats made the ship even more unstable than before.
The interior of the Eastland changed suddenly, as if by the dark magic of a fun house mirror. Floors became walls, port holes became skylights, and the gigantic influx of water turned the mahogany trimmed rooms into sealed chambers worthy of Harry Houdini’s worst nightmares. - Jay Bonansinga wrote in his book, The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy
One has to wonder why this tragic event was brushed under the rug while the memory of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, is as fresh as if it happened last year. Could it be that the Eastland's passengers were not as worthy of the attention, due to their "working class" status? Possibly. But more than likely, it has to do with the lessons that could have been learned from this atrocity that could've been easily prevented. What lessons? The danger of blindly trusting "officials" or so-called "authorities", while ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. The danger of valuing profit and technology over human life. In other words, diminishing the value of humanity to a technological, profit-above-all-else society is not only dangerous to mankind, left unchecked, this type of society can wipe out mankind, or, at least, those of us who aren't in "the club".


[1] Griggs, John. "Excursion to Death" American Heritage. February 1965: 32-35, 111.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.


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