good for a pure historical or introducing a new enemy
Indeed. Do the players intervene to stop the fire (and can they manage to stop it)? Was it in fact arson (Blanck and Harris had at least four previous, suspicious, fires in the premises and arson for insurance was all too common).
Time, time,time, see what’s become of me. While I looked around for my possibilities... My AITAS files.
One the subject of averting historical tragedies, let me present the General Slocum.
Constructed by Divine Burtis Jr. in Brooklyn in 1891, the Slocum was a wooden hulled, sidewheeler, a paddlewheel propelled steamboat of a pattern at best obsolescent when she was being built. Intended for the bay and river excursion trade she had three decks, limited compartmentalisation and extensive electric lighting.
She operated as a pleasure boat for about thirteen years, until her tragic end in 1904. Though these years were hardly uneventful; despite carrying two pilots as part of her crew she ran aground at least five times (generally requiring assistance to escape and stranding passengers), was involved in two collisions and one large riot (where shots were fired and "nine hundred intoxicated anarchists1"). There were at least three drownings of passengers who fell overboard (one of them a young girl pushed over in a crowd).
At least one of the groundings resulted in large scale panic among passengers and some injuries. This occurred on 29JUL1894 when she struck a sandbar while returning from Rockaway Beach in darkness. The ship suffered some damage but the electric generator failed and more than 4,700 passengers were left in the dark. Panic ensued; women who fainted were trampled upon while men and women fought with each other to get to the lifeboats. Chaos reigned for nearly an hour until the crew restored order. According to newspaper reports, hundreds had been injured in the "wild scrimmage".
It's important to remember that most people of the time couldn't swim. This was especially true for women.
Likewise the General Slocum was well known and generally trusted in the city. Probably more than a third of the population has been on her at least once.
Her careen ended in horror in however on 15JUN1904.
The Slocum had been hired by St. Mark's Lutheran Church, a mainly German institution in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, part of the neighbourhood that was then called Little Germany, and was home to many of the city's German immigrants. The trip was an annual outing held by the church and community to celebrate the end of the school year. On Wednesday 15JUN1904 more than 1,300 people boarded the General Slocum for a day of swimming, games, and food at Locust Grove on Long Island.
The exact number of passengers is unknown; it was common practice to count two infants as one passenger and three children as two passengers. The passengers were mostly women and children because most of the men of the community were at work.
All should have been well. Only a couple of months previously the Slocum had passed a safety inspection and been freshly repainted. However her operators, the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, had frequently been cited and fined for overcrowding the Slocum. Captain William van Schaick was 68 and an officer of long experience, with an unblemished safety record who'd ferried well over a million passengers in his career. Likewise, his officers were experienced with excellent credentials.
Unfortunately, although the ship's officers were well-trained, the crew were not; many of whom were untrained day labourers.
The day was described as "a beautiful late spring day"; the trip to Locust Point was intended to be a pleasant day out, in an era when the workday was long and a day spent doing nothing but relaxing in a pleasant place with old friends was a rarity to be anticipated for weeks in advance and remembered fondly for weeks afterwards.
Within four hours of their 09:30 departure perhaps a thousand of those passengers would be dead or dying. The Slocum would lie sunk with only a portion of her paddle box and her funnels breaking the surface, and fewer than 400 survivors would be slowly making their way back to the Lower East Side or recovering in the city's hospitals.
Exactly what caused the fire isn't known. But around 10AM a young boy noticed smoke coming from under the door of a utility room, he tried to inform the new but a crewman chased him away. They may not have had a language in common.
Probably a spark in the room had ignited some hay on the floor, which had begun smouldering.
One of her crew, a man named John Coakley, had been on the job for only seventeen days. He'd just finished his first beer of the morning when he yanked open the door. The sudden influx of oxygen turned a spark into an inferno. The inexperienced man dumped a bucket of charcoal on the fire and went to report to the first mate, Edward Flanagan. The fire spread in minutes.
The unnamed boy who'd seen the smoke was lurking nearby and ran through the ship alerting the passengers to the fire. Unfortunately captain Van Schaick shooed the boy away from the bridge without listening and no other crew informed the captain of the fire until at least a quarter-hour had passed. This was the first major mistake of the day.
Although the ship had recently passed inspection, the boat should have been failed on many counts; the company had bribed the safety inspector to ignore many faults, a common practice of the time. Given the captain's safety record, he might have been complacent about safety at any rate.
Eventually notified of the fire, and the difficulty fighting it, Captain Van Schaick decided against pulling into port on either side of the river (he later stated this was out of fear that the fire would spread to the other ships, oil tanks, or lumber yards), but instead went full speed (about fifteen knots) ahead to North Brother Island with the intent of beaching the ship. The fire was impossible to fight as the fire hoses were old and rotted; when the water was turned on, they couldn't handle the water pressure and burst apart.
Some panicked passengers tried to lower the ships lifeboats; the constant swaying of the boats had caused a problem to the crew, so they were wired into place (another safety violation). People frantically clawed at them, but to no avail. At the speed the Slocum was going lowering the boats would have been impossible anyway. The speed fanned the flames, spreading the blaze, which was further accelerated by the fresh coat of highly flammable paint.
Many passengers saw no choice but to jump into the river; they didn't survive long. The fire occurred in an are of the river known as Hell's Gate, where the Harlem and East Rivers meet Long Island Sound. There the water moves with a fast, strong, current that can drown a skilled swimmer. Few of the passengers could swim at all. They couldn't stay on the surface for long before the weight of their water-sodden heavy wool soaked clothes dragged them down.
The Slocum was well provided with life jackets but these were useless, or worse. Supposedly made solid cork many were nailed to the ship's rails, most crumbled into dust when they were grabbed. Those that were "usable" had the consistency of concrete, filled with powdered cork (rather than solid blocks) and weighted with scrap iron. Many parents strapped jackets onto their children and sent them into the water hoping to save them, only to see them drown instead.
By now other ships and people ashore had seen the landmark ship aflame and set off to assist.
One notable act of heroism was that of Jack Wade2 a man who owned his own small tugboat, named the John Wade after his father, and made a living as an independent operator and was described as a tough 'harbour rat'. When he saw the Slocum running upriver at full speed and visibly aflame he was working on North Brother Island. Unlike many that morning Wade didn't look the other way.
It wasn't his first fire rescue. Four years earlier he and his men had been in the thick of the huge fire when German Lloyd liners caught fire in Hoboken.
Wade rushed into the pilothouse and ordered his pilot, Robert Fitzgerald, to go full throttle for the burning steamboat. It took less than a minute for the rather decrepit tugboat to get underway. Reaching the Slocum they saw a horrific sight; two-thirds of the steamboat was engulfed in flames, sheets of flame were erupting ten metres into the air. Women and children could be seen racing about the decks, while others jumped over the sides into the cold, murky water below. Wade was the first boat on the scene but not the last; the Walter Tracey, the Arnot, the Wheelerfollowed by the Sumner, Margaret, and Goldrenrod. Barges under tow were cut loose. Some boats stopped to pull people out of the water, others like Wade tried to pull alongside despite the risk of fire spreading to them.
Managing to pull alongside and tie to the burning Slocum, Wade crammed as many passengers as possible onto his small tug. Over a hundred in all. Finally the fire and the risk capsizing with so many people aboard forced him to leave. One person was not welcome on board. One of the first to jump from the Slocum to the John Wade was Edward Flanagan, the Slocum's first mate. He tried to force the tug away from the Slocum before Wade had finished. Jack Wade punched him and threw the officer overboard.
Out on the notorious Rikers Island two prisoners, John Merther and Dan Casey, saw the Slocum pass and ran for a boat. Despite knowing the could be shot as attempted escapees they headed out to help. Fortunately when they reached the skiff they were joined by one of the prison doctors who joined them.
The Slocum finally beached at North Brother Island, completely engulfed in flames and still with the deck sixty metres off shore. Help came from the islands residents; the island was the site of the city's contagious disease hospital (once home to Typhoid Mary). Doctors, nurses, workmen and patients all took part in the rescue. They caught children that were thrown to them and many swam into the icy water, risking their own lives, to bring people ashore. Ladders being used for renovation work were commandeered and lashed together to reach passengers in the water and on board the ship.
Not everyone who raced into the water had charitable motives. Nor did all those that were in a position to lend assistance do so. There were reports of extortionists demanding payment before pulling people out of the water, and then pushing them back into the water. Scavengers moved among the dead, removing jewellery. In the cases of some of the badly burned victims, this also meant removing the only means relatives might have had of identifying them.
Captain Van Schaick was said to have deserted the General Slocum as soon as it settled, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. He lost the sight in one eye.
Of the at least 1,388 people aboard 895 were confirmed dead. There were 431 confirmed survivors, of whom 251 were listed as uninjured. Of the uninjured 23 were members of the crew of 30. At least 62 people were never found, but the death toll was certainly higher.
Eight people were indicted by a Grand Jury after the disaster; Captain Van Schaick, the two safety inspectors, the president, secretary, treasurer, and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted, on one charge of criminal negligence; for failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and was paroled after three-and-a-half, before being pardoned by William Howard Taft on 19DEC1912
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine despite extensive evidence that they falsified inspection records and bribed inspectors. The disaster caused greater Federal and state regulation of emergency equipment and provision on passenger ships.
The neighborhood of Little Germany almost disappeared after the disaster. Most of the Lutheran Germans in the Lower East Side moved uptown.
Possibilities. Excepting the traditional Who theme of the TARDIS materialising on-board the ship that morning and the travellers facing the dilemma of intervening or allowing the horror to proceed there are loosely three ways to use this event.
Stop the tragedy
Stop someone stop the tragedy
Save person X
1. Prevent the disaster. Such meddling is generally out of character for Doctor Who. There would be potentially immense consequences. Every child saved represents an entire lineage of future generations. The consequences are potentially immense; who knows what heroes, criminals, inventors, scientists might result?
2. Stop someone from preventing the disaster. "My vision is the Prime Reality, my life dedicated to preserving it", as Lady Maranodulandur put it. History must be preserved, even it means young children burning to death or drowning in the cold water of the East River. A moral dilemma on a smaller scale than preventing the Nazi Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide or the horrors of Leopold's "Congo Free State" but much easier and more comprehensible in scale.
Remember too that tragedy often serves as a catalyst for change and reform, and the General Slocum was no exception. The fire caused changes in both safety regulations and the inspection regime. If those reforms hadn't taken place, who knows what disaster would have occurred in the years between that June day 10APR1912, when the Titanic sank, ushering in another set of reforms? Would it have been worse? Would it have involved the privileged, upper class rather than working class immigrants? Many "what ifs" can be played out.
3. Saving someone. This is perhaps mores suited to a mission dumped on the players from outside. The CIA may have a long term forecast that the survival of one person from the Slocum would have crucial long term consequences to their vison. A small, deniable, alteration is decided upon. But who will carry out the mission? Cue the PCs... Remember they're there to save one person out of a thousand who died; perhaps a child, but to let the others, including perhaps their mother and siblings, die.
The consequences of preventing the tragedy are interesting. The greatest damage done that day was to the immigrant German community. Many lost entire families, and a number of widowed men committed suicide in the weeks afterward. The memories were so painful that many moved away, dispersing themselves among the city's population. Ten years later, public opinion toward the Germans changed dramatically with the dawn of the First World War.
What if "Kleindeutschland" had survived and flourished? By the beginning of the 20th century, the families of the original immigrants had already established themselves, becoming solidly respectable shopkeepers and businessmen. Might they have become active in local politics? A significant block in the largest city in America. Had the community grown in strength, how could they have affected US entry into World War I?
1. There's no real evidence of the men, union members from the silk mills in Patterson, New Jersey, being "anarchists" but they seem to have been panicked by a storm when the boat left the safety of New York harbour en route to Rockaway Beach on 17AUG1901.