THE SLOCUM INQUEST.
The further trend of the coroner’s inquest on the Slocum tragedy was to confirm all the more the evidence of neglect on the part of the Knickerbocker company that owns the ship to have her properly found in men, fire apparatus and the means of escaping from death by fire or water. It has, also, been shown that the crew was not drilled for service in firefighting, and that, when the supreme moment arose, they were utterly helpless through lack of training, numbers and proper apparatus to do anything towards quelling the progress of the flames, while, through lack of adequate facilities for escape, it was impossible for more than a very small minority to escape injury or death. As to the conduct of the chief engineer, whether he ever really attempted to perform his duties in the way of fighting the fire, or whether he stuck to his post or deserted it, opinions are at variance, and he, of course, will not condemn himself. In the same way, from the testimony of others, as adduced at the inquest, it is equally impossible to pass judgment on Captain Van Schaick, whether or not he could have beached the boat sooner or in a better place, or whether he acted wisely in going full speed up Hell Gate, with the fire blazing forward, thereby driving the flames aft upon the passengers crowded round the paddleboxes and stern. At present there seems an inclination to hold the captain guiltless of even an error of judgment, and to claim that he did the best that could be done under the awful conditions. What the coroner and jury, who have personally gone over the scene of the disaster, and examined the hull of the Slocum, now in the Erie basin, wish to know, is, whether there was a fire abroad the ship during an excursion party on the day or a day or two before the disaster, and where and how the fire started. Except such as vague rumors and anonymous letters afford, there is at present no evidence of any previous fire having broken out. As to the origin: There seems to be no doubt that the fire started in a barrel of salt hay that -stood in a store room forward. But whether it was due to spontaneous combustion or to the carelessness of some smoker cannot be at present (is not likely to be) ascertained. Former Fire Marshal Freel, of the New York city fire department, as an expert witness, testified on board the burned hull that, after examining the compartment in which the fire started, he found three barrels of straw, in some of which glasses were packed, a number of barrels and cans of oil and a partly burned barrel the size of an ordinary flour barrel, which contained salt hay, and in which the fire started. He showed that the staves were charred at the lower ends, and that their charred stumos still remained a part of the barrel; also, that both these parts of the staves, as well as the stumps, were charred only on the inside, and not burned through. Furthermore, the bottom of the barrel was burned only on the inside. None of the other barrels were burned at all, and of the great mass of stuff in the compartment little, if any was damaged by fire at all. He decided, therefore, that the fire started in the hay in that barrel, that it smouldered for awhile, then blazed up and burned until whatever dry hay there might have been in the barrel was consumed. The hatch to. the compartment being open, and there being a strong head wind, the flames were drawn up through the hatchway and communicated to other parts of the boat, without spreading in the compartment where the fire started. Commander Cameron Winslow, U. S. A., one of the government’s commission appointed to investigate the Slocum disaster, visited the wreck, accompanied by a stenographer, Inspector General George Uhler of the United States Steamboat Inspection Bureau, and Robert S. Rodie supervising inspector of the port of New York. Commander Winslow inspected the wreck from stem to stern, and then said there was no evidence of any explosion. The verdict of the coroner’s jury in the Slocum case is one of manslaughter against the directors of the Knickerbocker company, the owners of the boat. Captain Van Schaick, Mate Flanagan, and Federal Inspector Lundberg. The dominant idea in the verdict is that of neglect of duty, carelessness as to the findings of the ship, incompetency, and general neglect of duty so far as regards inspection, etc. The Knickerbocker officials specially named are Frank A. Barnaby, president, James K. Atkinson, secretary and general passenger and traffic manager, and both of them managing directors, and Captain John A. Pease, of the Grand Republic, who, as commodore of the fleet, with the others, should have seen to the equipment of the Slocum with a “proper and suitable fire extinguishing equipment, and an efficient and well-drilled complement of disciplined men to operate the same in case of emergency, and, also, to have provided the said steamboat with such number and character of good, efficient, and available lifepreservers, and with other life-saving appliances as w’ould best secure the safety of all persons on board in case of fire or other disaster.” Instead of so doing, “they and each of them did not only wholly neglect and omit so to do, but, on the contrary, supplied and had on board of the said steamboat on June 15, 1904, a wholly improper and unsuitable fire extinguishing equipment, and a wholly inefficient and undrilled complement of men, all of whom were undisciplined, as well as an insufficient number of good and available life-preservers and other life-saving appliances to secure properly the safety of the persons on board the said vessel in case of disaster.” All were arrested and held in bail. The assistant engineer and some of the crew were committed to the House of Detention and held as witnesses. In his evidence before the coroner Captain Van Schaick practically admitted that the life-preservers were old, that the inspection by Lundberg both of these and the hose (some of which had never been detached from the standpipe since it was attached to it) was virtually a farce. He swore that he had had three fre drills since the boat had gone into commission, but could not remember the dates. Flanagan, the mate, had no license. One witness saw the crew trying to uncoil the hose without success, and no water came throught it or the standpipe. 1 hen the crew jumped overboard. One boy swore that, when he told the captain that the ship was on fire, the latter told him to go to hell cut of that and mind his own business. Supervising Inspector General Dumont, the superior of Inspector Lundberg, said that the latter was only a probationer and learning the work. He added that, technically, the Slocum had no hold and that it was no part of the duty of an assistant inspector to test life-preservers for contents or buoyancy, this being done before they left the manufacturers’ shops. He said an inspector would assume prima facie that the life-preservers were all right if they had the government stamp on them. Lundberg testified that he found the hose all right, but had not tested it, although the regulations say: “Fire hose tested for pressure of — pounds.” He had answered that question: “Good order.” as all others had done. He had never been told to test the hose in any other way. He, like other inspectors, had never lowered the life-boats, which looked all right, and he had so certified. He turned the valve on the standpipe, but no water came through. Still he had certified that the valves were all right, and that the hose would stand a pressure of 150 pounds. He said there was 100 feet of hose on some standpipes and fifty feet on others. He knew, also, that the law requires that fire hose shall stretch from the pipe to which it is attached to all parts of the ship. On being asked how fifty feet of hose would stretch all over a 255-foot boat, he said: “Well, there were other sections that could be coupled to it in case of emergency.” He “just looked to see that the couplings were the same size. They were all right.”
From all accounts the Hale Firefighters’ exhibit at the St. Louis Fair takes in more money than any other show on the Pike.