It was one of the largest maritime disasters in American history, the fire and sinking of the Steamship Saale on June 30, 1900.
The SS Saale owned by the North German Lloyd Steamship Company, had been built in Glasgow in 1886. The Saale was capable of carrying 1,240 passengers, 150 of which were able to use the First Class accommodation, 90 Second Class berths were available, and up to a thousand steerage passengers would be held deep in the belly of the ship.
The ship normally sailed between Bremen, Germany, Southampton, England and New York City, New York.
During the afternoon of June 30, 1900 the Saale was at the busy docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, along with the Kaiser Wilhelm der Große, Main and Bremen all owned by North German Lloyd Steamship Company, were tied to piers 1, 2 and 3. The docks were full of longshoremen and crew from the ships. The Saale had just loaded her passengers, ready to sail to Southhampton.
It was a windy day, and right before departure some cotton on the docks caught fire. The winds quickly fanned the flames, igniting some barrels of oil and turpentine, which in return very quickly caused an even larger blaze.
As the wood docks began to burn, it was evident that little could be done to save those who could not save themselves. The flames continue to be driven by wind and the ships at the dock became sitting ducks for a fire that was almost instantly out of control.
The Kaiser Wilhelm was able to get away from the docks, but the Saale, Main and Bremen couldn't do a thing. Crew and passengers who were on deck jumped into the Hudson River. Those below deck never stood a chance.
Those who were in cabins, not the steerage passengers, were unable to escape their cabins, as the portholes were too small. The steerage passengers, not permitted above deck, were doomed to the depths of the Hudson when the Saale sunk as a result of the ship being filled with water in an attempt to put out the fire. Most of the steerage passengers were said later to have drown aboard.
Only four years later, on May 29, 1904, disaster would strike again at the rebuilt piers, this time with no loss of life. What makes this incident so important are two particular details. The first, is the fact that there were other vessels in the harbor who could have offered assistance to those who jumped into the water. Yet, at least on one occasion, the struggling victim was to told to "get away from my ship."
The second detail, very hard to imagine was the fact that though the newspapers went on and on about the crew and dock workers who were killed or injured in the fire, 80 of them buried in a mass funeral, not a single word could be found about passengers who had perished in the belly of the beast.
There were 361 attributed deaths, which included the dock workers and crews of the ships. But, clearly a third of the deaths were passengers, who were quickly forgotten.
Scouring hundreds of pages of newspaper articles, while I could find name after name of crew, not a single passenger man, woman or child name could be found, while at least 90 of them died aboard.
It was as if the world had turned the back on those who paid for that ship to sail and paid for the salaries of those who worked aboard. It was one of the saddest commentaries on the American experience at the beginning of the 20th century.
Though on the anniversary of the tragedy, the longshoremen and crew were honored, year after year.
The one good thing that came out of this horrible event, was legislation that required portholes be constructed large enough that an average size person could exit them in an emergency.