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Looking Back At The S.S. Eastland Disaster

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It was 100 years ago this week that one of Chicago's most tragic events occurred.  844 people died in a horrific scene along the Chicago River.And yet, most have never heard of the Eastland Disaster.

Michael McCarthy is author of the book "Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America."  He said the event occurred on a misty Saturday morning in July 1915.

"This large steamship, as large as a football field, is loading up with 2500 people. Most of them are factory workers and poor women and children," he said.

The Eastland was tied to a dock as it accepted passengers for a day trip to Indiana for Western Electric employees.  It was a happy occasion.  Then, things went horribly wrong.

The ship began to rock back and forth violently. 

"It lands on its side. It immediately fills with water.  Hundreds drowned," McCarthy said. No one was found criminally responsible, but he adds that evidence gathered later determined the owners were aware of the ship's stability problem, but had done nothing to solve it. 

A nagging question also focuses on why so many died so close to the dock?

"The scene was incredibly chaotic," he said. "It was just about 19 feet from its dock. The problem was the way the ship was designed, there was really only one main stairwell out from the middle deck out to the top. That stairwell quickly became stampeded by all the people trying to get out."

The stairwell was also turned sideways, making things more difficult.   McCarthy said people were also struggling to grab on to each other, often drowning one or both. Other problems included debris flying off the ship and women in long skirts and dresses, when once wet, made it difficult to swim to safety. 

McCarthy also has an explanation as to why the Eastland Disaster is forgotten by so many.  "None of the passengers were affluent, or prosperous or wealthy," he said. "When you had the Titanic, you had the Unsinkable Molly Brown and other aristocrats who died.  Here, it was all factory workers."

Another reason, World War I. He said he feels the story was buried as the war began.

The Eastland did live on as a ship.  The Navy took over the ship as a training vessel and refurbished it, including correcting the stability flaws. 

That came too late for the 844 aboard the Eastland that fateful day in 1915.

"It's always important to expose how calamity can result when corporations in front of people's safety," McCarthy said.  "There were 22 whole families who died on the Eastland. When I think about that, I realize that this historic tragedy changed the architecture of family trees forever."

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