Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Explosion Of The Westfield II Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry has seen it's fair share of disaster. The first time I remember was in 2003, the driver crashed into the dock at the St. George terminal. The driver of the boat plead guilty to manslaughter, word has it not only was he high but he wasn't properly trained on safety regulations. This deadly crash killed 11 people and injured 70.

The next crash was in 2010, this one was far less of a disaster then the one in 2003. No one was killed and about 37 people where hurt with only 1 serious injury. This was also the same boat, the Andrew Barberi, that was involved in the 2003 crash. This time the crash was due to a mechanical failure, the brakes went out as the boat approached the pier.

But my story is about 1871 so ill just get on with it. On July 30th, 1871 a speical boat was added to the tranist line to help deal with the mass of people traveling on Sunday afternoon. This boat was called the Westfield II. The boat wasn't normally apart of the SIT operations, but on this day was being used by it. The boat had about 400 people abored, and departed out of the City between 1 and 2 o'clock. In between this time one of the boilers under the front deck exploded causing an unspeakable amount of horrified screams and cries among passengers and people along the shore line. The explosion was so forceful The New York Times wrote about it as such: "The boiler exploded with terrific power, the whole end of the boat on which the people were gathered was torn to tatters; fragments went upward and outward. But that mass of humanity! Who can picture! Who dare to even think of it! Lifted into the air, hurled into the water, buried in the debris of the wreck, bruised mangled, scalded, roasted, men, women, children, babes, were mingled in a mass of indescribable horror." The New York Times called the Westfield "The Vessel of Death"
As it was first estimated that there were 40 deaths, but after all the passengers where accounted for it was about 125, with many more injured. This is the worst disaster in the ferry boat history since its opening in 1817. The boat was torn to shreds and there was debris floating in the waters near by. Even people who weren't on the boat where scolded and burnt.

this is a wood carving of bodies being discovered.
Following the disaster Jacob Vanderbilt, the president of the Staten Island Railway at the time, was arrested and brought up on charges for murder. There was much gossip about the man who engineered and designed the boat, for he was a colored man who wasn't really qualified as an engineer and who couldn't read, that didn't sit well with a lot of people at the time. Jacob Vanderbilt defended his employee who he had working for him for 16 years. Vanderbilt managed to escape the murder charges. The cause of the explosion is still unknown, though its thought to have something to do with a lose plate under the boiler that could have gave way. The ferry had been inspected as was deemed safe and usable for the public. The inspector said that there was nothing that seemed to be alarming at the time of the inspection. He also said that he cleared the use of 25 pounds of steam to be used, the most to be used under the legal amount. But the ferry’s superintendent, James Braisted said that the practice of  “carrying steam above the pressure allowed by the Inspector’s certificate was not uncommon” and that he “frequently had to reprimand his engineers for carrying steam in excess of that allowed by law.”

The Times ran a story about the survivors and their accounts of what happened here are a few.

Mrs. Abbie Cowan Phillips, was sitting with her husband, two infant children and paternal grandparents in a closed proximity of the ferry at the time the explosion occurred. Speaking through her son, Mrs. Phillips recollected the event:
"Mr. Phillips said that his mother still recalls the horror of the scenes as the boat went down, but clearest of all are recollections of the part her ofnw family played in the tragedy. The two tiny children and the grandparents were lost. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were taken to the same hospital, but occupied different rooms. The wife was badly burned, and underwent what was then one of the pioneer skin-grafting operations. Mrs. Phillips had been told that her husband survived, but believed the doctors were deceiving her. As a matter of fact, her husband had been blinded, but this the hospital authorities feared to inform her. As Mrs. Phillips was recovering she was allowed to wander from ward to ward. One day as she walked about she was gladden by the sound of her husband’s voice, calling to a nurse for some attention. She rushed to him. Mr. Phillips threw his arms about her, and, in the shock and excitement of the reunion, suddenly regained his sight.
Thought for a time the doctors had abandoned hope, Mr. Phillips lived twenty years after the accident."

 Another eyewitness said:

"the forward part of the boat was lifted fifty feet in the air, the smoke stack fell, and everything was buried in the hold. Many persons were blown overboard. A father and a mother had their children blown from their arms. The water in an instant was alive with men, women, and children struggling for life. A number of persons, it is not known how many, were drowned. The debris in the fore part of the hold was first removed. The cries of the poor half boiled victims were heartrending. Stimulants were given them as they struggled beneath the beams, and oil was poured upon their burns. As fast as the wounded were recovered they were borne to the deck of another ferry boat moored alongside, where they were tenderly cared for. As fast as it could be done, they were removed to the various hospitals of the city."

 The engineer of the boat said:

"I have been employed by the Company for 16 years; I was in the fire-room five minutes before the explosion; asked the fireman, PATRICK FINNEGAN, about the water, and he said it was 'all right'; went to the boiler myself, and found the water above the third cock; went up through the engine room and noticed that the gauge indicated 27 pounds of pressure of steam; then I went on deck; in two minutes I came back, and just as I was going down the stairs to the engine room the explosion took place; I cannot say what caused the explosion; the boiler had a patch on the part where the break was; I examined it three days ago and found it in good condition."

 (* the Westfield II was named after the USS Westfield, this boat was sent out to war. I will do a post on this boat at another date)

1 comment:

  1. wow thats alot of people that died..its cool to read he peoples point of view from seeing it..