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Eastland Disaster Centennial

Tue, Jul 28, 2015

S.S._Eastland_c.1911
by Colleen Connolly
On July 24, 1915, the course of Maureen Fitzgerald Fiore’s life was forever changed by Chicago’s biggest disaster, although Fiore hadn’t yet been born.

Fiore’s father, Edward, was 5 years old that day. He, his parents and an 8-year-old brother were all aboard the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River with about 2,500 other people, all Western Electric employees and their families. Meanwhile, Edward’s 16-year-old brother watched the boat from the shore as it prepared to leave the dock.

The S.S. Eastland had just departed from the dock between Clark and LaSalle Streets, ready to take its passengers on a company outing to Michigan City, Ind, when the boat listed heavily toward the river and eventually turned over into the water. A total of 844 passengers and crewmembers were killed. It was Chicago’s biggest disaster in terms of fatalities, but somehow the Eastland tragedy failed to make a permanent mark on the city’s memory. Many people today do not know the disaster ever happened.

Fiore’s father and grandmother survived the tragedy, but her uncle and grandfather were among the 844 who drowned or died from their injuries ashore. Although Fiore would not be born for several more years, the fate of her family members had a lasting impact on her life and the lives of her siblings, children and even grandchildren.

“I cannot talk too much about the disaster to my grandchildren because I think it’s too heavy for kids, and I think kids get bombarded with the news and the shootings and the hurricanes and the tornadoes,” Fiore, a retired teacher, said. “And I think we have to make it positive in some way. I say, ‘Something terrible happened, but the good news is your Grandpa Fitzgerald survived, and if it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t be together in this moment.’”

Today, 100 years after the Eastland disaster, Fiore and her siblings, children and grandchildren symbolize the legacy of a tragedy that left many Chicagoans traumatized. Despite the loss, however, the survivors moved on, and many of them grew families whose members still live in the Chicago area today.

tippingThe Eastland disaster does not have a page in many history books, and it didn’t leave as big an imprint on the American imagination as other disasters, like Titanic, for example. The survivors of the Eastland disaster and their friends and family, however, have quietly ensured that the memories of those lost in 1915 have not been forgotten.

Ted Wachholz, along with his wife, Barbara Decker Wachholz, and her sister Susan Decker, founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in 1998 to bring awareness of the disaster to the general public. Barbara and Susan’s grandmother was a survivor of the disaster who died decades later at the age of 90. Her story inspired them to start the non-profit organization a few years later.

There are many reasons the Eastland disaster is lesser known than other similar tragedies, but one of those reasons is that the passengers on the ship were ordinary people. Many of them were immigrants or children of immigrants primarily from Eastern Europe, and they were not rich or famous.

“They may not have bronze, larger-than-life-sized statues erected on granite or marble pedestals in the parks and on the boulevards, but that doesn’t mean that their lives aren’t worth remembering, their legacies aren’t worth preserving,” Wachholz said. “You don’t have to be rich or famous to have a legacy.”

There are still no bronze statues of the passengers on the Eastland, but today there is a small plaque by the Chicago Riverwalk commemorating the disaster.

In an attempt to raise more awareness about the Eastland in time for the centennial anniversary of the tragedy, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society organized “The Chicago Trial That Never Was.” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke presided over the mock criminal trial, with Dan Webb of Winston & Strawn LLP representing the defendants and Bob Clifford of Clifford Law Offices as the prosecutor. On the stand, so to speak, were six men who had roles in the disaster, including the president, vice president and two administrators of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., the company that owned the S.S. Eastland.

Immediately after the disaster in 1915, a criminal trial was held in Grand Rapids, Mich., but there was no jury. All defendants were found not guilty, and the families of the victims received hardly anything in compensation.

Western Electric was not held responsible either as the company did not sponsor the outing; an employee organization did. And while mistakes were certainly made, there was not enough evidence to convict the ship’s owners. The S.S. Eastland was never inspected for stability in its 12 years of service, for example, but in 1915 an inspection was not required by law. Today, it is optional for inspectors to order a stability test if they feel it is necessary, a rule that was inspired by the Eastland tragedy.

The “trial that never was” was brought to Chicago 100 years after the disaster, and this time the defendants were tried before a jury and an audience. The purpose was not to actually convict anyone, but rather to bring a sense of justice to the families of the victims, some of whom were in the audience, and to remind Chicago of its worst tragedy.

“I’m a proponent of learning through history,” Justice Burke said. “There’s nothing really too new on the face of the earth. If we don’t learn history we’re never going to be able to understand why we are where we are today — in the law, for instance.”

In the centennial trial, the jury and audience made a split decision. Five members of the jury voted not guilty, and one voted guilty. In the audience, 58 percent declared the defendants not guilty and the rest said they believed some or all of them were guilty.

According to both Wachholz and Justice Burke, the real difference between 2015 and 1915 is how the civil trial would have proceeded. Today, the families of the victims would have received much more money in compensation. The shipping company paid only $46,000 in 1915, and most of it did not go to the families, who could have received up to $8.5 million in damages, or $10,000 per victim’s family, according to Wachholz.

Many of the victims of the Eastland disaster were women and children, and their losses devastated their families, who had to continue on without them. Remarkably, nearly 75 percent of the victims were under the age of 25. and their youth made their deaths that much more difficult for the surviving family members to bear.

Survivor Anges Latowski

Survivor Anges Latowski

Agnes Latowski was one of those survivors who suffered egregiously at the loss of family. At the time, Agnes was a 22-year-old employee at Western Electric. She was taking the trip on the S.S. Eastland with her 24-year-old brother and her 25-year-old sister, who was Agnes’ best friend, according to her granddaughter Paula Erickson.

The three siblings gathered in the lounge area on the lower deck when the ship set sail, but Agnes left her brother and sister to use the washroom upstairs when the ship tipped over. Agnes was able to push open the porthole in the washroom and jump into the water, where someone threw a life preserver to her, but her siblings were crushed under the weight of the boat and they drowned in the river.

“It was so traumatizing for her,” Erickson said. “She really would not talk about the day at all. At the time, she had beautiful long black hair. She was 22 at the time. By the age of 30, it was completely gray. It was that traumatizing for her.”

Despite the trauma of the disaster, however, Agnes was able to go on with her own life, and she got married and had three children, including Erickson’s father. After Agnes passed away in 1968, her children began to research the disaster as a way to remember their mother and gain a better understanding of how it impacted her life and, indirectly, their lives. Erickson and her four siblings have continued the task.

“As hard as it was on our family, we hear the stories of whole families who were wiped out,” Erickson said. “It’s just mind-boggling. It’s a huge maritime disaster for the U.S., and people just don’t even know about it.

“I think with the 100th anniversary coming up at the end of July, it’s a great opportunity for us to honor their legacy and to tell the story of what happened and to bring to light the families that have gone on and the generations that have gone on, to make sure we never ever forget what happened that day.”

Like Erickson and her family, Fiore has delved into the history of the Eastland disaster to try to remember her father as well. Although he survived the catastrophe, he died at a young age, when Fiore was only 7 years old. Her memory of him, as well as her memories of her uncles and grandparents, is directly tied to the disaster. When the plaque was erected near the Chicago Riverwalk in 2000, Fiore attended the ceremony with a crowd of people that included a survivor.

“I thought I could just feel the presence of the spirits of my grandparents, my uncles, my father, just feeling like I know they’re up there looking down and just happy that they haven’t been forgotten and that I’m here at this dedication,” Fiore said.

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society will host the 100th Anniversary Commemoration from July 24-26. The weekend events will honor the victims, survivors, heroes, first responders and all others involved in the disaster. Activities include a Chicago River cruise, a sunset ceremony and concert at the Chicago Riverwalk as well as several events to connect families of the victims and survivors.

eastlandcurrentsiteFor more information, visit eastlanddisaster.org.

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