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domingo, noviembre 9

The Eastland: the other Titanic

(A text written by Mark Steinborn in Speak up magazine)

The Titanic was the newest, most luxurious passenger ship on the seas when it was launched. Yet it sank on its first voyage. Why?

There were many factors. To begin with, it was night. The hole in the hull was just long enough to sink it. Another ship was near enough to see the Titanic's flares for help, but failed to come to her rescue.

Yet there was one more factor: human error. The ship was moving too fast for the dangerous waters. If the Titanic had been moving more slowly, the calamity might never have happened.

A similar tragedy occurred in the harbour of Chicago, in the United States, three years after the Titanic sank. The Eastland, a passenger ship, was built in 1903. It was popular for vacations on the water before the automobile became America's way to travel.

But even from the first day, there were concerns about the Eastland's safety. The ship was 82 metres long but had a width of only 11 metres. She was more than seven times longer than she was wide. Despite early fears, however, the Eastland was a profitable passenger ship for more than a decade.

By the end of the 1914 season, though, the teak deck of the Eastland was wearing out. Instead of replacing it with expensive hardwood, a new wonder material, cement, was chosen. Cement decking added much weight, high above the waterline.

After the Titanic sank in 1912, new United States laws required ships to carry enough lifeboats for all passengers. The Eastland had to add many more lifeboats, all of them on upper decks - making the ship more top-heavy than ever. This last change made the ship vulnerable. But even this combination of problems - design flaw, shortsighted maintenance, concrete above the water line, and new lifeboat laws - were not enough to cause a tragedy. The last factor was human error.

On 24th July 1915, the Western Electric Company of Chicago chartered the Eastland and two other passenger ships for a private voyage for employees and their families on Lake Michigan. The Eastland was the first ship in line in the harbour. Thousands of people wanted to board the ship as quickly as they could. There was no real control of the number of people boarding. Authorities estimated that close to 2,500 people crowded onto the Eastland's decks and bridges while the ship was still anchored at the dock. As more climbed aboard, the ship began to roll ever so slightly. The roll sped up until the ship turned over in the harbour. Some passengers jumped off, some were thrown off. Hundreds of others were knocked unconscious, or trapped below decks.

Many people couldn't swim, and the foreigners among the passengers made communication difficult. Nearby ironworkers rushed to the floating keel and began cutting holes in it to help those trapped below deck. But it was too late.

About 835 people died that day, virtually all of them passengers. Who could imagine such a loss of life in the harbour, in front of a calm lake? Most frightening of all, the Eastland passengers did not die at night. They did not die in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Rather, it was on a hot summer day, only a few feet from safety, in front of other horrified passengers who would have boarded the fated ship - had there been time. 

Want to know more? The Eastland tragedy inspired two societies: the Eastland Memorial Society, which was founded by the grandson of a survivor, and the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, which also has a museum in Chicago, USA. 

For more information about the tragedy and the museum in Chicago, check: