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Mid Village group keeps memory of 1904 fire alive

More than 1,000 people - mostly women and children - died when the wooden steamboat burst into flames in the Hell Gate channel along the western Queens shore.Of its 1,358 passengers, 1,021 burned to death or drowned - nearly seven times the number that perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Yet the Triangle blaze would be remembered as the city's most infamous 19th century disaster.But for more than 100 years, a Middle Village historic group has kept alive the memory of the Slocum tragedy with an annual ceremony at a memorial in Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery where 61 unidentified victims were buried because there was no room for them in Manhattan.About three dozen local residents gathered to sing hymns and lay flowers at the base of the 20-foot-high granite monument Saturday, marking 100 years since the dedication of the tribute."We remember with all our hearts those wonderful people," said the Rev. C.G. Stone. "The tragedy of 9/11 was something that reinforced - if you will - the tragedy of this event," said state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R- Glendale).The boat was chartered by the St. Mark's German Lutheran Church for an annual picnic on the north shore of Long Island. The congregation was located in the heavily German community on the Lower East Side known as Kleindeutschland. The boat departed at 9:40 a.m. from the East 3rd Street pier. Twenty minutes later, a fire was discovered in a forward cabin as the steamer was passing through the treacherous Hell Gate, where the Triborough Bridge now spans the river.Unable to beach on the rocky shore, the captain made the deadly decision of pushing on another mile and a half to the North Brother Island. The increased speed fanned the flames, which were also accelerated by a fresh coat of highly flammable paint.The inexperienced crew provided no help. The lifeboats were wired in place. Women and children jumped overboard. Most passengers drowned because few New Yorkers at the time knew how to swim. The 2,500 life jackets were useless - filled with rotten cork. Those who put them on sank.The funerals lasted a week. A procession from St. Mark's to All Faiths in Middle Village involved 156 horses and stretched for almost mile.Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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