The Eastland Disaster – the 94th Anniversary

July 24 is an important date in Greater Chicago Red Cross history. It was on this day in 1915 that the Chapter provided its first disaster response just six weeks after it was founded. Despite the abbreviated time since the Chapter’s founding, the Greater Chicago Red Cross was on the scene of a steam boat that had rolled over in the Chicago River within one hour of the catastrophe.

This was the largest disaster in Chicago history. Of the more than 2,500 Western Electric employees that had boarded the steam boat, 844 lost their lives. During the initial rescue effort, when the wholesale grocer’s building was set up as a command center near the disaster scene, the Red Cross quickly secured enough operators to work the switchboard and set up offices for other assisting agencies. When the Armory was opened as a central morgue, Red Cross established first aid stations and rooms for families to rest. The Red Cross also supervised installation of extra phones in the Armory before family members were admitted. Red Cross nurses were on hand to help families deal with the trauma of losing loved ones.

A third Red Cross relief site was opened at the Western Electric plant, located in the neighborhood where most of the affected families lived. City Health Department nurses visited homes of 500 families known to need relief and recorded the information on Red Cross forms. The nurses called into the relief site at Western Electric when they found a family with urgent needs. Immediately, a relief worker from Red Cross or Western Electric would leave to visit the family, taking whatever the nurse said would be needed, including cash, a physician or an interpreter.

The aid didn’t stop once the initial shock of the incident came to a close. The Red Cross continued to provide monetary and medical assistance – as well as guidance to help them rebuild their lives – for three years following the event.

The Greater Chicago Red Cross response to the situation established the organization as a professional relief force and post-crisis stronghold in Chicago. We’ve been here for 94 years, and we’ll continue to be here to help people in the future.

–Gentry Lassiter is an intern in the Marketing & Communications department of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago.
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One response

  1. The response to the Eastland Disaster by the Chicago Chapter of the American Red Cross was remarkable, even more so in light of the fact that its offices had only opened its doors several weeks prior to the tragedy. The Red Cross' management of the $500,000+ in relief funds and the Red Cross' algorithm for determining an equitable allocation to the victims' families were unprecedented. In fact this same algorithm was sent to Washington, D.C. as a reference guide shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.It is terrific that you blog (and issue a press release) about this important part of Chicago's and the Red Cross' history.Regards,Ted WachholzExecutive DirectorEastland Disaster Historical Society1-877-865-6295

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