Adele Martha “Tiby” Liebenow Wotherspoon, a retired teacher who is believed to be the last survivor of the deadly 1904 fire and sinking of the General Slocum ferry, died on Jan. 26. Cause of death was not released. She was 100.
Wotherspoon was only 6 months old when the excursion ferry caught fire on June 15, 1904. The 264-foot-long steamboat was taking members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church up the East River to the Locust Grove Picnic Ground on Long Island when straw in a forward storage room was accidentally set ablaze by an errant cigarette.
The lifeboats on board the ferry were old and glued to the deck with layers of paint. Life preservers filled with disintegrated cork were wired down. And the inexperienced crew, which had never practiced a single fire drill, followed the orders of the captain, William Van Schaick, who refused to steam to shore.
When the boat finally docked, 1,021 of the approximately 1,300 people on board had perished. Until Sept. 11, 2001, the General Slocum fire was New York City’s deadliest tragedy, and one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. Schaick, who sold fire extinguishers after the ferry incident, was convicted of negligence and served three years of a 10-year sentence in Sing Sing.
Wotherspoon’s mother, Anna Libenow, was on fire when she jumped into the water, carrying her infant daughter. The left side of Anna’s body was badly burned. Her father, Paul Libenow, also escaped. Although he was severely injured, Paul spent weeks searching area hospitals for his missing daughters. The other members of Wotherspoon’s family — two sisters, three aunts, an uncle and two cousins — did not survive.
Wotherspoon attended Plainfield High School, then studied education at Trenton Normal School, now known as the College of New Jersey. From 1925 to 1961, she taught business administration at her high school alma mater. The remaining years of her life were spent in retirement, and occasionally giving interviews or attending events to memorialize the General Slocum tragedy.