"I am a sailor by occupation; am twenty-two years old, and I live at Sheboygan, where I spent last winter. At 3 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon I went on the Sea Bird to come to Chicago, as it was about time to look for a vessel to go on. There were eight or ten others besides myself who left Sheboygan on the Sea Bird. Among those were John O'Brien, a comrade of mine, aged twenty-one years, a man named Gallagher, and Piercy, who stopped in Sheboygan during the winter, but who lives in Detroit. There were two ladies, besides, whose names I do not know. There were about 100 people on board the boat, including the crew, I should judge. There were eight or ten ladies on board, and seven or eight small children.
"I went into my berth about 11 o'clock. At about 3 o'clock in the morning I remember we stopped at Racine, but I don't know whether anyone got on board. The cargo of the Sea Bird consisted of all sorts. There were many boxes and bales, several bags of wool, etc.
"I got up early this (Thursday) morning---about 5 o'clock. I had been up about an hour and a half, I should think, when I saw smoke arising on the main deck, in the port quarter, and just below the ladies cabin. The smoke I had hardly noticed when I saw a blaze spring up. The fire seemed to have been kindled right on deck. There were a lot of tubs and some straw lying near, and the fire got among them right away. I at once cried out "Fire! fire!" Several of the crew who were up came hurrying to where the fire was, the bell was rung, and the passengers who were not up before came tumbling out of their berths and state-rooms. Instantly there was great confusion, and with this the fire increased so rapidly as made me convinced that it must have been burning a long time before I discovered it. The fire was a long way aft of the engine and boiler in the port quarter. The flames sprung up, and spread almost instantly into the ladies' cabin overhead, throughout the freight on the main deck; it did not seem to take five minutes before the after part of the boat was all on fire. The fire spread into the ladies cabin so rapidly that I do not think all the women had time to leave it I heard some one say that some of the ladies and children were burned.
"We all rushed into the forward part of the boat. Back of the engine the boat was all in flames. Some of the crew tried to get at the small boats, which were aft. I went with them, but we did not get farther than the smoke stack. It was no use trying; the whole after part was burning up, and the boats themselves were on fire. I was perfectly cool all the time. I knew the boat was "going up," and somehow or other I felt that I was all right. So I waited about ten minutes, I think, before I, with the assistance of five or six others, shoved the gangplank overboard.
"During this time the flames were making great headway, and in five or six minutes after the fire was first seen by me the engines stopped working. All the passengers had crowded into the bow, and some of them, the women and children, especially, were crying and wringing their hands and moaning in a way pitiful to see and hear. Six or seven of us shoved the gangplank over, just forward of the paddle boxes. I waited until the gangplank had floated past, and then I jumped. I was the first man overboard. I swam to the gangplank, and ten or fifteen other followed me. So many of us on the plank caused it to sink, and we all had hard work to keep it and ourselves up.
"I got along pretty well, until three or four, seeing that I was holding my own, got around by me and took hold of me. I shook them all off, except a colored boy, the cook's helper. He put both arms about my neck, and I could not shake him off. I then helped him to get on the plank, and one man, who was about twenty-five years old, and wore a mustache and whiskers, caught hold of my wrist and drew me on the plank. Johnnie O'Brien I helped on the plank two or three times. He was washed off almost as soon as I could get him on. We all struggled hard, but there wasn't a man said a word. I got hold of one of the gangplank ropes, and I stuck to it until I was picked off. I could see about me men having hold of boxes, chairs, fenders, and two men I saw clinging to a bag of wool. We floated past the bag, and one of the men said to me---he wasn't more than ten feet away---"You're going pretty fast." There was a heavy sea, and after we had been in the water fifteen or twenty minutes, a swell lifted the plank and capsized it. All who had hold of it, except me, were washed away, and I did not see any of them any more. I was chilled through.
"The water was almost at freezing point. I was just able to climb on to the gangplank after the rest had gone, and I knew that if I staid in the water I could not live long. So I stood up on the gangplank and steadied myself by the ropes. I had all my clothes on, and these were soon frozen so they were stiff. As I stood on the gangplank, all alone by myself, I had no thought of death; the same confidence I had felt in being saved, from the first, still clung to me.
"I looked about me, and, though the sea was rolling heavily, I could see the lake's surface dotted here and there with pieces of the wreck, to many of which men were clinging. About half a mile away I saw one of the boat's fenders, and a woman was clinging to it. As I watching her I saw her disappear under a swell. I saw the fender afterwards, but she was gone. The boat drifted to the leeward, in shore, much faster than I on the gangplank. About twenty minutes after I had left her, I saw the crowd of passengers all gathered on the hurricane deck. Many of the men were stripped to their shirts. Nearly all of them had life preservers or were lashed to tables, planks, boxes and doors. This was about the last I saw of the boat. I did not hear any screaming or cries; the sea made a noise that drowned all that. The last I noticed particularly about the wreck she was burned almost to the water's edge, and the walking beam was just falling in.
"I was chilled through, and felt myself freezing. I did not dare let go of the ropes, for if I did I would be washed away. So I changed hands, although my fingers were soon frozen stiff. About 9 o'clock I saw a schooner bearing south, about two miles away, and under full sail. I know they saw me on board, and I know they must have seen the burning wreck; but they did not bear down on me, and kept right on. It was freezing just like winter, and I could not have held out much longer, when, about ten o'clock, I saw a schooner, which had been four or five miles to windward, tack about and bear down on me. This proved to be the Cornelia. She passed me first and went down to the wreck, to the leeward. She sent out her small boat, and took off Chamberlin from the forward netting, and then came back for me. About 11 o'clock they took me off. I was pretty near frozen. I went into the cabin where I took off my clothes and dried them. We arrived in Chicago about a quarter past 4, and I at once went to a doctor, who gave me something to take, and something for my hands, which were frozen."67
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