Libby Hruby can still remember exactly how her sister pulled her out of the SS Eastland and saved her from drowning when the vessel capsized 88 years ago in the Chicago River.
"Somehow she got into position and I put my hand up, and she pulled me closer," said Hruby, 98. "Then she pushed me from the back and boosted me over the railing, and I was able to stand up."
Hruby, another survivor and relatives of survivors gathered Thursday at the site of the disaster--Wacker Drive between Clark and LaSalle Streets--to dedicate a new Eastland memorial plaque. The original plaque has been missing since April 2000 when it was taken down to repaint a wall. A small plaque marked the spot during the renovation of Wacker.
The original plaque was the idea of a group of students from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. They had studied the disaster for a class project in 1989, and in June of that year a plaque was dedicated at the site.
"I think it should have been done a long time ago," Hruby said. "It's important because so many people perished."
The Eastland disaster is among the worst in U.S. maritime history and is Chicago's worst single disaster in terms of loss of life. Only recently, however, has there been renewed interest in the disaster.
"Very little was spoken about it, but it's something that everybody should remember," said Salvatore Pisano, 88, who was 3 months old when his mother panicked and refused to board the Eastland. Pisano tried to start a memorial group in 1940 but found few supporters.
A few years ago, he met sisters Susan Decker and Barbara Wachholz, who had founded the Eastland Disaster Historical Society in 1998. Their grandmother had been trapped between decks of the Eastland but lived to tell them the story. With their network of survivors and survivors' descendants, they have collected artifacts and set up displays at museums to keep the memory of the Eastland alive.
According to Wachholz, the Eastland had been plagued by stability problems for several years before the accident. The day of the accident, it was filled to capacity and was carrying extra lifeboats, added after the Titanic sank in 1912.
While others watched in horror, Hruby and her sister and brother-in-law got away as quickly as they could.
"We got on the elevated train and went home," she said. "We never looked back."
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