Life has been good to Tom Chakinis. After fleeing starvation in Greece in 1911, he immigrated to Chicago, where he married, reared four children, and operated two restaurants.
...pointed to the life preservers...
Yet he's lucky to be alive to see his 85th birthday. Sixty-four years ago Tuesday, Chakinis a 21-year-old factory worker, boarded the steamer Eastland in the Chicago River at Clark Street. Minutes later, the boat rolled over on one side, and 812 persons were killed.
Chakinis survived, and he recalls the disaster vividly. He gestures, laughs, and lapses into snatches of Greek as he tells the story he's repeated so often.
"It was a Saturday, 7:30 in the morning," he began. Nearly 2,000 Western Electric Hawthorne plant employees and their families boarded the steamer that day in 1915, bound for a day-long company picnic in Michigan City, Ind. As they waited for the boat to leave, they sang and nibbled at their picnic lunches, Chakinis said.
As they sat in chairs on the top deck, his friend, Ted Hallas, pointed to the life preservers above them and told Chakinis, "Grab onto these in case of an accident."
Chakinis thought little of the comment, for he'd sailed from Greece a few years before with no mishap. It mattered little, for when the boat went over, there was no time to grab at anything.
It was later determined that so many passengers had massed on one side, their weight caused the steamer to roll over.
"The poor people who were sitting on the other side of the boat slid, like vroooooosh," Chakinis said, making a downhill motion with his hand.
Chakinis, who could not swim, slid toward the staircase leading to the lower deck, and lunged for the railing.
He saw hundreds of bodies below him, bodies of people who had been on the lower deck. "I was lucky all the people was under me," he said. "I remember I was standing on somebody's shoulder so I didn't drown."
He later was pulled onto the dock by a fireman.
Ted Hallas was no so lucky. He was swept away as soon as the boat turned over.
Most survivors returned to work immediately, Chakinis said. "The people that survived didn't want to hear anything more about it. You tried to forget."
But Chakinis never really forgot. Years later, he forbade his children from going near the water. He never boarded a boat again.
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reprinted from the Chicago Tribune
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