When we think of the Eastland, most of us probably imagine the victims. And of course, that’s the way it should be. (Remember the 844!) But the story is larger than that. Incredible heroes stepped forth that day. Among the most unforgettable and certainly the most unique was 18-year-old, Reggie (pronounced like reggae) Bowles, a Chicago north-sider who was repairing motorcycles with his brother in their small shop when a neighbor broke the terrible news.
According to Chicago author, Jay Bonansinga, in his nonfiction book, The Sinking of the Eastland; America's Forgotten Tragedy, Reggie never hesitated. He jumped on one of those broken down bikes and took off for the Chicago River. Reggie saved many lives that day. Yet after all the survivors had been pulled from the river, Reggie remained. A strong swimmer since childhood, Reggie was able to hold his breath under water for almost three minutes. He utilized that “frog-like” skill to search the bowels of the ship for bodies. Again and again, he dove down, fighting fatigue, choking on sewage, working ceaselessly for hours until he finally collapsed on the dock. Police had to “arrest” him for his own good just to get him to give up. He was taken to the local station and given some hot soup.
There were countless heroes at the Chicago River that rainy Saturday when the Eastland capsized. Men and women who sacrificed and risked their own lives, and then caught a trolley and went home. Do you know any of these rescuers? Was your grandfather there? Did your great aunt save a life? Was your uncle working on the docks that day? Do you have a family story to share?
We would all love to hear your tale. Let's bring those selfless heroes to light. Comment to this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to share your news with Chicago.
*The photo is a picture of me with Reggie's grandson, David Bowles, at the sight of the Eastland in July 2012. David was in town to see Eastland, the Musical. His grandfather was a featured story in that play.
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