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Rare footage from century-old Chicago shipwreck unearthed

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When a passenger ship carrying 2,500 people rolled over in the Chicago River in 1915, those onboard scrambled to climb on the ship’s side. Rescue workers and volunteers tried to save them, but hundreds drowned. The shipwreck became known as one of the deadliest disasters in Chicago’s history.

Now, footage from that day — July 24, 1915 — has been found in Dutch newsreels by a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It shows first responders attempting to rescue passengers stranded on the ship.

“The significance of the clip is that it allows historians, in a way, to verify witness testimony,” Jeff Nichols, a 43-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The Washington Post. He said he found the footage late last week on a European Union-funded Web site while working on his dissertation about World War I. “Memories are fallible, but this allows us to compare it to testimony and piece together some of the rescue efforts.”

On that day in 1915, the SS Eastland was toting Western Electric workers and their families across Lake Michigan to a company picnic at a park in Michigan City, Ind. The ship was not well designed and was top-heavy with rescue gear. And, as passengers crowded on one side of the boat to wave at other boats carrying their crew, the ship capsized, sending passengers into the water, according to the Associated Press. The maritime disaster left 844 people dead.

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“It just wasn’t stable,” Ted Wachholz, Eastland Disaster Historical Society’s chief historian, told CBS Chicago.

“Even today, I still really can’t fathom what it would have been like to experience even one small part of it,” he added.

Nichols found the footage late last week and posted it on his Facebook page. He said he thought it had been suppressed because “it was too hard to watch the film, the emotions were too raw. It seemed ghoulish.” But historians believe more footage exists because movie cameras can be seen in the clip. Nichols told the Chicago Tribune he guessed other copies were either ruined or lost in storage, waiting to be converted to digital form.

EYE Film Instituut Nederland confirmed to the AP that it had the clip in its archives.

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“Looking at the clip, there’s just a real emotional impact,” Nichols said. “You get to see the scale of what happened.”

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society apparently had been searching for the footage over the years. When Wachholz saw it, he said he got “chills.”

“Seeing actual firemen and policemen and other responders engaged in the rescue and recovery, seeing the movement of the Chicago River, seeing the debris floating on the river, and just seeing that actually in motion is just so much different than still pictures,” he told Fox Chicago.

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