On August 9, 1841, the Erie departed Buffalo carrying 343 passengers. It was a windy day and many of the passengers were in their berths with seasickness. In the early evening, there was “a slight explosion, a hissing sound and a cry of ‘Fire!'” Within minutes 254 lives were lost.
A survivor of the ill-fated steamship, Andrew Blila came with his family to America in 1833, he was a child of three years at the time, one the first of the German settlers to arrive in Erie. When the Erie went into commission as part of the Reed fleet of streams on that August day in 1841, Blila shipped as a boy to attend upon the wheelmen. He was then 13 years of age, but a sturdy boy and not unfamiliar with the duties of the position he was filling. The crew of the boat were accommodated on the main deck, the engineers having their quarters on the starboard side, abaft the paddle wheels, and the wheelmen on the port side, directly opposite the engineers.
That night Mr. Blila was in the wheelmens stateroom, preparing for his nights rest, and along with him was Jerome McBride, a wheelman, brother of Dennis McBride, a mate of the Erie. The first intimation Mr. Blila and his mate had of trouble on the ship was an unusual sound, not to be described, so unusual that Mr. Blila remarked it, and asked what it could be. “Oh, its nothing,” said McBride. “Perhaps they have blown out a boiler head or something of that sort has occurred.”
But the noise continued. It was something like a mixture of roaring and crackling with trampling of feet mingled, and again Blila spoke of it; but the sailor tried to quiet the boy, and by assuring him that there could be nothing the matter, urged him to lie down. It was impossible, without investigating, so young Blila went to the door and opening it was confronted with a solid wall of fire. Slamming the door to, he told McBride what he had seen; that the ship was in flames. Then he proposed to break the window and escape through that into the water, but McBride said no.
“We will try another plan,” said he. Then seizing a blanket, he held it spread out in front of him and as high up as possible, and telling the boy to follow close upon his heels, he opened the door and rushed through the flames. There was not a moment to spare, and it seemed as though McBride had, in the second of thought he had given it, completely planned out the escape. But a few feet away the gang plank lay upon the deck. This he seized and threw overboard, telling the boy to jump out and get aboard of it. McBride himself followed but he was fearfully burned and was in excruciating agony. With their hands they paddled away from the vicinity of the burning ship. They were among the very last to be picked up by the boats of the Clinton, which had come to the rescue.
Mr. Blila spoked of the circumstance with reluctance, partly for the reason that, notwithstanding the startling character of that tragic event, so little of the details of the scene can be recalled. As a matter of fact he saw but very little of it. Possibly not more than five seconds of time elapsed between the discovery of the fire and the plunge into the waves. There was not time even for thought and the whole occurrence is scarcely more in the retina of his memory than a trouble dream. So when he was asked about the burning of the Erie, he said that he had remembered so little about it that it is not worth while to repeat it. And yet it is one of the most marvelous of experiences and most miraculous of escapes.
He came through is terrible ordeal unscathed. Far different was it with poor Jerome McBride, who had been the means of saving the call-boy's life. His burns were so severe that he died of them after reaching his home in Erie.