The Greatest Fake Maritime Tragedy in History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because part of you wants to believe in vengeful sea beasts.
By Jim Knipfel
It was another of those unfathomably huge stories that got lost in the fog of American history — not out of fear this time, and not in order to maintain the status quo, but simply as the result of bad timing.
In November of 1963, the steam-powered Staten Island ferry Cornelius G. Kolff was chugging toward the docks at the Whitehall Street Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan. It was about 4 a.m., and there were an estimated 400 passengers aboard, most of them on their way to work that chilly morning.
According to the few eyewitnesses who were on the docks at the time, as the ferry approached the terminal, the massive tentacles of what is believed to be a giant octopus rose from the water, wrapped around the boat and dragged it below the dark waves as the passengers screamed for help. There were no survivors, and only small bits of debris from the ferry were recovered later. It was the only recorded instance, at least in America, of a giant octopus attacking a ferry, and remains the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. That you likely never heard of the Kolff disaster can be attributed to the fact the ferry was attacked on the morning of November 22, mere hours before John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Just for fun, he says, he used to cart the memorial sculpture out to Battery Park, then step back a ways to watch as people read the plaque before staring worriedly out over the open water.
Now more than half a century later, Staten Island-based artist Joe Reginella is doing what he can to honor the memory of those who were lost that fateful day, and educate the public about the sadly forgotten tragedy. To this end he’s set up a website that includes what sparse news clippings reported the event at the time, as well as a short documentary in which he interviews two of the surviving eyewitnesses. He’s also crafted a bronze memorial sculpture, which can be seen not far from the site of the tragedy in Manhattan’s Battery Park, and has printed up glossy brochures directing tourists to his Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial Museum. The museum, located across the street from Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center, offers historical exhibits, a gift shop, even an octopus petting zoo.
There are only two problems with this. First, the museum doesn’t exist (this hasn’t stopped hundreds of tourists from making the pilgrimage to find it). Second, while the Cornelius G. Kolff did indeed exist, it was never exactly attacked and sunk by a giant octopus.
Reginella, 45, is a sculptor and set designer, who in his spare time pulls media pranks in the grand tradition of George Hull and Joey Skaggs. He describes the ferry disaster memorial as part media hoax, part social experiment and part multimedia artwork, and says it took some six months of planning and setup. For his efforts, he fooled an awful lot of people for several weeks before the ruse was revealed by the New York Post a few weeks ago.
Just for fun, Reginella says, he used to cart the memorial sculpture out to Battery Park, then step back a ways to watch as people read the plaque before staring worriedly out over the open water.
As with all good and effective media pranks, those who were duped — whether Australian tourists or major media outlets — were often none too pleased to learn they’d been played for a sucker. One of the gullible, pissed at having taken several hours out of her day to trek out to Staten Island in search of an address that turned out to be a bus stop, even called Reginella at home to scream at him. But it’s all part of the show, and Reginella takes it in amused stride, saying he can’t understand why people would get so upset about it. As he puts it, “it’s just a joke” — albeit a joke that illustrates how much people are willing to believe even the most fanciful story when it’s presented to them in monument form.
- Jim Knipfel, Jim Knipfel is the author of 10 books and thousands upon thousands of articles about most anything you like. He’s also blind, which means his other senses have been honed to almost superhuman levels, save for those dulled flat by years of chain smoking, alcohol abuse, and punk rock. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, native lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife.Contact Jim Knipfel