05 April 2012


     Were your ancestors involved in a disaster? Killed in a fire or train wreck? Or, perhaps, involved in a rescue operation? Much family history can be preserved by researching the event.
Laura Jakubowski
      My great aunt Laura Jakubowski perished in the Hollingshead "Whiz" fire in Camden, New Jersey, on July 30, 1940. For the people of that time in South Jersey, the fire was one of those "where were you?" type events, much like the Kennedy assassination is for my generation, and, sadly, 9/11 is for my daughters'. While many stories of the fire have been passed down in my family, I learned much more about my aunt, and also other ancestors, by researching the fire itself. Although I have been researching the fire for about twenty years, I still find new sources and stories as more online resources become available. I'd like to share some of the tactics that I have found successful in researching such a disaster.
     1. Cast your research net wide! Even if a disaster was local in nature, news stories can often be found coast to coast, or even internationally. Don't stop your research at local newspapers. I found news of the fire in newspapers from New York to Oregon to Louisiana.  While many of these papers repeated the same Associated Press story, some papers, such as the New York Times, sent their own reporters to the scene who wrote independent accounts.
     2. Look in newspapers for "anniversary" pieces in the years after the event.
     3.  Check historical societies and libraries near the disaster location to see if the institution has a file or exhibit about the event. If there is a police or fire fighter archive in the area, that, too, might have kept records.
     4. Is there a local memorial or monument for the victims or one  commemorating the event?
     5. Check eBay, book dealers, antique dealers, and Google books for items, books, and papers about the event. Don't forget WorldCat's online library resource.
     6. Search for video or film of the event.  A few years ago, I found that an online film archive had film footage of the fire.
     7. Check court records for lawsuits, plus insurance company files or publications for investigations or settlements.
     8. Check government records for investigations or hearings into the event. Did the event give rise to safety or workers' rights legislation? To political repercussions?
     9. Search for survivors or their descendants to gather their stories and share those of your family's.
     And, especially if you don't live in the area of the event, check for local observances on the major anniversaries of the event, such as twenty five or fifty years later. You might even consider offering to work with a local civic or historical society to hold an observance or mount an exhibition honoring the event. Such events affected those who died, survived, rescued, and witnessed, plus the families of all. You will be surprised how much family history you will be able to uncover.