I was gone before he reached home again, but, with many who wished to consult him about houses they were building, and with many whom he honored and wished to know, awaited his promised visit at Newport.
Mr. Downing had intended to leave Newburgh with his wife upon Tuesday, the 27th of July, when they would have taken one of the large river steamers for New York. But his business prevented his leaving upon that day, and it was postponed to Wednesday, the 28th of July, on which day only the two smaller boats, the "Henry Clay" and the "Armenia" were running. Upon reaching the wharf, Mr. and Mrs. Downing met her mother, Mrs. De Wint, with her youngest son and daughter, and the lady who had been pointed out as the heroine of a tragedy. But this morning she was as sunny as the day, which was one of the loveliest of summer.
The two steamers were already in sight, coming down the river, and there was a little discussion in the party as to which they would take. But the "Henry Clay" was the largest and reached the wharf first. Mr. Downing and his party embarked, and soon perceived that the two boats were desperately racing. The circumstance was, however, too common to excite any apprehension in the minds of the party, or even to occasion remark. They sat upon the deck enjoying the graceful shores that fled by them — a picture on the air. Mr. Downing was engaged in lively talk with his companion, who had never been to Newport and was very curious to see and share its brilliant life. They had dined, and the boat was within twenty miles of New York, in a broad reach of the river between the Palisades and the town of Yonkers, when Mrs. Downing observed a slight smoke blowing toward them from the centre of the boat. She spoke of it, rose, and said they had better go into the cabin. Her husband replied, no, that they were as safe where they then were as anywhere. Mrs. Downing, however, went into the cabin where her mother was sitting, knitting, with her daughter by her side. There was little time to say anything. The smoke rapidly increased; all who could reach it hurried into the cabin. The thickening smoke poured in after the crowd, who were nearly suffocated.
The dense mass choked the door, and Mr. Downing's party instinctively rushed to the cabin windows to escape. They climbed through them to the narrow passage between the cabin and the bulwarks of the boat, the crowd pressing heavily, shouting, crying, despairing, and suffocating in the smoke that now fell upon them in black clouds. Suddenly Mr. Downing said, "They are running her ashore, and we shall all be taken off." He led them round to the stern of the boat, thinking to escape more readily from the other side, but there saw a person upon the shore waving them back, so they returned to their former place. The flames began now to crackle and roar as they crept along the woodwork from the boiler, and the pressure of the throng toward the stern was frightful. Mr. Downing was seen by his wife to step upon the railing, with his coat tightly buttoned, ready for a spring upon the upper deck. At that moment she was borne away by the crowd and saw him no more. Their friend, who had been conversing with Mr. Downing, was calm but pale with alarm. "What will become of us?" said one of these women, in this frightful extremity of peril, as they held each other's hands and were removed from all human help. "May God have mercy upon us," answered the other.
Upon the instant they were separated by the swaying crowd, but Mrs. Downing still kept near her mother, and sister, and brother. The flames were now within three yards of them, and her brother said, "We must get overboard." Yet she still held some books and a parasol in her hand, not yet able to believe that this was Death creeping along the deck. She turned and looked for her husband. She could not see him and called his name. Her voice was lost in that wild whirl and chaos of frenzied despair, and her brother again said to her, "You must get overboard." In that moment the daughter looked upon the mother — the mother, who had said to her daughter's husband when he asked her hand, "She has been the comfort of her mother's heart, and the solace of her hours," and she saw that her mother's face was "full of the terrible reality and inevitable necessity" that awaited them. The crowd choked them, the flames darted toward them; the brother helped them upon the railing and they leaped into the water.
Mrs. Downing stretched out her hands, and grasped two chairs that floated near her, and lying quietly upon her back, was buoyed up by the chairs; then seizing another that was passing her, and holding two in one hand and one in the other, she floated away from the smoking and blazing wreck, from the shrieking and drowning crowd, past the stern of the boat that lay head in to the shore, past the blackened fragments, away from the roaring death struggle into the calm water of the river, calling upon God to save her. She could see the burning boat below her, three hundred yards, perhaps, but the tide was coming in, and after floating some little distance up the river a current turned her directly toward the shore. Where the water was yet too deep for her to stand, she was grasped by a man, drawn toward the bank, and there, finding that she could stand, she was led out of the water by two men. With the rest of the bewildered, horror-stunned people, she walked up and down the margin of the river looking for her husband. Her brother and sister met her as she walked here — a meeting more sad than joyful. Still the husband did not come, nor the mother, nor that friend who had implored the mercy of God. Mrs. Downing was sure that her husband was safe. He had come ashore above — he was still floating somewhere — he had been picked up — he had swam out to some sloop in the river — he was busy rescuing the drowning — he was doing his duty somewhere — he could not be lost.
She was persuaded into a little house, where she sat at a window until nightfall, watching the wreck and the confusion. Then she was taken home upon the railroad. The neighbors and friends came to her to pass the night. They sat partly in the house and partly stood watching at the door and upon the piazza, waiting for news from the messengers who came constantly from the wreck. Mr. Vaux and others left directly for the wreck, and remained there until the end. The wife clung to her hope, but lay very ill, in the care of the physician. The day dawned over that blighted garden, and in the afternoon they told her that the body of her husband had been found, and they were bringing it home. A young woman who had been saved from the wreck and sat trembling in the house, then said what until then it had been impossible for her to say, that, at the last moment, Mr. Downing had told her how to sustain herself in the water, but that before she was compelled to leap, she saw him struggling in the river with his friend and others clinging to him. Then she heard him utter a prayer to God, and saw him no more. Another had seen him upon the upper deck, probably just after his wife lost sight of him, throwing chairs into the river to serve as supports; nor is it too improbable that the chairs upon which his wife floated to shore were among those he had so thoughtfully provided.