Around 4·00pm on Saturday, 30th June 1900 ﬁre broke out at Hoboken, in New York. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Main were at Pier 2, Bremen and Saale were at Pier 3. They were surrounded by coal barges, lighters and canal boats, laden with bales of cotton and drums of oil and petroleum products, including turpentine. An explosion amongst cargo on Pier 3 set stacked bales of cotton on ﬁre: the flames spread rapidly. The ﬁre spread fast on the dry, wooden piers; forty dockers died before they could run to safety. The flames jumped across adjacent piers before spreading ashore, destroying many buildings. Local ﬁre crews responded but had little effect.
None of the vessels had steam up, and were in danger of being destroyed. Harbour tugs moved in to help Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse but were unable to move her. Admiral Dewey, one of the most powerful tugs in harbour, then arrived and started towing her clear. Another tug collected a second hawser and together they towed Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to the middle of the Hudson. Later Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was towed across the river. Damage was slight, mainly singed paint and woodwork.
Two city ﬁreboats, Van Wyck and New Yorker, arrived and played their ﬁrehoses on the burning liners, in a hopeless attempt to quell the ﬁres and save some of those aboard. Saale was towed clear, blazing furiously. She was abandoned and left to drift, ending up near the Statue of Liberty and later sank: 109 crew died. Bremen and Main drifted clear and later both went aground at the Weehawken Flats: 12 died on one and 44 on the other. In total several hundred people died – exact ﬁgures were never accurately established.
Damage to the three liners was severe. Around 27 barges and other river craft were destroyed and the three NDL piers and the Scandinavian-American (Thingvalla) Pier were gutted: several warehouses were burnt out. Insurance estimates totalled $4,627,000. One hundred victims were buried in a mass grave at the Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey. Bremen underwent temporary repairs before returning to Germany for a complete overhaul and was extended by 25 feet. Main was refloated and towed to Newport News, where she was repaired and returned to service with NDL. Saale was sold to Luckenbach Shipping and rebuilt as a freighter, J.L. Luckenbach, with a single funnel and new engines.