Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 29, 1914

If you read the popular stuff, you'd think there were only 3 major shipwrecks of the 20th century: Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria. Obviously, there are many more, even if you exclude 2 worldwide conflicts in the last 100 years. The worst peacetime shipwreck in history, the Dona Paz (Philippines), took 4,375 lives as recently as 1987. And I bet you've never heard of it.

Trans-Atlantic crossings have always been critical to both sides of the Atlantic (look at the chaos caused by the recent Icelandic volcanic eruption). Although the giant liners of Cunard and White Star are best remembered, they were by no means alone. Ships were constantly coming and going, carrying passengers and freight, both ways across The Pond.

Although less glamorous than the liners that sailed in & out of New York, there were many busy ships that called on the Canadian ports. One was the Empress of Ireland, which in 1914 was serving the Quebec City to Liverpool route.

Early this morning, 96 years ago, the Empress was outbound from Canada. She was heading northeast on the St. Lawrence River. It was 2:00 a.m., and most of the passengers were sleeping.

In a thick fog, the Norwegian coal-carrier Storstad struck the Empress on the starboard side. The damage was extensive. There was only limited time to sound an alarm, and electricity failed quickly, plunging the ship into darkness. The Empress was gone in 14 minutes.

The survivors were picked up by the few lifeboats that had been launched, and were carried back and forth to the Storstad, which had stayed afloat. Captain Henry Kendall, who was thrown into the water as the ship rolled over, supervised the rescue efforts and likely saved many lives by organizing the lifeboats.

All together the Empress took 1,024 people with her. It remains the deadliest maritime disaster in Canadian history. In spite of this, the ship is mostly forgotten today. The St. Lawrence Seaway is a very busy channel. Hundreds of ships steam over the Empress every day, very few knowing of the tragedy beneath them.

The Salvation Army remembers. A large contingent of members (167) were lost on the ship, traveling to a conference in London. There is a monument to them at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in Toronto.

The Empress of Ireland is in 130 feet of water, well within the range of scuba equipment, but the currents and poor visibility limit diving


Unknown said...

I also was involved in a nautical disaster. In 1990, my wife and I capsized our canoe on the Buffalo River in central Arkansas. We lost all our our fishing gear, our SLR camera, and the keys to the pickup truck, which we needed to get home (3 hours away). I'm still pissed off about it.

Alex said...

interesting post
is it me or is the comment above mine incredibly insensitive

Michelle said...

Very insensitive post. Sometimes humor is just not appropriate.

That is a very interesting story.

Unknown said...

1914. Too soon?

Crazy Newt said...

Mike, that's awful!

Did you build a memorial statue when you got home? "Lest we forget" and all that jazz?

Anonymous said...

I'm Canadian and I can tell you that we haven't forgotten, Dr. Grumpy. I've never heard of the Dona Paz, but Canadians all know about the Empress of Ireland disaster.

Anonymous said...

transport accidents happen.

Anonymous said...

Clive Cussler featured the Empress of Ireland disaster in a Dirk Pitt novel, 'Night Probe', he seems to do this with a lot of his novels.

Claude said...

We don't forget in Canada. Among the drowned:134 children, 279 women. They were sleeping when the water invaded the ship. Never had the chance to get out of their cabins.

Thank you for remembering.

Anonymous said...

I'm also Canadian and I can tell that the story of this boat is widely known.

The Mother said...

You're right. I've never heard of either.

MarcW said...

Late to the party, I know, but if you want to see a really chilling account of a very modern maritime disaster, the story of MS Estonia will give you some nice nightmares.

She sank less than twenty years ago. And I can imagine few more horrific scenes than those described in this article from The Atlantic.

Summary: The ship foundered in such a way that she developed a very pronounced list, very quickly. If you got out of the ship before the list got too bad and were on the deck, you had a decent chance to live. If you were too slow, you were trapped inside and unable to escape due to the ship being on her side and the hatches either pointing down into the water or pointing straight up and being unreachable.

She didn't take that long to sink, but I suspect that those were twenty of the longest minutes in human history.

Amy Eads said...

Look up the wreck of the SS Sultana. That sank not too terribly far from where I used to live. Wikipedia still refers to it as "the greatest maritime disaster in United States history."

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Amy- Sultana is well known. Agree it was a horrible tragedy, but I try to touch on the ones that seem to be more forgotten.

The Sultana's wreck now, due to changes in the course of the river, is on dry land under a corn field.

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