Two years after the Titanic sinking made headlines, Liverpool suffered another shipping tragedy, when the state-of-the-art passenger ship “Empress of Ireland” sank in St. Lawrence River, Canada, killing over 1,000 people. In the aftermath of the public shock surrounding the Titanic sinking, the RMS Empress of Ireland was equipped with more lifeboats than necessary, state-of-the-art watertight longitudinal bulkheads, and a highly trained crew in case of a crisis. Why weren’t these enough to prevent the worst peacetime marine disaster in Canadian history?
Accident details: At a glance
- Type of accident: Collision and sinking
- Vessel(s) involved: RMS Empress of Ireland (passenger ship), Storstad (cargo ship)
- Date: 29 May 1914
- Place: Saint Lawrence River, Canada
- Fatalities: 1,012
- Pollution: No
long with its sister ship, “Empress of Britain”, the “Empress of Ireland” was really popular for providing a weekly service from Liverpool to Canada amid a growing emigrant trade from Europe to America. On 28 May 1914, the ship left Quebec on its way back to Liverpool. Shortly after midnight of 29 May, the ship dropped the pilot off at Pointe-au-Pere and continued its journey. At the same time, the Norwegian cargo ship “Storstad” was traveling southwestward in St. Lawrence River, heavily loaded with 11,000 tons of coal, destined for Canada from Britain.
It is quite uncertain what happened exactly when the ships encountered each other at around 1.30 am on 29 May. It is known that Capt. George Kendall, an experienced mariner but newly appointed Master on Empress of Ireland, saw the Storstad ahead and decided to change course away from the shores. The aim was to pass the other ship starboard-to-starboard instead of port-to-port. This was a routine practice in the busy St. Lawrence waters.
However, as the Empress crosses the Storstad’s bow, a heavy fog spread quickly limiting visibility for both crews. Amid impaired visibility, Capt. Kendall reverses the engines and brings the ship to a full stop. At 1.47 am, the Empress of Ireland is dead in the water, having lost complete sight of the Storstad.
The two ships exchanged some sound warnings that indicated they were communicating, shortly before the Storstad changed its course, hitting the Empress straight on its starboard midships. The currents of the river pulled the Storstad away, shortly before the heavy strike took the Empress down to St. Lawrence waters. Capt. Kendall ordered an SOS to be sent out and the watertight bulkheads to be closed, but it was in vain; 50,000 gallons of water entered the ship per second, creating a heavy list that took it down in less than 15 minutes.
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Fatalities and survivors
Of the 1,477 people onboard, 1,012 lost their lives. Shockingly, only 4 out of 138 children survived the sinking. The victims included 172 out of the 420 crew members and 623 out of the 840 passengers. Most bodies were never found.
Among the survivors was the Empress’ Captain. As Capt. Kendall shouted directions from the bridge, the Empress listed throwing him into the water, from where he was collected later by Storstad.
It has never been quite clear what caused the tragedy on that May night, as both Captains blamed one another for the fatal collision. The immediate cause was an external factor (the thick fog), but a contributing factor was human error, as it was figured out that Capt. Kendall’s omission to order the closing of watertight doors earlier would have delayed the sinking, saving more lives.
Certainly contributing to the great loss of life was the speed of the sinking along with the fact that most people onboard were asleep at the time of the collision, which left them little time to move towards the upper decks, amid a total blackout and heavy listing. Actually, many of the third-class passengers, sleeping on the lower decks, drowned before they realized what was happening. In addition, despite having more than enough lifeboats onboard, the heavy list made the crew unable to launch them. Only 5 lifeboats were deployed, and most people had to jump into the water.
The Empress of Ireland loss, claiming more lives than the media-favorite Titanic two years earlier, is one of the most forgotten-by-history maritime incidents. This was possibly due to the outbreak of World War I less than a month later, or, according to World History Encyclopedia, because “people did not wish to remember a ship that sank despite being fully equipped for passengers and crew to survive such an event.” Let us not forget that the immediate cause of the accident was the thick fog, an external weather condition beyond human control.
Unlike many ill-fated ships, the Empress of Ireland was following high safety procedures: It had more than enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers, it provided a lifebelt for each and every passenger in their cabin, it had watertight doors and specific procedures in place for the crew in case of emergency.
Today, ships are equipped with radar systems that can pinpoint other ships’ locations in the water even in conditions of heavy fog. Had there been a radar at that time onboard the Empress, the ship would have been able to detect the Storstad’s change of course through the fog.
Did you know?
- A museum exhibit on the RMS Empress of Ireland disaster is one of the town’s main tourist attractions in Rimouski, Quebec, Canada.
- National Museums Liverpool has featured known stories of victims and survivors onboard the Empress of Ireland.