The Canadian Pacific passenger liner, Empress of Ireland, sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence not far from Pointe-au-Père (Father Point), Quebec, at 1:30 a.m. May 29, 1914 when she was rammed in the fog by a Norwegian collier, Storstad. When the collision took place, the Empress was heading back into the main river channel after dropping her pilot. [The Empress had sailed from Montreal the previous afternoon.]
The two ships spotted each other just before the collision and the captains tried to keep the ships together — that might have plugged the hole in the ship’s side — but Empress of Ireland had too much headway for that. The Storstad’s bow sliced seven and a half metres deep into the starboard (right) side of Empress then the two ships separated. They had seen each other clearly before the fog rolled in but had become confused about each other’s course even though both were signaling. It is difficult to be sure of the direction of a signal in the fog. When Storstad slipped away, water began to pour into the damaged ship and, as she listed heavily to starboard. Water also poured in through open portholes. Her rapid list made it impossible for crew members to shut the watertight doors (in effect they were trying to make then go uphill manually) or to launch lifeboats on the starboard (right) side of the ship and the water pouring in also made it difficult for lower deck passengers to climb the unfamiliar and increasingly tilted staircases. [They had yet to get used to moving around the ship because they had boarded only a few hours earlier.] They also had little time. Empress of Ireland turned on her side and sank in 14 minutes. Titanic had floated for more than two hours.
However, in contrast to Titanic, those in the few lifeboats that were launched picked up those they could see in the water. Minutes later, when the fog cleared and Storstad could see what was happening, her boats also joined in the rescue. [At first, Storstad was worried about her own survival and her captain, unaware how badly the Empress was hit, was surprised the Empress did not come to check on his boat.] Crew members from Storstad also used two of the Empress of Ireland lifeboats to rescue persons in the water. A few passengers managed to stay alive in the cold water long enough to swim to Storstad.
Grand Staircase on the Empress.
One of the two Marconi wireless operators on Empress had actually seen the collision and immediately sent out an urgent ‘stand by’ and moments later – when the chief officer told him the ship was sinking arrived – typed out a slow and precise S.O.S. The operator wanted to make sure it was understood. He received an acknowledgement just before Empress lost power and two other ships, Lady Evelyn and Eureka came out to join the search. By then however, those still in the water had died. The operator at Pointe-au-Père sent out a CDQ requesting assistance from other ships in the vicinity but none replied. [It was not unusual for even a passenger liner to have no one monitoring the radio at 1:30 a.m.]
Although there is slight confusion over the exact number of passengers, the best estimate is that there were 1,477 passengers and crew on board and 1,012 – more than two-thirds — died. However, the death toll was uneven. There were 138 children on board and only four survived. There were 717 third class passengers and 133 were survived. There were 253 second class passengers and 48 survived. There were 87 first class passengers and 36 survived. There were 696 crew and 248 survived. In short crew members were just as likely to survive as first class passengers (Croall, pp: 144-145) and both first class passengers and crew were far more likely to survive than lower class passengers and especially children. Incredibly, one of the survivors was a stoker named William Clarke who had also survived Titanic (Croall, p. 132).
Because she had few supplies and little extra clothing on board – her crew including the captain’s wife gave the survivors everything they had — Storstad transferred the passengers she had rescued (including the Empress’s captain, James Kendall) to Lady Evelyn and she took then to Rimouski. There, town residents did their best to clothe them. Many survivors had been in bed when the collision occurred and were wearing only pajamas or night gowns or had no clothing. One survivor covered himself with a newspaper. As more and more bodies were recovered, many had died wearing a life belt so they floated, they were laid out in rows on the dock. Eventually a Canadian government ship, Lady Grey, arrived in Rimouski and loaded 188 bodies for transport to Quebec City where they were unloaded with the help of sailors from the British cruiser, Essex. A special train had brought coffins to Rimouski and it took survivors to Montreal.
Though her bow was smashed in Storstad was able to continue to Montreal. At the subsequent inquiry in Montreal, the two captains – Kendall and Thomas Anderson – and members of Storstad’s crew gave conflicting testimony, each blaming the other for the collision. The inquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey, the same person who chaired the British Titanic inquiry (Mersey came over to Montreal) held Storstad responsible — accepting the word of one English captain (Kendall) over the testimony of several Norwegian officers. Unlike Titanic, Empress of Ireland had few notable passengers on board – one exception was the distinguished actor Lawrence Irving and his equally well-known wife, Mabel Hackney – so the incident did not become, like Titanic, an instant legend even though the proportion of passengers lost was greater than Titanic. [Irving and Hackney both died, having been last seen standing together on the sloping deck.]
The incident is best remembered by the Salvation Army because there were 170 Salvationists on board including members of the Canadian Salvation Army band. The band had played as the ship departed Montreal just hours before the collision and played a brief concert for steerage passengers that evening, The Salvationists were heading to Great Salvation Army Convention to be held at Albert Hall in London. When it met, 148 seats were left vacant, marking the number of Salvationists lost. A few Salvationists including some band members survived but none had time to gather their instruments and play (as happened with musicians on Titanic) before the ship went down. Unlike Titanic as well, Empress of Ireland had more than enough lifeboats for everyone on board and the crew was well trained in their use. There were also lifebelts for everyone, stored in the passenger cabins though many passengers – since this was the first night of the voyage – were not aware of that. However, the ship listed so quickly that the crew could not launch many lifeboats and it sank so fast – 14 minutes – that there was little time to alert the lower deck passengers who had not been drowned by the inrushing water.
Croall, James. Fourteen Minutes: The Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland. London: Michael Joseph, 1978.
Marshall, Logan. The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland: An Authentic Account of the Most Horrible Disaster in Canadian History, Constructed from the Real Facts Obtained from Those on Board Who Survived, and Other Great Sea Disasters. S.l: s.n, 1914.
Croall’s book is well researched and clear. Marshall’s book, which also deals with Titanic, is less reliable though it does cite some of the testimony from the inquiry.
Tags: 1914 Empress of Ireland