Little Bits of History

Empress of Ireland

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 29, 2011

RMS Empress of Ireland

May 29, 1914: The RMS Empress of Ireland sinks. The ship was built in Scotland for Canadian Pacific Steamships but carried the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) designation due to government agreements from the past. The ship cost £375,000 (≈ £31,880,000 today) and took eighteen months to build. The ship was 570 feet long and 66 feet wide at the beam. There were twin funnels, two masts, dual propellers and she had an average speed of 18 knots (21 mph). There were berths for 310 first-class passengers and 470 second-class passengers. Third-class held 750 passengers. Capacity for the ship was 1,580.

On May 28, 1914 the Empress of Ireland left Quebec City for Liverpool at 4:30 PM local time. There were 1,477 passengers and crew aboard. Henry George Kendall had just been made Captain earlier in the month and this was his first trip down the St. Lawrence River while in command. The ship was near Pointe-au-Père, Quebec. The weather was quite foggy and it was 2:00 AM. Also on the river was the SS Storstad, a loaded coal carrier sailing from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Quebec. The Norwegian ship was hauling for the Dominion Coal Company.

The Storstad crashed into the starboard side of the Empress, gashing a fourteen foot hole in the side of the larger ship. The ship listed heavily to starboard and took on more water through open portholes. Those in the lower decks were drowned quickly as the icy waters poured in. Many of the passengers and crew from the upper decks were awakened by the noise of the crash and managed to get into lifeboats. Only four lifeboats could be loaded before the ship was leaning too far to load more. About ten minutes after the crash, the ship lurched and rolled onto her side. Hundreds of passengers and crew scurried to the side of the ship. Then, the Empress went below water, a mere fourteen minutes after being hit. There were 1,012 people dead, 840 of them passengers. Only 465 survived.

The Storstad did not sink and made it to port with a crushed bow. There was an inquiry held on June 16 and the Norwegian ship was found responsible for sinking the larger ship, although this finding was hotly debated both then and now. Sir John Bigham was presiding. He had also presided over inquiries into other sea disasters. He had already presided over hearings for the RMS Titanic in 1912 and would sit on the inquiry for the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The Storstad‘s owners were fined $2,000,000 but were unable to pay the fine. The ship was sold for $175,000 and later was sunk by a torpedo during World War I.

“You have sunk my ship!” – Cap. Kendall on being pulled from the water

“Ironically, had both ships involved exercised less caution, the accident would likely not have happened.” – PBS

“The Storstad’s bow, however, had gone between the liner’s steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin’s knife.” – James Croall

“Today the Empress of Ireland lies in about 130 feet of water, well within the reach of scuba divers.” – Robert Ballard

Also on this day:
The Top of the World – In 1953 Mount Everest in conquered.
Running the World – In 1954, the Bilderberg Group held their first conference.

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