November 12, 1928: The SS Vestris sinks. The ship was built in 1912 by Workman, Clark & Co. in Belfast and was owned by Liverpool, Brazil and River Plate Steam Navigation Co. The passenger and cargo ship was 496 feet long with a beam width of 60.5 feet. She could carry 280 first class passengers with another 130 second class and 200 third class and 250 was a full complement of crewman. The ship sailed from New York to South America and ended at the River Plate, as designated in Britain and as La Olata River or Rio de la Plata which is where the Uruguay and Parana Rivers join and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. It is the border between Argentina and Uruguay with major ports at Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
Vestris left New York headed for the River Plate on November 10, 1928 with 325 passengers and crew aboard ship. The next day, she ran into a storm with heavy seas and started to list to starboard. On this day, the listing worsened as cargo and coal bunkers shifted. The ship was leaking and severe list brought in water. At 9.56 AM the ship sent out an SOS and gave her position – which was erroneous and off by about 37 miles. The ship was off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia and in ever more trouble. A second SOS was sent at 11.04 AM. At some point between 11 AM and noon, the order was given to man the lifeboats and the ship was abandoned. Around 2 PM, the ship sank and rescue vessels finally arrived in the evening and early in the morning hours of November 13 only to find over 100 people had died.
According to The New York Times and Time magazine of the 128 passengers aboard ship, only 60 survived and of the 198 crew, 155 survived. The most horrific detail was that none of the 13 children and only 8 of the 33 women survived. The captain, William Carey, went down with his ship. This inexplicable loss of life, especially women and children, was a major concern. Criticisms over the delay in issuing an SOS call, as well as erroneous positioning was part of the problem. Also of major concern was the deployment of the lifeboats. Two of the first three lifeboats (which contained most of the women and all of the children, were improperly deployed and sank along with the Vestris. Another lifeboat swamped later. The life preservers aboard ship were outdated.
There were over 600 claimants filing lawsuits which totaled $5 million. The sinking attracted lots of press and included the report filed by Lorena Hickok by the Associated Press and the first time The New York Times filed an article under a woman’s byline. The ship is thought to lie on the ocean floor about 1.2 miles deep and about 200 miles off the coast of Virginia. Due to the extreme loss of life, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was revisited in 1929 with greater safety measures instituted. SOLAS was created after the sinking of the Titanic and has been updated several times since. This date, 1948, 1960, 1974, 1988, and with amendments added at later dates, the last in May 2011. The treaty has 159 contracting States which accounts for about 99% of merchant ships around the world.
I thought that the ship’s incline was always the same way and that something must be decidedly wrong. I’ve travelled a great deal, have been across the ocean many times, and up and down the American itself a great many times, and I know when a ship stands on one side and never turns over to the other side , something is wrong.
By 8 o’clock Monday morning, I was absolutely sure that an S 0 S had gone out hours before. Anyone with the lives of so many persons on their hands should have called for help long before. I never thought for a moment that there hadn’t been a distress signal.
When I saw there was to, hope, anymore, I took my wife and baby to the smoke room and later to the deck. This was at 9 A.M. We waited on deck, looking for the steamers we were absolutely sure must have been called to our help.
Suddenly, though we heard no orders and though no officers were in sight, the crew began to take down the lifeboats. You could see that none of them had ever even tried to lower a lifeboat before. – all from Fred Puppe, testifying at the inquiry
Also on this day: Thar She Blows – In 1970, a rotting beached whale was removed from an Oregon beach, sorta.
Daring Young Man – In 1859, the first trapeze performance took place.
Terrorist Attack – In 1997, Ramzi Yousef was found guilty of the WTC bombing of 1993.
Found – In 1912, Robert Scott’s frozen body was found.
He Should Have Stuck With Writing – In 1793, Jean Bailly, French politician, died.