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Empress of Ireland Disaster


Sunday will be the 91st anniversary of Canada’s worst maritime disaster during peacetime. Just two years after the Titanic went down, the Empress of Ireland collided with a fully loaded, Norwegian, cargo ship, the Stortstad, in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Empress was making its first voyage of the summer and had left Quebec City just 12 hours earlier. She was bound for Liverpool with 1,477 people aboard. Among the 1,092 passengers was Miss Jennie Newton, of Antler, ND, who was visiting British relatives. She was in 2nd class, along with 167 members of the Salvation Army, who were on their way to a London convention.

It was the Empress’s 96th transatlantic crossing, and the Salvation Army Band struck up the hymn, “God be With You till we Meet Again,” as the liner pulled away from the pier at about 4:30 on May 28th, 1914. That evening Jennie and fellow passengers were entertained by the Salvation Army band in the music room, then everyone settled into their berths for the night.

At 1:30, the pilot departed the ship, according to custom, near Rimouski, Quebec, and Captain Henry Kendall set a course for the open sea. As he moved the Empress through the widening seaway, he spotted a ship a few miles off the starboard side; it was the Storstad, heading up the St. Lawrence River from Nova Scotia. Kendall believed the Storstad was signaling green – meaning it was intending to pass starboard to starboard. Unfortunately, a dense layer of fog obscured the view, so Kendall gave three short blasts to indicate he was reversing. Then, he gave two more blasts to inform the oncoming Storstad that he Empress was at a standstill.

Suddenly, the Storstad emerged from the fog heading straight for the Empress. Captain Kendall quickly ordered an evasive maneuver, but it was too late. The Storstad’s steel-tipped hull sliced into the side of the Empress at its most vulnerable point. Using a megaphone, Kendall yelled for the Storstad to not reverse – to keep the hole plugged. The Storstad tried to hold steady, but the momentum was too strong. The entire prow of the Storstad bent, twisted and ripped through the Empress, and five seconds later the ships were disengaged.

Water gushed into the 250' gash at 60,000 gallons per second. Passengers who weren’t killed in the collision grappled their way toward the deck. Survivor George Attwell later wrote, “When it is remembered that all lights went out shortly after the collision, and the giant ship had turned over on her side, it will be realised (sic) how utterly hopeless it was for most of the passengers to do anything for themselves.”

The cold water hit the boilers, they exploded, and fourteen minutes after being struck, the Empress keeled over with only five lifeboats lowered. By the time help arrived, the Empress had lost more passengers than the Titanic. The Storstad saved several hundred survivors, but when morning broke, the numbers were crushing: 1,012 dead, only 465 saved. The results became controversial when it was learned the number of men who survived far outweighed the number of women and children – in fact, only 4 of the 138 children on board were saved. In stark contrast, more than half the survivors were crewmembers – 248 of them. A familiar quote among all was, “There wasn’t time.”

Back in Antler, the news was that Miss Jennie Newton was among the survivors, but sadly it wasn’t true. Jennie was one of the few dead who were actually recovered and identified. It was the world’s second worst maritime disaster during peacetime.

Sources: http://www.sea-viewdiving.com/shipwreck_info/empress_home/passengerindex.htm; Hansboro News, June 15, 1914; Marion Kelch, “The Collision Between the S/S Empress of Ireland and the S/S Storstad,” Feb 2005, (http://www.empressartifacts.org); http://www1.salvationarmy.org/heritage.nsf/

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm