This Day in Maritime History: Empress of Ireland Sinks

By MarEx 2012-11-19 10:42:00

May 29, 1914: Ships Collide in Heavy Fog, 1,073 Killed

One-thousand-seventy-three people died after two ships collided on the St. Lawrence River in Canada on this day in 1914, marking one of the most deadly days in maritime history.

The Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner commissioned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, left Quebec on May 28th with 1,057 passengers onboard and 420 crew members. In the early hours of the 29th the Empress collided with a Norwegian coal freighter, the Storstand in heavy fog near Father Point.

Reportedly both ships knew of the others presence, but the Storstad failed to follow proper procedures for conditions of low visibility which called for ships to stop. The Storstad only slowed its speed – while the Empress came to a stop. The cargo freighter hit the passenger ship at mid-ship cutting through its hull. Even after impact the freighter failed to reverse its engines and continued straight ahead crushing passengers onboard and forcing the Empress on its side. Water rapidly entered the open port holes, and as the ship listed violently on its side passengers were able to crawl out of their cabins onto the ships side. Just 14 minutes later the ship’s stern rose out of the water and the hull sank rapidly out of sight sending those that had escaped their cabins into the near-freezing water. The Storstad’s captain, Thomas Anderson later would tell officials that he feared that reversing would allow water to rush in the gash in the hull.

The Empress sank, taking the lives of 1,073 passengers and crew – many of whom were sleeping at the time of the collision. Just 217 passengers and 248 crew members survived the collision. An investigation revealed that while Capt. Anderson was mostly to blame, the Empress also had failed to seal its watertight doors which would have minimized damage from the collision.

A salvage operation about a month after the sinking recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver, in today's terms worth $1.1 million. Just months after the sinking WWI began overshadowing the disaster. 

The Empress remains in the St. Lawrence River, resting in 130 ft. of water.