On May 29, 1914, around 2:00am, the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Ireland was accidentally rammed by the Norwegian collier Storstat. This sinking was the middle event of a trio of terrible ocean liner tragedies that starts with the loss of Titanic on April 15, 1912, and ends with the loss of Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Titanic and Lusitania are so well‐known that they have almost become clichés. Empress of Ireland remains little‐known today despite the scale of the tragedy that makes it a part of this star‐crossed trio.
The collision occurred in the midst of a dense spring fog on the Saint Lawrence as relatively warm spring air turned to fog immediately above the waters of the river which were chilled with snowmelt. Immediately prior to steaming into the fog bank, Captain Henry Kendall of Empress observed the running lights of Storstat, a Norwegian collier (coal carrier.) He ordered the ship’s horn sounded to alert Storstat, maintained Empress’ course, (so Storstat would not be surprised at her location) and slowed her speed to a prudent crawl in the impenetrable fog.
Storstat’s First Mate who had the helm at the time also slowed his vessel. Apparently he saw a red light faintly in the fog and he adjusted his ship’s course to be sure of passing Empress well off her port side. The facts of the collision remain in some dispute even today. Storstat, being a Norwegian vessel with a foreign crew, was identified as the ship at fault in an Admiralty inquiry in the summer of 1914, but later reviews have suggested that Captain Kendall may have altered course while in the fog, or possibly that Empress had faulty steering. David Zini devotes three chapters to the facts of the collision and the subsequent investigation in his landmark 1998 book, Forgotten Empress: The Empress of Ireland Story. Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of Titanic has also explored Empress’ resting place. He includes a chapter about Empress in his book Lost Liners.
Perhaps the real culprit was simply bad luck: had both ships held speed and course, they would have passed unscathed. As it was, Empress was breached amidships by the bow of Storstat, in a nearly perpendicular collision. Unfortunately for Empress, Storstat had started life as an icebreaker before becoming a coal ship, which made her very well designed to deliver a shattering blow. Worse still, Storstat had a full hold making her relatively low in the water and giving her great force on impact. Empress never had a chance.
The ship was rent as if by a great axe, and began taking on water at an unimaginable rate. Her watertight compartments could not prevail under the incredible strain. It took just ten minutes for Empress to heel completely into the water and a mere four more for her to disappear beneath the surface. Under such cir cumstances, most folks aboard being asleep when the collision occurred, the loss of life was huge: of more than 1,400 souls aboard, a mere 360 or so were saved. There were more than enough lifeboats (the lesson of Titanic having been quickly learned) but as in the case of Lusitania, the speed of the sinking prevented deployment.
Empress of Ireland was no Titanic ‐‐ there were no Astors nor Guggenheims aboard Empress, it was not her maiden voyage, and she had never been proclaimed unsinkable ‐‐ but it is likely that her story would be more widely remembered today if the tragedies of World War I had not followed so fast in the wake of her sinking. It would be less than a month until Sarajevo, and within ten weeks all of Europe was embroiled in loss of life on a scale that made the souls aboard Empress a mere footnote to history.
It is a hopeful reflection to note that one positive change did come about as a result of this tragedy.
When one looks at pictures of the ships of that era, it is striking to note that they do not appear to be very aerodynamic. In those days the bow of a vessel made a nearly vertical line from waterline to deck. such a design maximized carrying capacity, but also meant that in a collision, full impact would be transmitted to the victim ship’s hull from waterline to deck, ensuring a deadly breach.
After the Empress tragedy, new design specifications for ships included a bow that angled sharply so that the first point of impact in a collision would be well above the waterline. The aim was that the strongest point of impact would be well above the most vulnerable area of a ship’s hull, and hopefully reduce or eliminate a fatal breach. The idea has proven sound: when Stockholm collided with Andrea Doria in July of 1956, it took hours for Andrea Doria to sink. The 46 lives lost were almost all due to the impact at the site of the collision, and remaining 1660 survivors were all evacuated safely.
We can learn from our mistakes. And sometimes we do.
Flower Mound, Texas
Are there lessons in history? Or only tales, mostly sad? — Adam Goptnik