Unless you’ve been living under a rock covered by a bunch of bigger rocks, covered by 1,000 tons of dirt, covered by a small forest, you’ve heard of the Titanic.
Majestic passenger liner claims to be ‘unsinkable’, then proceeds to sink on her maiden voyage. 1,500 lives lost, countless books written and documentaries made, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Celine Dion, etc.
While the Titanic may be the preeminent maritime story of tragedy, mystery, and intrigue, it’s not the only one.
Below are a few lesser known maritime disasters that have occurred around North America since the Titanic went down in 1912.
The Empress of Ireland - 1914
The Empress of Ireland
By far the most deadly of the other disasters listed here, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland has largely been overshadowed by the Titanic, despite occurring barely two years later and reaching a similarly staggering death toll.
Launched in 1906 from Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering in Scotland, the Empress operated for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company on a route between Liverpool, England and Quebec. Stretching 570 feet and displacing over 14,000 tons, she could carry nearly 1,600 passengers and crew.
On May 28th, 1914, the Empress began her 96th voyage, departing from Quebec City bound for Liverpool. Leading the 1,477 passengers and crew on board was newly promoted captain Henry George Kendall.
As the vessel transited the Saint Lawrence River she spotted the Norwegian collier Storstad, several miles away. Soon thereafter, both vessels were shrouded in fog and at around 2 a.m., the Storstad struck the Empress’ starboard side, mortally wounding her.
Water began flooding the Empress and she soon took on a starboard list. Less than 15 minutes after the collision she slipped below the surface, taking 1,012 lives with her. The speed of the sinking was exacerbated by the fact that her watertight doors were open and many portholes were open near the waterline, allowing water to quickly flow in as the ship listed.
Damage to the bow of the Storstad from the collision.
An official investigation concluded that the Storstad was to blame, claiming that she had wrongly changed course in the fog, leading to the collision. A Norwegian investigation placed blame on the Empress and Captain Kendall, claiming that he had not followed the correct protocol of passing the Storstad port-to-port.
A 2005 documentary entitled The Last Voyage of the Empress laid blame at the feet of both captains for failing to maintain their course after entering the fog.
The wreck now lies in 130 feet of water off Pointe-au-Pere, Quebec and has been designated a protected site by the government of Canada.
The SS Morro Castle - 1934
The SS Morro Castle was a 508-foot, 11,500-ton passenger liner launched in 1930 and operated by the Ward Line on a route between New York City and Havana, Cuba.
Four years into her career, on September 5, 1934, the Morro Castle departed Havana bound for New York. On the evening of September 7, as the liner moved up the eastern seaboard, her captain, Robert Willmott, died of an apparent heart attack. Command passed to the First Officer, William Warms, and the voyage continued.
In the early hours of September 8th, as the ship neared New York, a fire broke out in a storage locker on B deck. The Morro Castle was quickly engulfed in flame and attempts were made to beach the ship. The fire was spreading too rapidly, however, and shortly after 3 a.m., the fire cut power to the ship, sending it into darkness, adrift in the Atlantic.
Only 6 of 12 available lifeboats were launched, carrying only 85 persons in total. The rest of those on board were forced to jump overboard or face death in the fire. In total 137 passengers and crew perished in the disaster.
The liner drifted for the better part of the next day, finally running aground near Asbury Park, New Jersey on the afternoon of September 8. The burned out wreck remained there for the next 6 months, attracting thousands of visitors before finally being towed away in March of 1935.
The burned-out shell of the Morro Castle run aground near Asbury Park.
An investigation into the disaster determined that a number of factors lead to the accelerated spread of the fire. Chief among them were an abundance of wood paneling, wood-lined openings between fire doors and bulkheads, and a multitude of unsafe practices by the crew. Theories of crew arson have also been brought up, but none have ever been proven.
As a result, First Officer Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbot, and Ward Line vice president Henry Cabaud were convicted on multiple charges and sent to prison. Warms and Abbott were later cleared on appeal.
Following the Morro Castle disaster, a number of changes were made to increase fire safety aboard other vessels, including the use of fire retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater training and attention to fire drills.
The SS Andrea Doria - 1956
Launched in 1951 from the Ansaldo Shipyards in Genoa, Italy, the Andrea Doria was 701-foot, 29,000-ton liner for the Italian Line. With a capacity of over 1,200 passengers and over 500 crew, she was a symbol of pride for post-war Italy.
The Andrea Doria was built to be extravagant and luxurious, featuring 3 outdoor swimming pools, over $1 million of artwork and decor, and a life-size statue of her namesake, Italian Admiral Andrea Doria.
She also featured state-of-the-art safety features including a double hull, watertight compartments, early warning radar, and enough lifeboats for everyone on board.
There were, however, concerns about some design flaws that carried with them dangerous possibilities. The ship had a pronounced tendency to list when struck by a significant force. This tendency was even greater when her fuel tanks were low.
Another cause for concern was that fact that her watertight compartments did not rise farther than A deck. This meant that if the ship listed more than 20 degrees to one side, water could spill over the top of the watertight bulkheads.
Despite the concerns, the Andrea Doria had a successful start to her career, making 100 Atlantic crossings.
Her 101st crossing began on July 17, 1956, when she set sail from Genoa bound for New York with stops in Naples, Cannes, and Gibraltar along the way. By the time she left Gibraltar, Andrea Doria had over 1,700 passengers and crew on board.
As she neared New York, Andrea Doria encountered a thick fog bank. Normal precautions such as reducing speed, activating the fog warning whistle, and lowering the watertight doors were taken.
At the same time that Andrea Doria was approaching New York, the Swedish liner, MS Stockholm, was heading east along the same route, bound for Sweden. Stockholm had yet to encounter the fog bank, but had picked up the Andrea Doria on her radar. Using only radar for guidance, both ships made course alterations in an attempt to safely pass one another.
The Andrea Doria turned slightly to port, intending to make a starboard-to-starboard pass. The Stockholm turned to starboard, attempting a port-to-port pass. The two moves put the vessels on a collision course and shortly after 11 p.m., they collided.
The bow of the Stockholm struck the Andrea Doria at a nearly 90-degree angle, penetrating almost 40 feet into her hull. Five of the Andrea Doria’s ten fuel tanks were torn open, allowing thousands of tons of water to quickly flow in. With very little fuel in the remaining five fuel tanks to act as ballast, the ship took on a severe list of over 20 degrees. This eventually allowed water to flow over the top of the watertight bulkheads, further contributing to the flooding.
The Andrea Doria listing heavily to starboard.
Five passenger decks were included in the collision area and as a result, 43 people aboard the Andrea Doria and 5 people aboard the Stockholm were killed. Three more from the Andrea Doria would later die from indirect results of the collision.
Incredibly, one passenger from the Andrea Doria, Linda Morgan, was thrown from her bed and landed on the deck of the Stockholm, suffering non-life-threatening injuries.
Eventually, all of the remaining passengers and crew of the Andrea Doria were able to evacuate to the Stockholm and a number of other vessels that had responded to the distress calls. The Andrea Doria continued to list and at 10:09 a.m. on the morning of July 26 she slipped beneath the waves.
The Andrea Doria lying on her side, shortly before she sank.
In the following months a multitude of legal proceedings took place, attempting to assign blame and procure restitution for the victims and their families. Eventually, a settlement was reached between the two lines and both contributed to a fund for the victims.
A U.S. congressional hearing produced a number of findings. It was determined that the crew of the Andrea Doria did not follow proper radar procedures resulting in failure to determine the size, speed, and course of the Stockholm. Also, instead of turning to starboard as was the accepted practice to avoid a collision, she turned to port. Lastly, she had been travelling too fast for the foggy conditions.
The third officer of the Stockholm was also determined to have incorrectly assumed that his radar was on the 15-mile setting, when it was on the 5-mile setting. This caused him to believe that the Andrea Doria was farther away than she actually was.
The tragedy resulted in reforms to radar use and training as well as a requirement that converging vessels make radio contact with one another.
The wreck of the Andrea Doria now lies 190 feet below the surface of the Atlantic and is slowly decaying. The site, while popular with recreational divers, has been treacherous, with 16 divers losing their lives on the site since the sinking.
One interesting side note: The Andrea Doria had been carrying in her cargo hold a concept vehicle built by Italian firm Ghia for Chrysler. The Chrysler Norseman was a fully-driveable, four-seat coupe featuring a unique cantilever-style roof. Intended to be featured in Chrysler’s 1957 auto show exhibit, the Norseman sank with the ship and has never been recovered.
Image #1 courtesy Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe au Pere.
Image #2 courtesy Illustrated London News.
Image #3 courtesy International News Photos, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons
Image #4 courtesy C.V. Norris via Wikimedia Commons
Image #5 courtesy Reuben Goosens
Image #6 courtesy Loomis Dean via Life Magazine
Image #7 courtesy Flickr via Creative Commons License
Image #8 licensed under fair use via Wikimedia Commons