This Week in History
The Sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland
For the week of Monday May 26, 2014
On May 29, 1914, Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Empress of Ireland sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence taking more than a thousand passengers and crew members down with it. Around 1:55 a.m., it was en route from Québec to Liverpool; 14 minutes later, all that remained were some lucky survivors and the dense fog that had precipitated its demise.
Though the ship was designed to stay afloat in the event of disaster, it was overwhelmed by the amount of water that poured in after its collision with the Norwegian SS Storstad. This smaller ship pierced the starboard (right) side of the Empress. Without time to close the watertight doors, the crew could not prevent the ship from sinking. The Empress’ Captain Kendall attempted to beach the damaged vessel, but ran out of steam because both engine rooms flooded.
Storstad’s Captain Anderson was asleep at the time of the accident, but had ordered his Chief Officer Toftenes to wake him if the fog became too thick. According to the official inquiry held in Canada, Toftenes had changed Storstad’s course abruptly, resulting in the collision. However, Norway’s subsequent investigation found the Empress’ captain at fault.
After Empress was hit, some of the sleeping passengers arose and prepared to board lifeboats. Few of them were seen again. But there was no shortage of heroics that night either. Eight-year-old Florence Barbour was rescued by Robert W. Crellin when he swam to safety with the girl on his back. Some passengers gave up their lifebelts to save others.
Approximately 465 people survived the tragedy and 1,012 died. Many of the recovered bodies were buried near Métis-sur-Mer, Quebec, where a monument stands to their memory.
The wreck of the RMS Empress of Ireland is a National Historic Site. For more on maritime history and archaeology, please consult In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery, and The Elizabeth and Mary: A Shipwreck. Click here and here to learn more about Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology projects.
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