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Precis File
SHIP NAME: Empress of Ireland, Storstad KEY: NUM. ENTRIES: 4
source PBS
type A
dead 1012

A tragedy almost equal to the Titanic's unfolded in the fog-shrouded St. Lawrence River in the spring of 1914, only a few months before the outbreak of the Great War. Ironically, had both ships involved exercised less caution, the accident would likely not have happened.

The culprit was fog, but a fog peculiar to the St. Lawrence at this time of year, when the warm air of late spring encounters a river chilled by icy meltwater. The two main actors in the drama were the Canadian Pacific steamship Empress of Ireland, outbound from Quebec, and the Norwegian collier Storstad, steaming upriver and loaded to the waterline. Their stage was a stretch of water just east of Rimouski near the St. Lawrence's south shore, where the river opens up and navigation becomes simple and safer. The Empress, having just dropped her pilot at Father Point, was still quite close to shore. The Storstad, about to pick up her pilot for the voyage up river to Montreal, was hugging the coastline.

The ships sighted each other near 2:00 a.m. on May 29, until then a calm, clear night. On the bridge of the Empress of Ireland, Captain Henry Kendall guessed that the approaching ship was roughly eight miles away, giving him ample time to cross her bow before he set his course for more open water. When he judged he was safely beyond the collier's path, he did so. If he held his new course, the two ships should pass starboard side to starboard side, comfortably apart. Moments after he had executed this maneuver, a creeping bank of fog swallowed the Norwegian ship, then the Empress.

Although nothing like the Titanic in terms of size and elegance, the Empress of Ireland was the class of the Liverpool-Quebec City run that linked Canadian Pacific's steamships with its transcontinental railroad. Celebrities on board were few, notably the actor Laurence Irving, famous son of the legendary Henry, and his wife, the actress Mabel Hackney, returning from a successful Canadian tour. They and most of the other passengers, which included roughly 170 members of the Salvation Army heading to a big convention in London, were by this time of night sound asleep. So were most of the crew.

Worried by the fog and the proximity of the other ship, Captain Kendall gave three blasts on his whistle, indicating to the other ship that he was ordering his engines full astern. Soon the 14,191 ton liner had slowed to a crawl, but Kendall kept her bow pointing on the course he had chosen and waited for a clear sign that the other ship was safely past. The next thing he saw were two masthead lights materializing out of the murk to starboard and heading straight at him. The two ships were already too close to avoid a collision, but Kendall ordered a sharp turn to starboard in a vain attempt to swing his stern enough away from the approaching vessel that it would deliver a glancing blow. The impact when it came was deceptively gentle. The Storstad's bow, however, "had gone between the liner's steel ribs as smoothly as an assassin's knife," wrote James Croall in his account of the disaster. And the wound was fatal.

Water poured into the starboard side of the ship so fast that most of the people sleeping in starboard cabins didn't have a chance. There was no time for the prerogatives of class to be tested, beyond the simple reality that residents of the higher-up first-class cabins were more likely to have some chance of survival. As the Empress of Ireland listed sharply to starboard, water began rushing into portholes left open despite the rule requiring their closure once a voyage was under way. The list quickly became so extreme that only five or six boats could be successfully launched. After 10 minutes, the liner lurched and lay on her side with hundreds of passengers perched on her hull, a situation that momentarily seemed "like sitting on a beach watching the tide come in," according to one survivor. A mere 14 minutes after the collision, she sank. And by the time the last nearly frozen survivor had been fished from the water, the death toll was staggering. Of the 1,477 on board, 1,012 lost their lives, including 840 passengers, eight more than had died when the Titanic sank.

What had happened? According to the first mate of the Storstad, who didn't rouse his sleeping captain until after all the crucial decisions had been made, he and his colleagues on the bridge had distinctly seen the Empress of Ireland's red navigational light just before the fog closed in. If that were true, that red light meant her portside was showing, which signaled that the big ship had turned to pass them to portside. And this is what the men on the Storstad's bridge assumed. After a few minutes groping blindly forward, the Storstad's mate grew nervous and ordered the collier to turn to starboard, away from what he now presumed to be the other ship's course. In reality he was turning the Storstad into the Empress's side.

Captain Kendall, who had been thrown off his bridge when the ship lurched onto its beam ends, swore to his dying day that he had altered course cleanly and maintained it faithfully as the fog closed in. He always blamed Norwegian negligence for the disaster. "You have sunk my ship!" were practically the first words he uttered when he was pulled on board the Storstad to encounter her skipper. But perhaps his helmsman had swung her too far before she settled in on her proper course. Perhaps, as one of his crew later testified, there was a problem with the steering that caused his ship to wobble unpredictably on her course. Or perhaps the many lights of the brightly lit passenger vessel confused those on board the Storstad. No one will ever know for sure. For certain, fog had once again proved to be a treacherous enemy. Yet had the two ships simply kept their courses and held their speeds, they would have passed each other without incident.

Coming as it did so soon after the sinking of the Titanic, the loss of the Empress of Ireland underlined the difficulty of building a ship that couldn't sink, even of building a ship guaranteed to sink so slowly that rescue was inevitable. True, the Storstad was the worst imaginable ship that could collide with the liner. Her longitudinal bracing, designed to break through ice, made her a lethal weapon; the fact that she was fully loaded meant she punctured the Empress well below the waterline. (She penetrated the liner to a depth of at least 25 feet and left a gaping a hole at least 14 feet wide.) The Empress sank too fast for her safety features to be fully operational. She had enough lifeboats for all her passengers and crew but could not launch them in time. Many of her watertight doors, operated manually, could not be closed with the ship listing sharply and water rushing in.

But despite the scale of the tragedy, it never achieved anything like the Titanic's fame or enduring fascination. The Empress of Ireland was not a particularly famous or fashionable ship, and she sank so soon before the outbreak of the war that attention soon shifted to graver matters. The commission of inquiry, chaired by the same Lord Mersey who presided over the hearings into the sinking of both the Titanic and the Lusitania, was held in Quebec City, far from the international limelight. But the lessons from the Empress of Ireland's demise would have to be relearned barely 40 years later during the sinking of the Andrea Doria, when once again fog proved more than a match for the latest in seagoing technology.

Today the Empress of Ireland lies in about 130 feet of water, well within the reach of scuba divers. But because the St. Lawrence is a frigid 34 degrees Fahrenheit even in summer and has tidal currents that run up to five knots and can limit visibility, this is a dive for experts. Nevertheless, the Empress has been visited hundreds of times since it was "rediscovered" in the mid-1980s. Some divers have treated the wreck with respect and increased our knowledge of her tragedy; others have left a trail of senseless damage.

Modern divers follow a highway that was blasted into the heart of the ship in the summer of 1914, mere weeks after the disaster. Canadian Pacific hired a salvage company to retrieve the first-class mail, the purser's safe and $150,000 in silver bullion (more than $2 million today). Descending through the explosion hole down to the first-class baggage and mail room, one will encounter a dangerous tangle of wire and an interior debris field of shattered suitcases and their decaying contents.

Although the ship rests on a gravel, sediment-free river bottom, the insides of the Empress of Ireland are half-hidden by the silt steadily deposited by the St. Lawrence River over the years. Because the ship rests at so sharp an angle, the starboard side of every interior room is buried, along with all the items set loose as the ship sank. In the mail room, one diver discovered a whole box of neatly bundled and tied newspapers, the paper still white, the type still readable, dated May 27, 1914, the day before the ship left port. The next time he returned, the silt had shifted, burying the evidence.

In the ship's dining saloon, oak chairs and tables appear to float in the silt like flotsam and the remains of light fixtures dangle from the steeply angled ceiling. In the adjoining pantry, most of the first-class china that was still in its racks as late as the early 1980s is now gone, as are most other moveable objects in the accessible regions of the wreck, including the ship's bell, one of its propellers, the main bridge telegraph and the telemeter. Sadly, some divers have taken the bones of the more than 1,000 people who died when the Empress of Ireland went down.

source lostliners
type C
material C

As Empress of Ireland slowed to around 8 knots on approach Rimouski at 12:30AM and sailed directly into a thick fog bank. The steam-powered whistle on the forward funnel was sounded for one long blast. The ship cleared the fog before a second blast became necessary. Twenty minutes later the Empress slowed to a halt as the mail tender Lady Evelyn came out from Rimouski for the Royal Mail transfer. The exchange went quickly and smoothly and a scant half-hour later, as the Empress entered deep water at about 1:30, the tug Eureka pulled alongside the liner as the pilot, Adélard Bernier, prepared to disembark. His parting words to Kendall are alleged to have been "I don't think you'll run into much fog". As soon as he was aboard Eureka the tug engaged full throttle and sped away from the Empress, which likewise went to full speed ahead at the order of First Officer Jones.

Eight minutes later, as Empress of Ireland made about 15 knots on a heading diagonally across the 30-mile width of the St. Lawrence, Captain Kendall appeared on the bridge at about the same time the bell sounded in the crow's nest. John Carroll, the lookout on duty, reported an object off the starboard bow. Kendall and First Officer Jones sighted a ship's masthead lights about 40 degress of the Empress' bow at a distance of about 6 miles. A critical decision had to be made as to his ship's heading and the that of the oncoming vessel. It was obviously a steamer headed into Pointe au Père to pick up a pilot. Closer to shore than the Empress was, the oncoming vessel appeared to be holding a steady course. Kendall decided that a starboard passing could be accomplished as the Empress would be well clear of the other vessel's path before the two ships passed eacother.

The other vessel was the Norwegian coal ship Storstad. On duty at the time was Chief Officer Alfred Toftenes. The 33-year old sailor had served aboard Storstad for three years and worked his way up the ranks. Commanding the bridge, Toftenes had with him Third Officer Jacob Saxe, Helmsman Peter Johannsen and Seaman Knüt. As he passed Metis Point, Toftenes had ordered the helmsman to adjust his course and slowly bring the collier closer to the south shore of the St. Lawrence. Then came two sharp rings from the forward lookout. The report came in of lights to port. Toftenes sited what looked like a large liner off the port bow, closing fast. From his point of view, he could see her green starboard light, then her port red light. This told him she was turning towards the right (his left) and would pass him port to port.

With a combined speed of close to 25 knots, the two vessels converged on each other at half a mile per minute. It seemed that just at that critical juncture when it would have been possible for each bridge crew to determine the other's heading, a thick fog rolled in from the south shore and enveloped the vessels; Storstad first and then the Empress. Although he was certain he had already cleared the oncoming vessel's course, Kendall ordered full astern and sounded three short blasts from the ship's horn. As the liner's engines were slowed, halted and reversed, a single, long blast out of the darkness signalled the oncoming vessel's intention to hold course, which Kendall assumed meant it would pass safely to starboard. [Clearly wrong. One blast is the signal for port to port. Kendall would have known the other ship was calling for a port to port passage.]

Aboard Storstad, Chief Officer Toftenes ordered Storstad's engines stopped after sounding the long blast from his horn. A moment later he heard a second series of three short blasts from the now invisible liner. He responded with an even longer blast from his own horn and ordered AHEAD SLOW. With Storstad adrift, he had no ability to steer the ship, and a strong current could push him toward the liner he assumed was somewhere in the mist off the port bow.

Captain Kendall heard the long blast from the unknown vessel's horn. It seemed to be coming from far off to starboard. He felt confident that the vessels were a safe distance apart and ordered ALL STOP. The Empress' horn sounded two long blasts, signalling her intent to stop. [Again clearly wrong. Kendall was calling for a starboard to starboard passage, and he clearly was unsure where the other ship was. If he were confident that the ship was far off to starboard, the last thing he would do is slow down.]

Aboard Storstad, Toftenes responded with a third long blast and still assuming the liner to be well off his port side, ordered his helm to correct Storstad's course to starboard to correct for any drift. [Probably wrong. Toftenes almost certainly was altering to starboard to affect the port to port he was calling for.] He then heard a second pair of long blasts from the unseen liner. A few moments later, the unmistakable outline of the liner's profile emerged from the thick fog just as Storstad's captain, Thomas Anderson appeared on the bridge. As Anderson ordered the engines reversed, Toftenes sounded three long blasts from the ship's horn, but it was too late. The time was approximately 1:55AM.

Aboard Empress of Ireland Captain Kendall saw the forward masthead lights and both navigation lights of Storstad bearing down on him at speed. With the Empress' engines stopped he knew his ship was dead in the water. Screaming over the approaching's ship's horn, he ordered the engines full ahead and the helm hard over to try and swing the Empress' stern around and at hope for a glancing blow at best. But there was no time. Storstad's reinforced bow, designed for cutting through pack ice in Scandanavian waters, struck Empress of Ireland a foot below Shelter Deck directly between the two funnels. The force of the impact buckled the liner's hull like tin foil as the collier dug about 14 feet into the Empress' belly. Kendall ordered the ship's siren sounded, signalling the crew to close all the watertight doors and man the lifeboats. Within a minute of the impact, Empress of Ireland was listing to starboard 9 degrees. As water flooded the hull, a failed watertight door in Bulkhead 4 allowed water to flood the Third- and Steerage-Class accomdoations on Lower Deck. Passengers asleep in their beds one minute were waking up to find themselves submerged in water, in a murky darkness from which their was no escape. [The Canadian inquiry found that the watertight doors had not been closed. They had to be closed manually. No other source mentions a watertight door failure.] On the bridge, Kendall called out to the crew of Storstad to keep their engines at full ahead in the hopes of plugging the hold in the Empress' side, but the forward momentum of his ship spun the small collier around and she drifted astern and into the darkness. [Storstad was not small relative to the Empress. Her displacement probably around 15,000 tons was roughly the same as the liner's.] He immediately ordered an SOS to be sent out in the hopes that ships in nearby Pointe au Père would arrive quickly.

With a hole 14 feet wide and 25 feet high, Empress of Ireland was taking on water at a staggering rate of 60,000 gallons per second. At this time Kendall hoped there was a chance to beach his ship on the south shore and orded FULL AHEAD aiming her towards the river bank. But the engines would not start. The boiler rooms were flooding fast and there was just no steam to give. As passengers not already awakened by the exchange of horns and the collision were roused from slumber, the list began to grow. Water began pouring in through open portholes as Empress of Ireland slowly began her death roll. In lurches the lean forward and to starboard grew worse and worse as plates and anything moveable began to slide or fall. Panicked passengers began to assemble on the Promenade and Boat Decks, but it soon became apparent that the port side boats could not be launched. The crew had assembled on the starboard side and were trying to launch the lifeboats that now hung just a few feet above the water. As the choas unfolded, the engine room flooded and the lights flickered and then faded out, capitulating the dreadful situation into total darkness.

By now the list was an perilous 30 degrees. People clung to the port side rails for dear life. Others slid helplessly down the nearly vertical deck into the cold water. As the deck went vertical, the night filled with trailing screams as some lost their grip and plunged into the darkness. Fearing the suction thought to accompany the sinking of a large vessel, many jumped into the freezing water to make a swim for it. In the distance, the lights of Storstad could be seen as the fog responsible for the collision vanished as quickly as it had appeared. As Empress of Ireland's funnels came crashing down people scrambled for safety on the port side. Climbing over hull plates, grappling at rivets and squeezing out through portholes, they wailed helplessly as an explosion rocked the ship; the boilers were exploding. Bodies and debris were launched into the air as the entire vessel rumbled. Now in her death throes, the water slowly rose up to consume Empress of Ireland. As she vanished from the surface, a 600-foot-long depression formed where the hull had previously been. As the last bit of air within the hull was expelled, a series of waves cascaded forth from the spot of the sinking.

Empress of Ireland was gone, a mere 14 minutes after the collision. In the darkness, people slowly began to succumb to the freezing water, while others who were unable to don life jackets drowned. By the time rescue ships approached the scene, it was going on 4:00AM. Most of those in the water had perished. Out of the 1,477 aboard Empress of Ireland, only 465 were saved. 1,012 people had lost their lives.

source NY Times 1914-06-01
type D
material C

This article consists largely of interviews with Storstad crew While they are hardly objective observers, several points emerge. They saw the Empress when she was about 5 miles away and then lost her in the fog. They said that they were never at more than 10 knots prior to the collision which is believeable, both because the ship probably could not do much more than ten knots and they were approaching the pilot station. The engine room claim they went astern a full minute before the collision. Even if this is an exageration it indicates there was some visibility. They claim the blow was a "glancing" one which is supported by a diagram presumably drawn shortly after the collision showing the Storstad hitting the Empress starboard midship at about a 40 degree angle looking fwd on the Empress. This is also consistent with the Empress master calling for a full ahead and hard starboard to try and kick his stern out of the way. The Norwegians are adamant that the Empress still had way on which is also credible. By the Empress's own testimony she had gotten back to 15 knots, and even if her engines were stopped for 8 minutes as claimed, the ship still would have had plenty of way on. The Norwegians also mention in passing that the pilot tug was involved in the rescue efforts, so they were still quite close to the pilot station. Finally, the Storstad crew said only her forepeak tank flooded.

The author of the article saw the Storstad as she docked in Montreal and described the damage as follows The Storstad is a solid steel boat over 440 feet long and carried 11,000 tons of coal. From her stern, the Norwegian flag, tattered and frayed, flew at half mast. One could see a rent in ber bows fully 30 feet long. As she turned to come into the wharf, one could see daylight through the huge rent in her bow. On the starboard side the heavy steel plates had been driven in and the steel anchor twisted out of shape. The stem was twisted to port, and on that side the steel plates were crushed. Beyond the damage to her bow, there was very little evidence of injury to any other part of the ship. This description of the damage is a little misleading. A photo of the Storstad being towed in shows the damage is almost all on the starboard bow. The angle of impact had to be fairly shallow.

source CTX
type C
dead 1012

This is a classic case of a Dance of Death: one ship attempting port to port, the other going starboard to starboard. In this case, it is hard to put much blame on either bridge.

The Empress knew that the other ship was heading to the pilot station on the south bank of the River which she had just left. A port to port would put her uncomfortably close to shore, with very little room to maneuver, possibly in dense fog.

On the other hand, the Storstad could reasonably have expected a standard port to port passage. And on a lighted passenger ship it may have been hard to pick out the running lights. In any event, the fog closed in before either could be sure what the other ship's intentions were.

The only real solution here is communication, and in 1914 that was limited to whistle signals. Both ships kept whistling their intention, but never got agreement from the other. Given this lack of agreement, one can argue that both ships should have gone astern sooner. But this is certainly not the case of someone heedlessly causing a collision. Both ships departed well off their normal course to avoid the collision.

The Empress was owned by Canadian Pacific. The one year old Storstad was owned by Klaveness, a major Norwegian owner who had a good reputation. Predictably the Canadian inquiry put all the blame on the Norwegians and vice versa. Not a good way to make progress.

The fact that the watertight does were not closed was a massive mistake, which seems to have drawn little attention. This was common practice and the Canadian inquiry only mildly suggests maybe this is not a good idea. The Empress has 11 watertight compartments and she was two compartment ship. If the water tight doors had been closed, it is quite unlikely she would have sunk, even with some portholes open. And she certainly would have taken much longer to capsize and sink.

Watertight compartments are useless unless they are watertight. The designers of the City of Paris, a similar sized liner built 1889 had it right. She was built without any penetrations in her watertight bulkheads. In March, 1890, she flooded both her engine rooms 200 miles off Ireland very quickly as a result of a massive machinery failure. This was before radio; it was more than 60 hours before she was discovered. She was towed in without loss of life. The builders of the Empress (and others including the Titanic) have no excuse for the penetrations. And the crews have no excuse for leaving them normally open.

This is also a classic example of the fact that more often than not, lifeboats are nearly useless. As is often the case, just when you need them most, you can't launch them. The Canadian inquiry correctly suggests a system based on life rafts might be more robust. 100 years later we are still dependent on lifeboats.

Flayhart in Disaster at Sea claims the Empress was able to launch nine lifeboats in 12 minutes but does not say how many were on board.

The helmsman of the Empress claimed to the court that the steering was stuck. But others on the bridge denied that and the Canadian inquiry dismissed his testimony out of hand, even though it is hard to imagine why the helmsman would bring this up if it were untrue. And an inbound Norwegian ship which had passed the Empress 30 miles before the collision claimed that the Empress was steering erratically.

If there were a wiggle to starboard before the Empress headed offshore, it would explain the Storstad's testimony that they saw green then red before the fog closed in. And it would not be the first time nor the last time that essential information in a marine casualty was suppressed. But based on what we know now, we cannot say that whatever steering problems the Empress was having had much bearing on the collision.

Some ship databases call the Storstad a general cargo ship. But at over 11,000 tons dwt, she was an extremely large ship for the time, and all the contemporary sources call her a collier. By modern standards, she was a bulk carrier although the term had not yet been invented. Hence, this casualty meets the CTX standards for inclusion. The Storstad was sunk by a U-boat 1917-03-08.