Today in History: Disaster Strikes on the St. Lawrence River (1914)

Today in History: Disaster Strikes on the St. Lawrence River (1914)

Matthew Weber - May 29, 2017

Just two years after the horrific disaster that was the sinking of the Titanic, another major disaster struck a large passenger-carrying vessel. On May 29, 1914, The Empress of Ireland and the coal freighter Storstad collided due to immense fog which had overtaken the St. Lawrence River. The Empress of Ireland started off its journey in Quebec carrying 1,477 people. Because of the collision, and poor management after the fact, 1,012 of them died.

The Empress of Ireland was one of the more experienced ships in the Canadian Pacific Steamships fleet. It was launched originally in 1906, and was on its 96th journey when it sank.

After the collision, the Canadian government spent quite a bit of effort to discover what happened, as you might expect. However, the results of the inquiry were inconclusive because the story from witnesses was so varied.

Today in History: Disaster Strikes on the St. Lawrence River (1914)
Henry Kendall, Captain of the Empress of Ireland. Wikipedia

Surviving witnesses from the Empress of Ireland, especially those members of the crew that survived, claimed that the Empress saw the Storstad after leaving Father Point in the early hours of the 29th of May. The ship’s captain moved the Empress to an altered course that would allow the two ships to pass starboard to starboard (right side to right side).

By the time the two ships were within four miles of each other, a fog bank rolled over the river, obscuring the Storstad from the Empress’ sights. As was policy at the time, the Empress’ captain ordered the engines killed, it then blew its fog whistle three times to alert the Storstad. The Storstad should have done the same, but according to the witness reports, it did not.

The fog, according to the crew witnesses, then obscured the Storstad completely. It was only when the ship was around 100 meters away did the captain of the Empress see the Storstad again, but even with a last-ditch attempt using full speed ahead, it was too late to avoid the collision, which did not happen starboard to starboard. Instead, the Storstad hit the Empress amidships, causing immense damage. The captain of the Empress famously exclaimed to the captain of the Storstad when they first met “You have sunk my ship!”

The Storstad didn’t sink after the collision, but the story from its crew was completely different. Instead of starboard to starboard, the Chief Officer of the Storstad assumed that the Empress was going to pass port to port (left side to left side). He made this assumption based on the green and red lights on the Empress. Because of that assumption, the Storstad moved to position itself to pass port to port, altering its course into what would be a fatal collision. It did not kill its engines.

Today in History: Disaster Strikes on the St. Lawrence River (1914)
The Storstad after the collision. Wikipedia

Both crews claimed the other was at fault. The biggest failure of the Storstad is that it failed to kill its engines when it was supposed to after the fog rolled in, but instead maneuvered itself into a position based on a false assumption. The inquiry into the collision afterward found that it was the Storstad’s maneuver to port that caused the collision.

In the end, whoever was at fault, the results were the same. Over 1,000 people were killed, which makes the sinking of the Empress of Ireland one of the worst maritime disasters ever recorded.