Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The sinking of the ship, the Empress  of Ireland                     

The Empress of Ireland was built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland and was launched in 1906. The liner, along with her sister ship Empress of Britain, was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Steamships (at that time it was part of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) a huge  conglomerate) for the North Atlantic route  between  Quebec and  Liverpool  in England. (The transcontinental CPR and its fleet of ocean liners constituted CPR's self-proclaimed “World's Greatest Transportation System.) The Empress of Ireland had just begun her 96th sailing across the Atlantic to Canada and what was to be her final voyage in May 1914.

In the afternoon of May 28th, 1914, as many as 1,057 passengers boarded the Empress of Ireland at the harbor in Quebec City, for the first of the summer voyages from this city to Liverpool. First class was filled with 87 passengers. Most were business leaders and wealthy persons among whom were world traveler, Sir Henry Seton Karr, actors Mabel and Laurence Irving who had just completed a successful Canadian tour, and Ella Hart-Bennett the wife of the Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas. In Second class, there were 167 members of the Salvation Army on their way to the third Salvation Army International Congress in London. Most noted was the Commander of the Canadian Salvation Army, Commissioner Rees and his family. Third class was comprised of many ethnic groups: Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Italians and Latvians. Most of these passengers were returning to their former homes in Europe to visit their relatives and, in many cases, to bring them over to Canada.
When the Empress began its 96th transatlantic crossing, the Salvation Army Band struck up God be With You till we Meet Again as the liner pulled away from the pier. The evening was uneventful. Third class passengers chose what they could from the supper menu of gruel, cabin biscuits and cheese. In the second class music room, passengers were entertained by the Salvation Army band.

The 14,191-ton vessel was built at a cost of £375,000 (roughly 91 million US in 2013) and was to be delivered to the CPR 18 months from the date the contract was signed. She was designed with a passenger capacity of 1,580: 310 first-class passengers located amidships, 470 second-class passengers aft (towards the stern), and 758 third-class passengers located forward (towards the bow).
On her final voyage, she had a crew of 373 and including the passengers, it had a total of 1,430 people on board the ship. The liner was under the command of Captain Henry, George Kendal who had just been appointed as the ship’s captain in the beginning of May.                                                                                                                                                                                
 The length of the ship was 570 feet (170 metres) and its width was 65 feet 7.2 inches (19.995 metres). The ship had twin funnels, two masts, two propellers and a service speed of 18 knots (21 mph; 33 km/h). In those days, it was considered a fairly large and fast ship.

After the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier, regulations regarding safety became very strict. The Empress of Ireland was fitted with 16 steel lifeboats to hold 764 persons; 20 Englehardt and 6 Berthon Types to hold another 1201 for a total of 1965 persons, far exceeding its total capacity of 1536 passengers and crew (the maximum the ship could carry). CPR had stringent rules for passenger safety. On May 15, 1914 while in Liverpool harbor, during a safety drill, all lifeboats were lowered within 4 minutes.

I should point out that all passenger ships world-wide are required by Marine Law to hold lifeboat drill just after leaving the docks. This became mandatory after the sinking of the Titanic. It doesn`t mean that the passengers actually have to climb into the boats. They simply get a lecture on what to do if the abandon ship signal is given.

The next morning, May 29th, around 1:30 a.m., as was the custom, the pilot left the ship, now near Rimouski, Quebec. Then the Empress then gathered up speed, and headed for open water on the wide St. Lawrence River. Shortly after resuming her journey, and on a normal outward bound course, the lookout sighted the masthead lights of a steamer, which was the Norwegian collier Storstad. The light was on her starboard bow at several miles distant which meant that the Storstad was on the right side of the Empress of Ireland.

Captain Kendall (who had just been appointed the captain of the ship at the beginning of the month) had just arrived on the bridge when he observed a ship ahead of him that was low in the water off the starboard (right) side about six miles east. Being low in the water meant that it was fully loaded.

What Kendall saw was a 6,000 ton vessel heading up river from Sydney, Nova Scotia. It was the Norwegian collier, the Storstad, captained by Thomas Anderson that was fully loaded with coal. The Empress altered course slightly, planning to pass green to green, or starboard to starboard. At this moment, a huge thick fog bank rolled in. Captain Kendall, certain that he had seen the green light of the other ship, ordered the Empress full astern and gave three short blasts indicating he was reversing. Then he stopped the ship and gave two more blasts, informing the oncoming vessel that the Empress was dead in the water. That was the right thing to do at that moment.

The Storstad was abreast of the Métis Point  and its crew had sighted  the masthead lights of the Empress. At the time of these first sightings the weather conditions were clear, but very soon the ships were shrouded in the notoriously dangerous fog that is common in that part of the Seaway in the early mornings.

Captain Kendal had wisely ordered all engines to stop. Unfortunately, Captain Thomas Anderson of the Storstad chose not to stop his engines and instead he continued to proceed towards the Empress with only the mast lights of the Empress filtering through the fog in the dark of night and in the middle of the fog.

I should point out that in those days, radar hadn't been installed on any ships anywhere in the world as it was a discovery that came just before the Second World War. For this reason, Captain Anderson was sailing towards the Empress blind. He should have stopped his ship until the fog had lifted so that he could see exactly where the other ship was.  Instead he chose to keep going forward. That turned out to be a very stupid and fatal decision on his part.

At 1:55 a.m., Kendall was shocked to see the Storstad suddenly appearing out of the fog and heading perpendicularly straight toward his ship. The crew of the Storstad was equally surprised to see the starboard side of a big liner looming towards them. Kendall quickly ordered the Empress full speed ahead. However, before it could get out of the way, the Storstad, with its hull reinforced to protect against ice, plowed into the Empress right between the two funnels inflicting a mortal wound where the liner was extremely vulnerable due to the vastness of the compartments.

Now here is an interesting question. Since the ships were originally facing each other—bow to bow, and some distance separated the ships then how did the Storstad ram into the Empress on her starboard side at 45 degrees? The answer is simple enough. When the propellers on the Empress were ordered to be stopped revolving, the ship was a vessel that was floating somewhat backwards after the captain had previously ordered the propellers to go into reverse. The river however continued to flow and wind or waves had slowly turned the ship to its left and since the ship continued to slowly move backwards by its own inertia after the props were stopped revolving; it ended directly in the path of the Storstad at 45 degrees.

Kendall shouted through a megaphone for the Storstad to keep going ahead so as to plug the hole and prevent more water pouring into the Empress.  The Storstad remained close to 5 seconds in the hole but the two ships slowly disengaged on their own and 60,000 gallons of water per second poured in to the Empress. The same thing happened to the Titanic when the iceberg ripped part of the side of the Titanic open.  When the captain ordered the Titanic to move ahead, the iceberg was no longer plugging the gap and the ship eventually sank when millions of gallons of water poured in.

Within three minutes, the raging waters reached the dynamos and knocked out the ship’s power, plunging the passengers, most of whom were asleep, and the crew into total darkness. Passengers, in their night clothes, attempted to make their way to the upper deck on slanting stairs. Some jumped into the water which was almost at freezing temperature. Others tried to escape through the open portholes on the port side but hundreds more remained trapped inside. Because of the list to starboard, the lifeboats on the port side could not be launched. Only five lifeboats made it into the water. Some of the lifeboats on the port side broke loose when the ship was listing on the starboard side and the boats crushed passengers who could not get out of the way in time.

One interesting story requires telling. William Clarke, a coal stoker in the boiler room, knew exactly what to do when he felt the ship’s reaction to the impact. He immediately scrambled up a special ladder leading directly from the boiler room to the deck and there he helped launch a life boat. Perhaps he had an advantage. Two years before, he had survived a similar experience. He was a coal stoker on the Titanic.

Only 14 minutes after having being struck by the Storstad, the Empress keeled over. Captain Kendall was thrown from the bridge and was eventually hauled into one of the lifeboats. The crew of the Storstad lowered their lifeboats and set about rescuing more than 400 people. When morning broke, the final count was 465 saved and 1012 passengers and crew lost. After the Storstad took aboard nearly all the survivors, they were later transferred to two smaller ships, the Eureka and the Lady Evelyn, which then took the survivors to Rimouski. More passengers perished on the Empress (840) than on the Titanic (829) but the Titanic had a much greater loss of crew members.
The Empress capsized and sank beneath the surface until it hit the bottom where it lays to this day.

For the Scandinavians on board, the death toll was 71 Finns and 20 Swedes. Of the 21 Norwegians  on board, 14 perished. Ironically the death toll of the Norwegians is nearly the same percentage (67%) as perished on the Titanic where 21 of the 31 aboard lost their lives. Among the casualties in First Class were Sir Henry Seton Karr; the famous British actors, Mabel and Laurence Irving; and Ella Hart Bennett, wife of the Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas. In Second Class, 147 members of the Salvation Army perished along with Commissioner Rees and his family. Of the 138 children on board, only 4 survived, the most noted being Gracie Hanagan, the daughter of the Salvation Army Bandmaster. And so it was that at 2:15 a.m. on May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland which had brought over 117,089 passengers to Canada also became a Canadian Titanic: Canada’s worst peacetime maritime disaster. 
There was an Inquiry held in Quebec City that was convened on June 16th 1914 presided by Lord Mersey, who had presided over the Inquiry regarding the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and would do so again when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine off southern Ireland in 1915.
 The Inquiry found that the Storstad was at fault. A Norwegian Inquiry, conducted at the Norwegian Consulate General in Montreal, ultimately exonerated the Storstad and its captain, Thomas Anderson. To this day, the two conclusions are irreconcilable. The Storstad was seized as requested by the CPR in a $2,000,000 lawsuit for damages and sold for a sum of $175,000 to Prudential Trust.

Captains Kendall and Anderson both served in the Great War and both were torpedoed. Both men survived but not the Storstad. It was torpedoed on March 8, 1917 and sank near the coast of Ireland. All hands were saved.

Until 1987, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was the world’s second worst maritime disaster.

I wrote a short story about this disaster which was published in 2013 in my second book of short stories titled His Revenge was Sweeter than Honey.

A trip to Liverpool on the Empress of Ireland

This is a short story in the first person (letter form) and the third person  (narrative form) in which the letter is evaluated many years later by me as a third person.                                                                                                                       

                                                                                                        May 28, 1914

Dear Millie:

I am writing you this last-minute letter before we leave for Liverpool. As you know, Mom and Dad decided go to a Salvation Army conference being held in London, England with members of the Canadian contingent and that is why we are embarking on this seven-day trip across the Atlantic on the Empress of Ireland.

Many of the ocean liners of the day had a mail box on the ship that would permit its passengers to write a last-minute letter from the ship and have it mailed before the ship left the dock.

It's a beautiful ship. I have never seen anything like it. It's just like a big hotel with elegant furnishings.

They were not going by way of steerage; that would be fourth-class. The furnishings in steerage would be plain and functional and that is all. For Jane to speak of 'elegant furnishings' there were two possibilities as to what class her family was travelling on the ship. They weren’t very rich or very important and going first-class, in which case the furnishings were elegant. They were were going second class and both their stateroom and their home didn't have elegant furniture in it and therefore any furnishings in second class would appear to her as elegant even though they weren't. The reference to the 'big hotel' doesn't say anything useful because the name of the hotel isn't mentioned. If it was like the Frontenac in Quebec City, then they would have been going first class but if was a lesser-quality hotel; then they were going second-class. Further, for them to travel first-class or second-class on this liner would mean that her parents were fairly high up in the hierarchy of the Salvation Army and as such, probably rated a better state room than the other Salvationists who went second class.

Because we left our hotel in Montreal early, the captain of the boat permitted us to board the boat hours before it is scheduled to leave. This has given me a chance to look around the boat without bumping into people at every turn.
Since she was writing a last-minute letter, she must have wandered about the ship when few people had boarded it and she was later aware how crowded it would be by the time the ship was ready to sail. Also, one can presume that if her parents were high in the hierarchy of the Salvation Army, they would have to be one of the first on board because there were 147 Salvation Army people on that particular ship and Jane's parents would settle in and then greet the other Salvationists at the gang plank. This would make it possible for Jane to wander around on her own. Also, she didn't say 'us' when she wrote about wandering around so we can presume that she may have been an 'only child'

Our travel brochure states that the Empress of Canada is 14,500 tons and she was built in 1906. At first, I thought we would have to go on some little old boat that was leaking at the seams.

The tonnage figure she gave gives the reader of her letter some idea of the size of the liner. It was small compared to the Titanic which had been 46,000 tons but it was the largest ship owned by Canadian Pacific Line and the largest Canadian passenger ship afloat. To anyone traveling on that ship in 1914, the ship would only be eight years old and that isn't old for an ocean-going liner and as such, it wouldn't be leaking at the seams.

I met a nice little boy on the deck but he is so sad. He is suffering from consumption and is being returned to Ireland because Canada won't accept him because of his disease. He says that his family has been permitted to stay in Canada and they have arranged for him to stay with his uncle in Dublin. I only got to talk to him briefly because he is being locked in a cabin all by himself.

At the time of the writing of her letter, Jane called his disease 'consumption' but it was later called 'tuberculosis' and Canada, as well as the United States would not permit anyone to come into their countries as refugees with consumption because it was so contagious; hence, families were often split up for these reasons. By using the words, 'permitted to stay' it is self-evident that the boy's parents had just recently entered Canada as immigrants.

I will try and visit him while he is in his cabin so that he won't be lonely.

That wouldn't happen because the ship's crew isolated him and no-one was permitted to visit him accept the doctor or nurse on the ship and the crew who brought him his meals.

Well, Millie, I must finish this letter because I have just heard the loud blast of the ship's horn and the crew are calling out to the well wishers to disembark. I am sad that we are leaving Canada but I know that my heart will remain in Canada forever. My memories of Canada and you are so fond to me that I think I will die before we reach England. And you know me, Millie, what I say always comes true. However if I should survive my sadness and my anguish, I shall write you as soon as we arrive in Liverpool.

Until then, I remain,

Your best friend


Jane was a very emotional girl and was prone to exaggerate her real feelings. She was right however about one thing. She did die before she reached Liverpool. The next day, May 29th, 1914, the Empress of Canada was rammed by a Norwegian collier (ship that carries coal) and the ship sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River in 14 minutes. Jane, her parents, and the sad little boy locked in his cabin were among the 1,024 passengers who lost their lives in that sinking.  

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