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A Forgotten Disaster

Clockwise from top: The Empress of Ireland plies the waters of the St. Lawrence in the early 1900s; the government steamer Lady Grey (foreground) sits in a dry dock at Levis, Que., in 1915; the damaged bow of the Storstad.

Fourteen minutes. That was all the time it took the elegant Empress of Ireland, pride of the Canadian Pacific’s North Atlantic passenger fleet, to go from sailing serenely down the calm waters of the St. Lawrence River to lying on the river bottom, taking more than 1,000 souls with her in Canada’s worst marine disaster. Yet the story of her sinking, which rivals the Titanic and Lusitania, remains largely unknown today.

On the afternoon of Thursday, May 28, 1914, 1,057 passengers boarded the Empress at Quebec. Canadians made up about half the passengers, with Ontario particularly well represented. Middle-western Americans comprised most of the other half, along with a mixture of Europeans. A group of 171 Salvation Army members were also aboard, on their way to an international congress in England.

The 14,100-ton Empress pulled away from her berth at 4:30 p.m., with the Salvation Army staff band playing God Be With You Till We Meet Again. Ominously, the ship’s orange tabby, Emmy, deserted just before the ship sailed and could not be coaxed back aboard.

Launched in 1906, the Empress became a popular liner on the 4,500-kilometre Quebec-to-Liverpool route. Some 185 metres long and 22 metres wide, she guaranteed a fast, pleasant voyage. CP boasted that the ship’s six-day crossing spent only four days on the open sea by using the sheltered waters of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf.

The ship enjoyed a reputation for reliability and service. It had double bottoms and watertight compartments, and could remain afloat with several of them flooded. She carried a lifebelt for everybody aboard and sufficient lifeboats to hold everyone, a recent requirement imposed after Titanic’s sinking two years earlier. She also possessed the latest in wireless equipment, maintained a 24-hour wireless watch, and had crossed the Atlantic 95 times before and had an experienced crew of 420. There was no reason to expect this crossing would be other than safe, swift and sure. But in less than 10 hours, almost three-quarters of those aboard would be dead without ever having left Canada.

The Empress of Ireland spent her first night on the broad, protected waters of the St. Lawrence under a clear, starlit sky showing the beauty of a new moon. Her passengers ranged through three classes of accommodation, and a fourth category, steerage. They represented a cross section of typical Canadian society of the day. Third class and steerage contained 717 ordinary, working-class people, many of them first generation immigrants who still spoke in their native tongues and sailed as complete families. Several were returning to Europe to visit relatives after having established themselves in their new homes.

Class segregation, much more a feature of Canadian society at the time than today, continued on the ship’s eight decks. Each group had its own sleeping, dining and recreation facilities. Even their children had separate play areas, although most of the 138 children aboard sailed in third class.

At 1:30 a.m., after dropping the pilot off at Pointe-au-Père below Rimouski, Que., where the river is 50 kilometres wide, the Empress made her way down the St Lawrence at a steady 18 knots, with Henry Kendall, an experienced seaman of 39 in charge on his first outbound trip from Quebec. A spare, reserved man, he stayed on the bridge longer than usual while the ship remained on the river.

Fog, the most common and almost only hazard on this stretch of the river, drifted by occasionally, but when a long, low bank of dense fog suddenly cloaked the whole ship, Kendall became worried. Just before the fog came in, he saw another steamer approaching approximately 10 kilometres off the starboard bow, and then it disappeared completely. He intended to pass the other ship “green to green,” that is starboard to starboard, as indicated by the lights each ship carried. Then the fog closed in.

Kendall immediately ordered both engines full astern, followed by all stop when his ship’s forward momentum ceased. He blasted out a warning whistle, indicating he was going astern. The other ship acknowledged, seemingly safely to starboard. The Empress sat dead in the water, waiting expectantly. Her clock showed 1:47 a.m.

Eight minutes later, suddenly and without warning, the shadowy shape of the steamer materialized out of the fog off the Empress’s starboard bow less than a ship’s length away, making straight for her, its red and green lights glowing eerily through the mist like some bizarre sea creature’s eyes. She was the Storstad, a 6,000-ton Norwegian collier, inbound from Sydney, N.S., loaded with coal from the Dominion Coal Company. Built only four years earlier, she had a reinforced bow to help cut through pack ice.

Surprised, both ships reacted instantly to their masters’ commands. Kendall shouted, “Full astern!” while the Storstad’s engines also went into reverse. But it was too late. The finely pointed bow of the collier sliced more than seven metres into the side of the Empress like a giant meat cleaver, opening a cut seven metres high and five metres wide between her funnels. Much of it was below her waterline, rendering her watertight bulkheads useless. So neatly had she knifed into the Empress most of those aboard didn’t even feel it. Those who did, noticed only a slight jar.

Kendall shouted through his megaphone to the Storstad’s captain, “Keep your engines ahead,” in an attempt to use the other ship to block the flow of water into the Empress, like a cork in a bottle. But Captain Thomas Andersen couldn’t hold the Storstad against the bigger ship, and she slid out. As the Storstad slipped away, her bow severely crumpled and the waters of the St. Lawrence surged into several of the Empress’ decks simultaneously at a rate of 275 cubic metres a second, causing her to list toward her fatal wound.

Reacting instinctively, Kendall tried to beach the Empress on the Gaspé shore, five and a half kilometres away, but the coal-fired engines flooded so quickly the big ship lost power. At the same time, he signaled the crew to close watertight doors and muster at the lifeboat stations. Unfortunately, several of the big doors could not be closed against the pressure of the list.

Additionally, stewards had earlier left several cabin portholes open when passengers objected to their closing, including some on the lower deck only a metre and a half above the waterline. Columns of water a third of a metre in diameter gushed in.

For hundreds aboard it was already too late. The onrushing water trapped several hundred passengers asleep in their berths below deck before they even knew what happened. Most of them drowned in their bunks. Others, clad only in flimsy nightclothes, joined a headlong, panicked rush for the boat decks, but became caught as rising waters cut out all electrical power and plunged them into darkness. Only one SOS got out before electricity failed at 2:01 a.m.

As the Empress’ list worsened toward 30 degrees, passageways tilted crazily on their sides, creating a nightmarish labyrinth from which few escaped. A mob mentality took over as screams of children and adults could be heard from below, echoing through the ship’s ventilators.

The severe tilting caused objects of all kinds to break away and slide across the decks, injuring or killing many and knocking others overboard. This massive shift in weight speeded up the list.

Then the Empress lurched violently onto her side with her decks vertical, throwing several people into the cold water and cruelly crushing a lifeboat, killing its 40 or more occupants. Hundreds scratched and scrambled over the port side railing onto the hull, where they sat shocked and shivering in the chilly night air, trying to fathom what had happened.

For a moment, it seemed as if the Empress might continue to float on her side. Some thought she already lay on the bottom. But they were wrong. According to William Clarke, a fireman on the Empress who earlier miraculously escaped from the Titanic’s stokehold, waiting around for the end was the hard part with the Titanic. He later told reporters, “There was no waiting with the Empress…she rolled over like a hog in a ditch.”

About 2:09 a.m., after only minutes on her side, water completely engulfed the Empress and she went down with “a hiss and a gurgle.” Survivors, mostly clad in thin nightwear, few wearing lifebelts, struggled to stay afloat on the cold, dark river, surrounded by corpses and debris.

The ship sank so fast the crew had little time to launch her lifeboats. Although five or six got away safely, many on the starboard side went under before they could be freed from their davits, while several on the port side became impossible to launch because of the ship’s list.

As soon as the burly, bull-necked Andersen hit the Empress, he prepared to launch his four lifeboats, convinced his ship would soon go down. When he realized he remained afloat, a low moaning that became agonized screams alerted him to the Empress’ fate. He sent his boats to rescue any survivors.

The small boats took the trembling, terrified survivors to the Norwegian collier, where the crew, including Andersen’s wife, a large, matronly woman, treated them as best they could. They shared out their blankets and spare clothes, coffee and whiskey to warm them. A further 22 died of exposure, shock or injuries after being picked up. Miraculously, a few hardy souls swam through the frigid water to the Storstad, more than 200 metres away; one man even swam all the way to shore.

An incredible 1,012 people had just succumbed in safe, sheltered Canadian waters within sight of land. In some cases, entire families ceased to exist. Ironically, Kendall survived, flung overboard when the Empress lurched onto her side. On the Storstad’s deck he confronted Andersen, exclaiming, “You have sunk my ship!”

Several heroic acts took place amid the horror, as well as fewer incidents of self-preserving cowardice. The most common act of bravery was to give up a lifebelt to a needy passenger although, amazingly, some survivors didn’t even get wet.

The pilot boat Eureka and the mail tender Lady Evelyn sped to the area on learning of the foundering ship’s wireless plea for help, although neither of them arrived in time to make any real difference. By 4:00 a.m. only corpses could be found and their crews’ first heartbreaking task became recovery of the dead. When they retrieved all the bodies, they could find, they brought the survivors and the dead to Rimouski.

At the little south shore town, the inhabitants did everything they could to help. They took in the 465 survivors and built coffins for the 213 bodies recovered. But the vast majority of the fatalities remained where they died, trapped deep inside the bowels of the Empress. Canadian newspapers rushed extra editions into print to cover the disaster, which made headlines around the world for a day or two.

Telegrams flew back and forth as families and friends attempted to find out if their loved ones survived. A Regina newspaper cabled to ask about passengers from that city, including Mr. A.H. Death. The next day it received the macabre reply, “Death, not among survivors.”

Special trains took survivors to Quebec, Montreal and Toronto. Late on the afternoon of Saturday, May 30, the government steamer Lady Grey set sail for Quebec with the coffins aboard, escorted by HMS Essex, a Royal Navy warship. The city’s church bells pealed solemnly as the Lady Grey, an all-too-appropriate name for her sad task, came into view early Sunday morning. When she docked, 10,000 people watched in stunned silence as sailors began carrying adult caskets into a shed set up as a temporary morgue. A lone bugler played.

As more and more coffins passed by and the magnitude of the disaster hit them, emotions rose and sympathetic murmurs passed through the crowd. After the adult caskets came ashore, a dozen sailors passed by, each carrying a tiny child’s coffin wrapped in white silk. The spectators sobbed openly. Of the 138 children aboard the Empress, only four survived, one boy and three girls. It took an hour and 10 minutes to offload all the coffins.

The government held an inquiry in Quebec in June, headed by Lord Mersey, who had conducted the Titanic investigation and would go on to head the Lusitania’s in 1915. Each captain blamed the other for the disaster. Kendall maintained the Storstad should have remained against the Empress’ hull in an attempt to slow the inward rush of water. Andersen argued that would have been impossible as the Empress still moved forward. Much of the questioning and testimony revolved around where each ship had been in relation to the other just before impact in an attempt to assign blame.

In the end, the inquiry cleared the Empress’s captain and put the main blame on the Storstad, while a Norwegian hearing did the same for Andersen. But the Storstad’s owners had to sell their ship to meet the damage claims they were ordered to pay. Two months later, events in Europe pushed the terrible tragedy from the spotlight. When World War I ended four bloody years later, the Empress disaster was all but forgotten, overshadowed by the enormity of the slaughter on the battlefields.


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