The last voyage of the Empress of Ireland
On the 28th of May 1914, the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Empress of Ireland was docked in Quebec. Loaded onboard were 1,100 tons of general cargo, including 252 ingots of Silver and 2,600 tons of coal necessary for the voyage.
The Empress was under command of Captain Henry George Kendall.
Even though he had 25 years sea time and 12 years with CPR, he was new to this ship.
He was promoted and put in command of the Empress of Ireland at the beginning of the month and this was to be his first time down the St. Lawrence River in command. He was with the pilot Adélard Bernier, a crew of 420, of which 53 were sailors and 6 Officers.
There were 1,477 people aboard when the Empress of Ireland weighed anchor at 16h30 for Liverpool, England. With a decor rich in wood panels, fireplaces, flowers, full of pagentry, first class offers a music and writing room, a library, a café, and a smoking parlour. No stateroom carries the number nor adds to 13.
Meals were served in the grand dining room on the sheltered deck. Among the 87 1st class passengers were Mr. Lawrence Irving, a well know actor, his wife Mabel Hackney, and Sir Henry Seton Karr, a very rich English gentleman returning from a hunting trip in Canada.
For the 253 Second class passengers, the Empress of Ireland had comforts comparable to 1st class on many other ships. The men had a smoking parlour, the ladies a music room. Meals were served in a dining room equal to 1st class with a restrained decor.
In 2nd class, there were no aristocrats but 170 members of the Salvation Army including an orchestra of 39 musicians on route to a convention in London.
In third class, life was agreeable but could not compare to the other two. Life was a lot more tolerable than 20 years previous. The 717 people in 3rd class formed a very diverse group, of these, 300 were temporarily laid off Detroit Ford workers returning to Europe. Also there were many failed immigrants returning to their homelands.
In the meantime, a few hundred kilometers from Québec, the Storstad, a coalship filled to capacity was going up river to deliver 10,400 tons of coal to Montréal. Built at Newcastle-on-Tyne, in England, the ship belonged to a Norwegian ship owner named Klavenes. The ship was 135 meters (445’) long and 17.5 meters (58’) wide drawing 7.5 meters (25’) of water. Its baseboard was a mere 1.2 meter (4’) and max speed of 10 Kts.(19 kms/hr). The Storstad was a potential danger if involved in a collision or alongside boarding. Built in the Isherwood principle with longitudinal beams (stem to stern) with a sharp bow as per the times and re-enforced bow for ice navigation.
About 21h30, the 28th of May, the captain, Thomas Andersen retired to his cabin with his wife, leaving his 1st Mate Alfred Toftenes in charge with orders to wake him at six miles from Pointe-au-Père or in casse of Fog. On deck were 5 men of the crew of 36. It is nearing 01h00 May 29th, 1914 the air is clear.
On The Empress of Ireland
01h20, the pilot Bernier disembarks the Empress of Ireland onto the Eurêka, a tug, one mile out of Pointe-au-Père. 01h30, Kendall orders full steam ahead and heads north-east to rejoin the channel. 01h40, a lookout, Carrol, reports a ship going up river at about 8 miles to starboard.
They foresee the rule of the road. The Empress of Ireland will cross the coal-ship’s course lightly with sufficient distance between the two ships to parallel its course and pass green to green ( starboard to starboard ) without danger. Once in parallel position, Kendall orders a course of east, thus seeing the mast head light and the green light of the other ship. Shortly after Kendall notices a thick fog bank arriving from the south shore coming between the two ships. As soon as he is in the fog he orders “Full Astern” to stop the ship.
Once stopped, the captain orders two long blasts of the whistle to warn the other ship. The coal-ship answers with one long blast, a lot closer. Kendall becomes more nervous and looks for signs of the ship through the fog from the Starboard Bridge Wing. Suddenly he sees the Storstad come out of the fog at about 30 meters (100’). Collision it seems is unavoidable. He orders “Full Speed Ahead” to avoid the worst. The Storstad strikes the Empress of Ireland at a 45 degree angle with the bridge at the center of the ship. Captain Kendall yells in the voice pipe not to reverse engines to keep the boat stable, but the coal-ship reverses engines and water quickly penetrates the Empress of Ireland. IT IS 01h55, 29TH MAY 1914.
On The Storstad
01h40, the lookout warns Toftenes on the bridge the sighting of a ship at approximately eight miles (13 kms) to Port. As the on deck watch observed the other ship, the Mast-head light aligned itself until one could see the port running light, at that moment both ships were in the fog. Toftenes trusting to observations believes the ships will pass red on red. Worried he orders all stop and warns the other ship. Stopped, his ship was sent adrift to the left by the current. Believing the other ship on that side he turns to Starboard to counteract the current. For the screws to have effect he orders "Slow Ahead".
Nervous he calls for the Captain. As Andersen arrives on the bridge a white and green light comes out of the fog. The passenger ship is dead ahead and collision is imminent. Anderson orders "Full Astern". The third sound of the whistle is still in the air when the collision occurred.
The Storstad remains stuck in the Empress of Ireland a short time, the captain tries to stay there by ordering "Full Ahead' but the current is too strong and the ships separate. It is 01h55, 29th May, 1914. All went silent on both ships and the fog returned. Andersen sent his men to check for damage, the ship was not taking on any water.
The Fourteen Minutes
Knowing his ship is condemned, Kendall orders all watertight hatches and doors secured, and to man all lifeboats. The ship had been struck amidships just behind bulkhead number 5 which separated the two boiler rooms. Stewards are directed to awake all passengers give them lifejackets and direct them to their life raft stations. With its strong starboard list and force of the impact it was impossible to close most watertight doors. With one foot on the bulkhead and one foot on the deck the wireless operator, Ferguson , sent the SOS. Many passengers were awakened by the list and penetration of water in their cabins. Having spent less than 10 hours on the ship most passengers blindly found their way to the lifeboat stations. Some of the Port Steel lifeboats broke loose and crushed passengers at their Starboard stations. Through out this a few boats were put in the water.
With its strong starboard list and force of the impact it was impossible to close most watertight doors. With one foot on the bulkhead and one foot on the deck the wireless operator, Ferguson , sent the SOS. Many passengers were awakened by the list and penetration of water in their cabins. Having spent less than 10 hours on the ship most passengers blindly found their way to the lifeboat stations. Some of the Port Steel lifeboats broke loose and crushed passengers at their Starboard stations. Through out this a few boats were put in the water.
Ten minutes after impact the ship completely turns over to starboard, the two huge yellow and black stacks hit the water and crush one of the lifeboats. Many passengers were thrown into the water including Captain Kendall who swam to a folding boat. During the next ten minutes the ship slid underwater forming two huge waves. Only fourteen minutes had passed since the collision.
Of the 1477 passengers and crew embarked in Québec, 1012 died. The 465 survivors were dressed, fed and cared for in Rimouski. The corpses returned from the wreck were kept in a Boatshed.
For days the body search continued on the river, the event made world news, as for the Storstad it continued its journey to Montréal with its smashed bow.
The speed of the event did not help those unfamiliar with the ship. About half of the survivors were crew members, 248 people, while 840 passengers lost their lives, more than on the Titanic.
Of the 138 children aboard 134 died. The Salvation Army, which was greatly affected by this tragedy, organized a memorial procession in Toronto never equaled. The CPR, owners of the Empress of Ireland, attempted during the month of June to refloat the vessel in order to recuperate the valuable cargo, mailbags and bodies. The position of the ship on the bottom forced the dive team to abandon this idea. The divers were then ordered to dynamite the cargo holds and recover what was valuable with about 250 bodies.
A Royal Commission was rapidly set in motion in Québec on the 16th of June 1914. Presided by Lord Mersey it had a mandate to determine responsibility and reason for such a quick sinking. After weeks of testimony and 8,000 questions asked by lawyers for both sides, it was concluded that both ships had committed navigational errors. Furthermore blame was placed on Alfred Toftenes, 1st Mate of the Storstad, for not calling his captain once in fog.
As for the quick sinking, it was evident that the major cause was a question of watertight doors. In its recommendations the commission also proposed that in the future, all watertight doors and portholes be shut at night and in fog, also that lifeboats be placed on the upper decks freely so that they could float in case of a sinking. Its final recommendation was that an alternate approach to the pilot stations be established to avoid ships crossing paths so close.
Dive The Wreck
Once the dive team left the wreck site in 1914, no divers returned until 1964. Since WW1 broke out one month later the wreck of the Empress of Ireland was quickly forgotten. For a few years a buoy marked the spot and her lifeboats rusted away for a long time at Pointe-au-Père. It was 50 years later when a group of divers from Gatineau and Montréal sparked by an article in “Le Soleil” relating to the tragedy that the wreck was rediscovered.
Since then many divers have visited the wreck, bringing up many pieces of forgotten history. In 45 meters of water at 7 kms from Ste-Luce-sur-Mer, lying on its Starboard side, the Empress of Ireland keeps many of its secrets.
A Cultural Property
The Wreck Is Now Protected
The explorers of the 1960s found a wreck that had not yet been visited. Within 30 years, thousands of items had been recovered with relative ease. With this uncontrolled salvaging, public fear grew that the wreck would not be preserved.
In 1998, an expedition that would have resulted in the destruction of part of the wreck drew attention. Several local citizens petitioned the federal and provincial governments to assure the protection of the Empress of Ireland. On April 15, 1999, Québec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications classified the wreck in the category “historical and archaeological property,” thus showing its great symbolic and commemorative value as the biggest maritime tragedy in the history of Canada. This protected status prohibits any intervention or salvaging of artifacts from the ship.
In the spring of 1999, the Canadian Coast Guard moored a white buoy near the wreck, thus indicating that it is a protected site.
Diving on the wreck is still permitted as long as the divers respect the regulations outlined in the Cultural Property Act.
Thanks to the generosity of these divers, many of the salvaged items may be viewed by the public. They bear witness to the tragedy, allowing the memory of the Empress of Ireland to live on.
A Marine Graveyard
Time continues to do its work, relentlessly deteriorating the immense wreck of the Empress of Ireland. However, the history of the ocean liner, especially of its tragic end, will long fascinate imaginations everywhere. Many divers continue to explore the wreck, tomb for about 600 of the 1,012 victims of this tragedy.