Friday, 30 May 2014

Great Liner Sunk - Appalling Canadian Disaster


Collision in a Fog.


One Thousand Lives Lost.


Passengers Drowned in their Berths

The great Canadian liner Empress of Ireland was run down and sunk off Father Point, in the River St. Lawrence, early on Friday morning.

She left Quebec for Liverpool on the previous afternoon, and encountered a fog, which compelled her to stop.

While stationary she was struck by the Norwegian collier Storstad, and the port quarter from nearly amidships to the propeller was torn completely away.

The ship only kept afloat for a very few minutes. The water rushed through the riven side so quickly that most of the passengers were drowned in their berths.

The latest revised, reports state that the number of lives lost was 1,021. The number on board is given as 1,467, and the saved 446.

Quebec, Saturday. -- Little by little as the relatively few victims of the Empress of Ireland disaster who have emerged from the ordeal alive can be induced to tell their stories the full import of that night of horror becomes apparent. The outstanding impression among them all is the rapidity with which the tragedy was enacted. There was no time to put on lifebelts, no time even for the officers or stewards to rouse sleeping passengers below. The waters of the St. Lawrence settled over the great ship and converted her into a vast steel tomb.

The collision was quickly followed by the explosion of the ship's boilers, and to add to the terror of the situation the dynamos gave out, and the mass of people fighting for their lives were pitched into inky blackness. Mr. Philip Lawler and others among the rescued say that the explosion was terrific, and as it so quickly followed the collision it was evidently caused by water reaching the boilers. The people were simply catapulted into the sea.

"I Was Pushed Overboard."

"I was pushed overboard," Mr. Lawler said, "with my wife and my son, aged fifteen. The boy swam, and I was holding up my wife, but I had to let go of her, and she sank."

Dr. Johnston, chief medical officer of the ship, declared that if the Storstad had not backed away so soon there would have been a larger number saved. When the collier pulled away the sea surged into the hole she had made, and the liner foundered with amazing rapidity. The chief Marconi operator, Mr. Hayes, said -- "As soon as I felt the shock I was I ordered to call for help. Father Point quickly answered, but I could not talk with him, as five minutes after the impact the dynamos failed. Seventeen minutes later the ship sank."

Mr. M'Intyre, a member of this Salvation Army said -- "When I reached the deck I found the people standing about. There were no lifeboats there." When the vessel foundered Mr. M'Intyre swam in the direction of the collier, which rescued him. He declared that when he reached her the collier was all lighted up, and many of the rescued were aboard. The majority were scantily clad.

Liner Turns Over.

Major Attwell, of Toronto, who with his wife are among the saved, declared that the impact was only a slight one, and he was surprised afterwards at the awful consequences it had. When he tried to reach the deck he found it almost impossible to do so I owing to the list of the ship, which was lying wallowing on her side. As he swam on his back in the icy waters he heard a dull explosion, followed by a burst of steam, which spread to all parts of the vessel. Then the liner quickly turned over.

"It seemed as if we had turned turtle," he said. "I think many of the first class passengers were saved. I saw only one first class boat lowered. The weather was virtually calm. The behaviour of the crew on the whole was good, though it must be said the men hardly had time to effect rescues systematically, as the vessel was sinking before the crew or anybody else realised it. The crew tried to launch a boat over the upturned side of the Empress, but it was impossible owing to the list."

The Fate of Mr. and Mrs. Irving.

Mr. Clayton Burt, of Toronto, who is probably the last man who saw Mr. and ' Mrs. Laurence Irving alive, said "they sat at my table in the dining-room. They came along as I stood on deck and asked me what was the matter. I said, 'Save yourselves; we are sinking.' Mr. Irving went to his cabin and returned with two lifebelts. One he placed round his wife, the other he put round him. I then climbed the rail and urged him to follow me. He said he was coming, and as I looked bake I saw him and his wife climb the rail. I sank down to the water's edge. Then the explosion occurred, and as the ship made the final plunge I dived. When I came to the surface I met Miss Thompson, of New Zealand, who begged me to help her. I caught a floating suit case, to which we both held on till we were saved. Only two children are known to have been saved. One is Gracie Hanagan, aged eight, daughter of a leading bandsman in the Salvation Army. Her mother and father were drowned. The child was thrown into the water, where she seized some wreckage and floated until she was picked up."

Mr. J. Fergus Duncan, another passenger, of London, declared that when, the first boat was lowered she fell bow foremost into the water owing to a fault in lowering. When he heard the crash he went on deck and saw the collier moving away, while the frightened passengers were asking what had happened. They began doning lifeboats, and it was awful, he said, to see poor women without strength to keep hold of the railing as they were hurled back against the cabins.


One of the most graphic stories of the wreck is that told by Mr. Fergus Duncan, of London. "I was in my bunk when I heard three whistles, which meant 'I am keeping my course.' A moment later came two short blasts, signifying 'I have stopped.' I was scared and jumped hastily out of bed and started to dress. Then, the engines stopped suddenly, and a moment later they were reversed. I could see through the port hole that there was a dense fog. There came a terrific crash. The ship heeled over, and there was a frightful grinding noise and smashing of plates. I ran on deck half dressed. But as I got there the steamer listed much that I could hardly get away. There was not the slightest chance to lower the lifeboats owing to the list. All stuck in the davits, and those who could get lifebelts, but the time was too short with many even to put them on."

Asked as to the behaviour of the crew, Mr. Duncan said that so far as he could see they behaved well. There was no sign of panic among then. "Of course," Mr. Duncan went on, "there was disorder, as was to be expected in such frightful emergency, but I saw members of the crew helping passengers, and saw several men hand their lifebelts to women. I had left my lifebelt in the cabin, but I met a man who had two, and he gave me one, otherwise I should not be here.

A Struggle for Life.

"While we were all in this" confusion the ship gave a sudden lurch, and the whole lot of the passengers were rolled down the deck into the sea. There was a case of every man for himself. There was a shriek as the ship turned over, and. I heard women crying and praying and men shouting as they fell into the water.

"When I came up there was the same terrible noise in the sea, women and men crying and then dropping out of sight in silence, while men were fighting each other in death grips." Half a dozen seemed to grapple with me, and I had to fight them off as best I could. As it was I felt the naked bodies of dead men under my feet. I was in the waiter about an hour, and was finally picked up by one of the lifeboats nearly dead with exhaustion and cold. I don't suppose one out of a hundred passengers was dressed, but the excitement was so intense no one thought of that.

"We cannot speak too highly of the kindness shown us since we landed at Rimouski, but I suppose it will be some time before most of us recover sufficiently to appreciate it all."

The Sides Burst.

Mr. Duncan added that the officers he saw behaved admirably, facing death fearlessly, Captain Kendall was standing on the bridge until the ship sank, and apparently he was doing everything possible to save lives. What became of them, he said, I don't know. As the liner prepared for the final plunge I slid down the plates of her side. I had reached the water when the steam caused the sides to explode, creating great commotion. When the ship foundered I was caught in the vortex, and sank, but I quickly rose to the surface again, and swam to one of the liner's boats as she passed and clung to a rope. I was eventually hauled aboard exhausted and frozen, and was then taken to the collier and placed in the engine-room.

He was warned that some of the survivors there were raving mad with the shock and hardship they had undergone. The terrible scene he witnessed there beggared description. Dr. Grant, ship's surgeon, behaved in the calmed=st manner throughout the catastrophe, and was indefatigable in his attention to the survivors. He was instrumental in saving many lives. The assistant purser, Mr. Hayes, said Captain Kendall bade him farewell on the bridge when the water was lapping at their feet. Captain Kendall wore a belt, which he gave to a passenger. Mr. Hayes and Captain Kendall jumped into the river together. A lifeboat rescued Mr. Hayes half an hour later as he was sinking. Captain Kendall was discovered clinging, to some wreckage. He was taken to boat No. 3, of which he assumed active command, and saved seventy-three lives, in that boat alone. After placing these on board the rescue steamers, Captain Kendell returned to the wreck and rowed around for three hours, searching for possible survivors. Captain Kendall took the cars himself, and was indefatigable in hos exertions.


Surgeon Grant gave a graphic account of his experience. He said -- "I was in my cabin when the listing of the ship threw me out of my bunk. When I finally opened the door and reached the passage way it was so steep, due to the way the ship canted, that efforts to climb it were impossible owing to the carpet to which I was clinging breaking away. I then managed to get my head through the port hole, but was unable to get my shoulders through. The ship was lying almost flat in the water on the starboard side. A passenger finally pulled me through. About one hundred passengers had gathered on the side of the ship, but a moment after I joined them the vessel plunged to the bottom. I swam until a lifeboat rescued me. I was then taken on board the collier, where I received attention. Some of the other rescued people, however, were so exhausted that they died. Pluckily to leap from the deck to the water, swim half an hour, and then fall dead from exhaustion on board the Eureka, was the fate of an unidentified woman.


The Empress of Ireland is a twin screw steamer of 14,500 tons, and 18,000 horse power. Her length between perpendiculars is 550 feet. Her moulded breadth is 65 feet, while she has a depth of 40 feet moulded to the upper deck. The vessel is propelled by two sets of direct action quadruple expansion engines, and was capable of a speed of twenty knots. There are eight complete decks, the upper promenade being approximately 300 feet long, and the lower promenade extending clear of the stem.

The vessel contained many mew and interesting features. She is ventilated and heated by the Thermo tank system, changing air in every compartment once in ten minutes, thus avoiding bad odours and liability to sea-sickness, and has a playground provided for the third class children. Special attention has been paid to women and children, while the excellence of third class bath rooms and lavatory arrangements, of the smoke rooms and of the music saloons usually come as a surprise to passengers. She is fitted with submarine bell signal telephones to warn commanders against submarine dangers, and has a Marconi installation.

The Empress of Ireland left Liverpool for Quebec and Montreal on Friday, May 15, and she was on her return journey when the disaster occurred.


Tells a Dramatic Story.

Quebec, Saturday. -- The survivors unite in paying their tribute of appreciation to Dr. James F. Grant, the ship's surgeon, who calmed the terror-stricken, helped to preserve the hopes of the despairing, and comforted the bereaved. Dr. Grant was pulled from a port-hole, after the ship listed, and was thrown into the water. He swam towards, the Storstad, and was picked up by a small boat.

Dr. Grant tells the following graphic story of the disaster -- During the early morning the fog thickened, and the Empress proceeded slowly. At eight minutes to two the Storstad rammed us. The Norwegian lights had previously been sighted by the watch, who reported to the captain, who was on the bridge. Captain Kendall thereupon signalled three blasts upon the whistle. The collier answered, but I do not know what she replied. Then Captain Kendall signalled, "I am stopping," but the collier continued to approach.

Captain Kendall then ordered the engines to be reversed and full steam astern. It was, however, impossible to avoid the collision, and the Empress was rammed amidships, the engine-room being penetrated, and the starboard plates stripped clean off for an enormous length.

The collier back off and stood away about a mile. In a few moments the Empress took a heavy list to starboard, and never righted. It was quickly seen that the liner was doomed, and an attempt was made to launch the starboard boats. The first were thrown clear, but where overturned. Several port boats were thrown across the decks by the list, and several persons were crushed to death against the rail. Chief Officer Steele was killed by one of these boats. There was no disorder among the crew, and the captain and other officers stood at their posts until the vessel sank, which was only seventeen minutes after the time of the collision. Only a few passengers were able to obtain lifebelts, and nearly all were forced into the icy waters in their night attire. Hundreds clung to the sides of the ship until the last heave, and hundreds swam round and about her screaming for help.

The Storstad quickly launched her lifeboats, but they were all soon filled, and hundreds had to be left to die. Five of the Empress's boats got away.


The catastrophe was so sudden that scores of people had no chance to leave their berths, and were caught like rats in a trap. To add to the difficulty the passengers, you must remember, had only been one day on board, and were unfamiliar with their surroundings. In the confusion and panic many never found their way to the decks.

The survivors were taken off the Storstad by the Lady Evelyn, which had answered our wireless call, and were given every attention. Nevertheless, five died from shock and exposure, and four women expired through exhaustion.

I did not know anything of what was occurring until I was thrown out of my berth by the listing of the boat. I tried to turn on the lights, but the current had gone, and I could not find the door. I heard screams of terror and and the sound of rushing water. I managed to get out of the stateroom, but was unable to walk along the alley way. I scrambled along the side of the wall to a porthole, and got my head out.

I was astounded to find the side of the ship crowded with people standing as though they were on deck. I called out for help, and a bystander pulled me out throughout the port hole. The ship was soon pulled from under us and as we were going down the fog lifted, as if its purpose had been accomplished. I saw the collier's lights. I swam, about for a little, and then, a lifeboat picked me up.


Two girls, one aged about seven and the other about ten, went over the side of the Empress and reached safety. A third child was drowned, and the father of the three also perished. The younger girl who swam to my lifeboat refused to believe her father was dead and kept saying, "He will be in the next boat."

Another child who was rescued -- Helen O'Hara, daughter of a Toronto stockbroker, told her story as follows -- "When I woke up the boat was leaning way over and over. I had only time to put on a few clothes, when father carried me on deck. I do not know what became of mother. Father jumped, and I fell out of his arms into the water, which was awfully cold. I swam to and clung to a piece of wood. Afterwards I swam to a boat, and was overjoyed on reaching shore to find my mother safe."

This ends the doctor's narrative.

Estimates received here up to midnight give the total lost and missing as one thousand and ten. It is known that twenty-nine first cabin and twenty-five second cabin have been saved. The scene when the survivors reached here was most pathetic. Three hundred and ninety-six of the rescued were in the train, and many of them were injured. All were utterly bowed down with grief. Nearly all had lost a loved one. Many were clothed in misfitting attire, which had been furnished them when they reached Rimouski, and presented a pitiful sight. All who could speak were full of the tale of terror which followed the collision -- the panic, the confusion, and the darkness.


Heartrending Scenes.

Montreal, May 30. -- A message from Captain Belanger, of the Government steamer Eureka, which was the first to reach the scene of the disaster, says that he brought to Father Point fifty bodies and sixty survivors. He relates that when he was told of the disaster by the Marconi operator at Father Point, he immediately got his crew together and turned the Eureka towards where the Empress of Ireland had disappeared. He picked up several small boats, and lifted the men, women, and children from them into his own ship.

The survivors declared that everything had happened so quickly that they scarcely realised what had occurred. All they could say was that the ship had gone, and that there was not even time to cry "Women and children first." There were so few women and children saved, not because of any crowding in the lifeboats, but because the stewards had not sufficient time to awake the passengers. Those saved say they were tossed out of bed, and ran on deck, and had just time to get into lifeboats and pull away. Those who waited to dress or even waited to be called by the stewards were drowned. Hundreds must have been drowned in their sleep. The dead bodies were picked up by the Eureka's crew, who carried them to the stern, and laid them in the open, covering them with sheeting.

The survivors who snatched at clothing of any kind to protect themselves from the cold walked about in a frantic condition on the decks of the Eureka.

As soon as the Eureka had reached Father Point Wharf a call for doctors went out. The scene was pitiful in the extreme. Some of the survivors screamed that they must land at Father Point when they were told it would be better to proceed to Rimouski. A message was sent ahead to Mr. Webber, the Canadian Pacific agent, who had only left the Empress of Ireland at Rimouski a few hours before the disaster to prepare to receive the dead and the survivors.

The Eureka proceeded to the wharf at Rimouski, and one hour after she docked the Lady Evelyn steamed in sight. She carried twenty dead and eighty living. One hysterical survivor had to be held on board by two of the crew to prevent her from jumping overboard. She kept screaming in agony, "Leonard, my poor Leonard." She is believed to be the wife of Mr. Leonard Palmer, the well-known English journalist, who organised a party of British manufacturers who came to Canada two years ago. It is feared that, Mr. Palmer was drowned.


A Happy Reunion.

Montreal, Saturday. -- Few of those who came alive from that maelstrom of death off Rimouski had such stirring experiences as befell Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Greenaway, of the Salvation Army band. It was their honeymoon trip, the couple having been married in Toronto a week ago.

Mrs. Greenaway said -- We left our cabin in confusion. I lost my husband, but some friends put a life belt on me. When the steamer was nearly under I felt all was over. I began to pray for Divine help. The suction drew me deep down in the swirling black water. Then I seemed stunned by an explosion. When I regained consciousness I found myself lying across a deckchair in the water. I think the explosion must have blown me right out of the water. Two men on a raft pulled me aboard. One said, "Don't be afraid, little girl; my wife's gone." I answered, "I've lost my husband." He opened his coat and vest and drew me close and buttoned his coat around me. That kept me warm. I don't remember anything more until I found myself on board the collier. I have not seen those men since. I am afraid they went down.

Mr. Greenaway stated that he went back to get wraps for his wife, and on reaching the deck he could not find her. He concluded that she must be gone, and he decided to go down with the ship, "Grasping the rail firmly, down we went," said Mr. Greenaway. "Then came the explosion, and I came to the surface and clung to the leg of a table until a pilot boat picked me up. This morning I found my wife at the hotel, and we wept together for pure joy."

Mr. Lawrence Irving met his death bravely. When the collision occurred the actor and his wife rushed on deck. Mr. Irving took Mrs. Irving in his arms, but the next big wave swept both overboard, and they disappeared. their arms entwined, in the swirling waters.


We are officially informed that the Lord Mayor of London has decided to open a Mansion House fund for the relief of the widows and orphans and dependents of the crew and passengers of the ill-fated Empress of Ireland, as was done in the case of the Titanic disaster.

The Lord Mayor of Liverpool has opened a relief fund for the relatives of those who have perished in the Empress of Ireland disaster and for the assistance of survivors in urgent need. His lordship has subscribed £50, and the Lady Mayoress £25 to the fund.

Messrs. Joseph Bibby & Sons, seed crushers, have contributed £1,000 to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool's Empress of Ireland relief fund.

This article originally appeared in The Witness 2 June 1914.

image: The Empress of Ireland

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