Thursday 12 June 2014

Empress of Ireland: Survivors Experiences




Desperate Fights for Life

Glasgow, Tuesday. -- The Allan liner Corsican berthed in the Princes Dock, Glasgow, at four o'clock this morning, bringing the surviving members of the crew of the ill-fated Empress of Ireland, and also a number of her passengers. Arrangements had been made for boarding the ship off Greenock at eleven o'clock last night, but an official intimation that she was likely to appear off the Tail of the Bank at least two hours earlier caused many persons, including a strong force of newspaper representatives, to hasten down to Greenock. They were grievously disappointed, as it was half an hour after midnight before the Corsican hove in sight, and there was a scramble to board her from a tug. Her captain feared to lose the tide, and so the steamer merely slowed down for an instant, and then passed on to her destination.

The passengers most sought after were in bed, and the sailors who had been saved from the Empress of Ireland were not to be approached until after berthing, but between midnight and 4 a.m. the representatives of the Board of Trade had appealed, and after the Corsican had cast off her tugs inquisitive persons were informed that an official inquiry was proceeding. A rumour had spread at Greenock that the survivors amongst the seamen were to be represented by one of their number, who would make a statement for publication, but it transpired on the authority of an official that no such arrangement had been contemplated. A pledge was also exacted that no attempt should be made to approach the passengers until a certain time had elapsed.


One pathetic incident marked the arrival of the Corsican. A Mr. Newton, of Southport, travelled to Greenock with a sister-in-law, who had a brother, Mr. J. W. Furness, first violinist on the wrecked vessel. This lady, Miss Furness, went alongside on the tug, but was not permitted to board the Corsican. In the list of saved there had appeared the name of Furness, but with different initials from those of her brother, and the relatives had journeyed down from Lancashire in the hope that the initials had been wrongly printed, and that the musician was aboard the Allan liner now nearing port. Miss Furness remained on the deck of the tug until it had piloted the Corsican into dock, and Mr. Newton signalled from the steamer that their hopes WW* but ill-founded. Miss Furness, realising the worst had happened, became prostrate with grief, and received many expressions of sympathy.

Mr. Furness was formerly a ship's bandmaster, but coming home from a trip and finding his aged mother at the point of death he elected not to sail on the outward voyage. His ship left the United Kingdom without him, and his agents then offered him the position of first violinist on the Empress of Ireland. This he accepted. His father, now old and infirm, was in an agony of suspense awaiting the news which his daughter and son-in-law had to take him from Glasgow as to the result of their quest.

There was a scene of greet activity on board the Corsican after she had docked, and much of this was due to the distribution by Allan line officials of a complete kit to the rescued seamen and passengers, the latter of whom were all third-class.


Mr. A. Heller, a passenger of Austrian Extraction, but a naturalised American citizen, recently living in Toronto, in the course of a conversation aboard the Corsican, stated that he was in the habit of making monthly journeys to this country. "I was," he said, "in the steerage of the Empress of Ireland, and there were three others occupying the same cabin. I was sleeping at the moment of the collision with the Storstad, and was awaked by one of my three companions. We all immediately left the cabin to get up the companion-way to the deck, but so great was the list in the ship at that time, and so unsteady was her movement, that I slipped back three times. I was wearing a shirt and pants only. Eventually, and with some difficulty, I managed to get to the deck when the ship was heeling over, and it was next to impossible for me to keep my feet. I went towards the lifeboats, but there was scarcely time to swing them free of the davits owing to the rapidity with which the ship was settling down. The man who awoke me was, I regret to say, among the drowned. There were a good many people out of their berths, including women and children.

"I slid down pretty nearly to the water's edge and then dived. I am a good swimmer, and I was anxious to get away from the ship, as one of her funnels was apparently hanging over. At the instant of my throwing myself into the water women were screaming and clinging to all sorts of floating gear. Some passengers were rolling into the sea, as the decks were getting well-nigh perpendicular. I had just got clear when the Empress of Ireland disappeared. Everything then became quiet. It was after I had been keeping afloat for twenty-five minutes that I was picked up by a boat. There were twenty-six members of the crew in that boat, and there was room for eight or ten more occupants."


The British survivors are --

Mr. S. C. Furness and Mr. G. Dransfield (Liverpool).
Mr. W. G. Bevan (Swansea).
Mr. C. Bristow and Mr. C. H. Bristow (Leeds).
Mr. Martin Gill (Belfast).
Mr. G. C. Kirtley (West Hartlepool).

With the exception of Mrs. Kirkley, all the Britishers declined to make statements. Mrs. Kirkley told a short but graphic story of how she escaped. The lady was in charge of a nurse on the Corsican, but she had sufficiently recovered from her terrible shock to be able to relate her thrilling experience. Mrs. Kirkley is a good swimmer, and to that she owes the fact of the almost miraculous circumstance of being alive to-day.


She stated -- "As soon as I realised the danger I ran from my cabin to the deck. It was a matter of no little difficulty, too, as the ship almost immediately lurching upon its side, I could not get at a boat, and saw the only chance was to dive and trust to my swimming capacity and luck. When the rail of the ship was near the water's edge I dived, and went no considerable distance under. Striking upwards I got to the surface, when I saw several people around me floundering about and moaning and shrieking. Then a man who was in almost a state of collapse caught hold of me when I was approaching a boat. I was by this time fast becoming exhausted, especially as the man clung to me like grim death, and try as I would I could not get him to release his grip.

"With a supreme effort I managed to clutch the boat after having been in the water a few minutes; then I threw one of my legs over the side of the boat rail, but the man still clung to me. To save myself, for it was my only possible chance, I shook the man off. With a cry he sank, and that was the last I saw of him. I could do no other. My strength was fast going, and had I not acted as I did I should have dropped back into the sea and been lost." Mrs. Kirtley is a lady of about thirty-five and of fairly robust build.

The arrival of the Corsican was expected, and even at that early hour many people assembled outside the shed of the dock where she was berthed in the hope of getting a glimpse of the survivors. The sailors on the river cheered.

The stewardess of the Empress told how, when she heard the crash, she made for the upturned side of the ship, slipped down the deck, and dived just as the vessel was about to sink. "I can only remember," she added, "someone catching hold of me, and I woke up safe on board the Storstad.

Soon after reaching Glasgow the Continental survivors entrained for Grimsby en route to Hamburg, the Empress passengers for their respective destinations, and the majority of the crew for Liverpool.

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The Allan liner Alsatian arrived at Liverpool yesterday with a large number of survivors from the Empress of Ireland. Among them were six first-class passengers, six second-class, and thirty-five steerage, the latter nearly all foreigners. There were also on board 106 stewards, fifteen deck hands, and five members of the engine-room staff of the ill-fated liner.

The Alsatian also brought home nine bodies of victims -- namely, Chief Officer Steede, Storekeeper Wildman, Miss Biddlel, stewardess, and six foreigners.

A large number of relatives and friends of the members of the crew proceeded down the Mersey on a tender to meet the liner. There were loud cheers as the survivors were recognised, and when they landed there were many affecting scenes.


The survivors aboard the Alsatian presented a curious spectacle, and some of their relatives experienced difficulty in recognising them. They were attired in all kinds of suits, and many of then seemed to have had complete new rig-outs. When the survivors met their relatives in the waiting-room at the landing stage the joy of reunion in many cases was almost hysterical. The woman flung themselves sobbing into their husband's arms, and the children cried with delight as they held their fathers by the hand.

One pale-faced woman was almost smothered with kisses by her husband. She had given birth to a baby boy fourteen days before the disaster. At first her husband was reported drowned, and the woman had almost given up life and hope when she received a cablegram announcing that he was saved.


Tipperary Man's Narrative

Mr J. D. Langley, of Tipperary, a second class passenger aboard the Empress of Ireland, told a graphic story on landing. He said that on reaching the doors to that deck he found they were closed. Some people who were trying to get out declared they were jammed. He volunteered to try and clamber through a port hole to open the door, but stuck when half-way through. He, however, managed to wriggle through, and tried to open the door. It would not budge, and he told the people inside he must leave them. He scrambled on the railings where there was a member of the crew with a life belt on.

When the ship sank they went down with her, but came up to the surface within a few feet of each other. They kept afloat about ten minutes witnessing embarrassing scenes, but eventually came alongside an upturned lifeboat. They were pulled on that by some of those already aboard, and sat shivering there for two hours before rescued by a pilot boat.

Between them they pulled fifteen or twenty people out of the water, and watched two men with lifebelts on drown, being unable to reach them. It was hideous hearing people who were drowning call for help. He saw no women in the water, and concluded that they had been unable to leave the ship.


Mr. J. J. Lennon, of Winnipeg, said he saw a little girl in night attire lying unconscious in the water. He managed to pull her into a collapsible boat. She soon came to her senses, and asked "Where's Muvver." He told the child her mother would be all right to comfort her, and they took bar to Rimouski.


Percy Gee, a steward, said he just managed to scramble out of the boat which had rescued him when one of the lifeboats fell on it, killing and injuring several people, and smashing the boat to pieces. He was picked up by a collapsible boat after being in the water about half an hour.

Robert Crellin, of Cleator, who rescued Florrie Barber, a little girl, whose mother and sister were lost, said he fetched her from the cabin, and when the ship was sinking plunged into the water with her. He swam toward a lifeboat through bitterly cold water, which was crowded with dead and dying people. They were taken into a boat which contained over sixty people. The most terrible part of the disaster was the sight of hundreds of people struggling in the water while the boats near them were too full to take any more aboard. The water was black with heads bobbing up and down, and the cries were pitiful. He had left the child at Quebec, where there were several wealthy people desirous of adopting children who lost their parents in the disaster.

Mrs. Fanny Evinson, of Leeds, who lost her husband and baby, said in the companion way the people were fighting for their lives; bit the foreigners were the worst, as they tried to force their way on deck carrying luggage. They were all blown into the water by the explosion or rush of air, and on coming to the surface she could see nothing but the heads of people crying for mercy. She managed to keep herself afloat, although unable to swim, until she clutched the sides of the boat. Next day she learned that her husband and baby were drowned.

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Mr. Martin Gill, a Belfast man, who is one of the survivors of the Empress of Ireland disaster, has arrived in Ireland from Glasgow, to where he travelled from Canada by the Allan liner Corsican. In the course of an interview he said that as the ill-fated liner dropped down the river he retired to his cabin, and in a short time was asleep. The next moment of consciousness came to him as the collision took place. "I awoke," he said, "at the sound of a mighty crash which was followed immediately by an indescribable sound of grinding and smashing. For m moment I was half-stunned with the noise and the concussion, but soon realised that some catastrophe had befallen the ship. I suppose the memory of the Titanic's fate suggested a collision with an iceberg, but that was the first thought that sprang to his mind. Two minutes later I was in the midst of some people scrambling for the deck. I didn't dress; in fact all the passengers I saw were in their night-clothes. The awful sound of water rushing into the ship was enough to upset the coolest of us, and I, for one, did not take time to lift anything. I had 1,500 dollars, and all my worldly possessions in the cabin, but when life depends on moving quickly, one does not think of such things. On deck I saw that another steamer had collided with the Empress. The bows of the Storstad had bitten 8ft. into the side of ship.

"I didn't wait much longer. Torrents of human beings were streaming out to the decks, and darkness added to the confusion. From the top deck of the ship I dived into the icy water, and, after what seemed an interminable period, I came again to the surface and struck out. I never considered myself a good swimmer, but I found I could swim well when I had to save my life. I swam directly away from the Empress towards the Storstad. There was a fog on the water at the time of the collision, but it suddenly lifted like a veil and I could see both vessels. I had got a hundred yards from the Empress when she foundered. I will never forget the sight as long as I live, and the moans, shrieks, and shouts are still ringing in my ears.

"I was in the water about half an hour, and had almost reached the Storstad," continued Mr. Gill, "when I was picked up by one of her lifeboats. I didn't know a single person on board, although most of the survivors have lost relatives who were traveling with them." Mr. Gill, who was supplied with clothes and passage money by the C.P.R., was asked if he were going back to Canada. "I had intended to go back," he said, "but I have not yet got over the shock of that awful night, and I may decide to remain in Ireland for the future."

This article originally appeared in The Witness 12 June 1914.

image top: Emigrants on the Empress of Ireland

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