A Tragic Voyage: 100 Years after the Sinking of the Empress of Ireland

On May 28, 1914, under the command of Captain Henry George Kendall, the Empress of Ireland set sail under clear skies from Québec City with 1,477 passengers and crew on board heading to Liverpool, England. The ship picked up mail at Rimouski and then continued on to the pilot station, Pointe-au-Père, where the pilot disembarked saying, “I don’t think you’ll run into much fog,” as he climbed down the rope ladder. What followed was a perfect storm of tragic events that resulted in the loss of 1,012 lives.

The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland ca. 1906.

The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland ca. 1906 Source

The Fog

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on May 29, Captain Kendall saw an approaching vessel, the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad. Almost immediately afterwards, a thick fog rolled in and Kendall ordered a full stop to allow the other ship to pass safely. The two ships communicated their sailing intentions. As the Storstad entered the fog bank, her First Officer later testified, there did not seem to be any possibility of a collision.

Just before 2:00 a.m., the fully loaded coal freighter emerged from the fog bearing down on them quickly. Captain Kendall franticly attempted to alert the Storstad, but it was too late—the Empress was violently struck mid-ship. The damage sustained was irreparable, the engine rooms quickly flooded leaving the ship powerless and unable to close the watertight doors of her bulkhead. As water continued to overwhelm the Empress, she lurched violently and alarms were sounded for the sleeping passengers to abandon ship.

SOS

A few hundred people reached the deck, but only four lifeboats were safely dropped before the ship capsized. Passengers and crew were thrown into the icy waters, and within minutes the Empress disappeared, finding her final resting place at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.

The majority of the lives lost that night had been far below deck in third class. Of the 1,477 passengers and crew that had boarded the Empress of Ireland, a mere 473 survived.

The Storstad, following the collision with the Empress of Ireland.

The Storstad, following the collision with the Empress of Ireland Source

Tragedy and Blame

Heartbreak and finger-pointing followed the tragedy. Both ships’ crew members insisted they were not to blame for the accident. Editorials at the time claimed that if you believed either captains, both ships were at a standstill and miles apart. In the end, the inquiry found the Captain of the Storstad responsible for the collision.

The wreck of the Empress of Ireland rests on the floor of the St. Lawrence, 11 kilometres off Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, in 40 metres of water marked by a surface buoy. One hundred years later, the Empress of Ireland remains the largest Canadian maritime accident that occurred during peacetime.

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