May 30, 2014

Remembering the forgotten Empress

The Titanic gets the most attention, what with the epic drama of the 1912 sinking of an incomparable luxury liner, stocked with celebrities, on its maiden voyage.

The torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915 also remains in the popular consciousness as a monstrous act of war claiming hundreds of innocent civilian lives.

Then there is the sinking off Rimouski in the St. Lawrence River of the Empress of Ireland, which, though in the same league as both Titanic and Lusitania in its death toll — 1,012, including 172 crew, making its passenger loss greatest — has gotten rather considerably less notoriety over the years.

The standard explanation for “the forgotten Empress,” as it has come to be known and the title of a 1998 book by American nautical disaster historian David Zeni, is that the sinking, whose centennial is being marked this week, was overshadowed by the magnitude and sensationalism of the other two, which occurred in the same time period.

The basic facts of the disaster are almost banal in comparison to mass death by iceberg or torpedo. In the wee hours of May 29, 1914, a slow-moving Norwegian ship carrying coal slammed broadside into the Empress, which had come to rest in a shroud of fog.

Icy water surged into the gash in the hull and through open portholes, and the ship listed violently. It sunk 150 feet to the bottom of the river in about 14 minutes.

The Empress had embarked Quebec City on its 192nd trans-Atlantic crossing since it was launched in 1906. It was bound for Liverpool with a full load of passengers, among which were members of a Salvation Army delegation headed for a convention in London.

Few people were able to get into lifeboats in time, and there was criticism afterward that crew members had capitalized on this to save themselves.

In retrospect, observers noted, it was amazing that anyone at all survived in the numbing river water. Yet 217 passengers and 248 crew were picked up by other boats in the area. The captain, Henry Kendall, was, in fact, rescued by a lifeboat from the ship that sunk his. Of the 167 Salvation Army members aboard, 133 perished.

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