The cruise ship cut through the near-freezing water in the dead of night. For the first-, second- and third-class passengers it was an exciting time, ahead of them lay a long voyage across the ocean to a far-flung land.
But it would be a voyage that was to be cruelly cut short, for out of the darkness loomed a solid mass – one which it was impossible to avoid. When the collision occurred it was severe – steel plate juddered and buckled from the impact.
The radio officer managed to send out a message, but things started to happen very fast. The ship began to flood, very, very quickly.
In 17 short minutes it was all over and more than a thousand lives were consigned to the deep.
You might be thinking Titanic, but this tragedy occurred two years later, on May 29, 1914 – almost 100 years ago to this day – when The Empress of Ireland sank in Canada’s St Lawrence River.
The ship, which had been bound for Liverpool, collided in thick fog with a Norwegian coal freighter, the Storstad. The two ships had signaled each other, but according to Henry Kendall, captain of The Empress of Ireland, the fog obscured the view.
The next time he saw the Storstad, it was just a ship-length away… too late to avoid catastrophe. The freighter, which had an ice-breaking bow, plunged into the side of the Empress.
The real damage was done, though, when the Storstad backed out, causing water to rush through the gaping hole.
Captain Kendall was on the bridge at the time, and quickly ordered the lifeboats to be launched. However, as the Empress of Ireland lurched to her side, he was thrown overboard, and was taken down with her as she sank.
He managed to swim to the surface and clung to a wooden grate until he was hauled aboard a lifeboat. which he immediately used to rescue survivors.
The lifeboat’s crew pulled many people from the water, and deposited them onto the Storstad. Kendall and the crew then spent over an hour scouring for survivors. They only stopped the search when they felt those still in the water would have either drowned or died of hypothermia.
Most of the Empress of Ireland’s passengers were asleep at the time of the sinking, and drowned in their cabins, mainly because their portholes had been left open.
Amongst the 1,021 dead were the English dramatist and novelist Laurence Irving, and the explorer Henry Seton Karr. The statistics make for tragic reading. All but eight of a group of 167 members of the Salvation Army also perished.
Only 465 people survived the tragedy, four of whom were children (the other 134 children were lost). Forty-one women made it ashore out of a list of 310 who were on board.
An interesting aside to the story concerns the ship’s cat, Emmy. She was an orange tabby who never missed a trip. On the day of the Empress of Ireland’s final voyage, Emmy tried repeatedly to leave the ship.
She could not be coaxed aboard and so watched from the roof of a shed at Pier 27 as it sailed away from Quebec City for the last time. Pier 27 would be the place where many of the dead would be deposited in the wake of the tragedy.
Over 1,500 people died on the RMS Titanic. In terms of lives lost, the Empress of Ireland wasn’t far behind. Unlike the Titanic, though, her demise has largely been forgotten outside of Canada.
On the centenary of a terrible tragedy, spare a thought for the Empress of Ireland’s thousand-plus lives now lingering amid the murky depths of an ill-remembered past.