The following list though far from inclusive recounts some of the worst maritime disasters of their time either because of the loss of lives or their historical significance. The next time you think you’re having a bad day, remember the ancient adage, “Worse things happen at sea.”
1. Though it didn’t happen in one incident, 2014 saw the deaths of over three thousand refugees fleeing Libya and the Mid-East. Many of the boats they took were woefully unseaworthy and incredibly overcrowded, making them unstable when they ran into storms.
2. The Wilhelm Gustoff. This German ocean liner was carrying refugees fleeing the Russian army. On January 30, 1945, Minutes after leaving port, it was torpedoed. Due to the circumstances, there was no passenger list, but it is estimated it was carrying ten thousand people, three times her capacity. Less than 1,000 passengers survived.
3. The SS Sultana. This paddlewheel boat, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s years on the Mississippi, was carrying 1,800 freed POW’s home at the end of the Civil War. On April 27, 1865, the boiler exploded not far from Memphis. Those who didn’t die in the explosion died from drowning or hypothermia after being thrown into the cold waters.
4. The Dona Paz. In the Philippines, this ferry was carrying more than twice its capacity of 1,749. On December 20, 1987, it collided with a tanker, The Vector, loaded with a flammable cargo. The official toll was put at 1749, but experts say the number of lives lost was closer to 4,300. The loss of life was made even more tragic because lifejackets that could have saved so many lives were locked up.
5. The General Slocum. On June o1, 1901, passengers aboard a steamer had no idea the horror in store for them. A fire aboard the ship quickly spread; a young boy who spotted the fire early tried to warn the captain, but he ignored him. Of the 1,300 plus passengers on board, only 321 survived. The tragedy was made worse because equipment exposed to years of sea air was never updated. Fire hoses and life preservers fell apart. And lifeboats that could have saved so many were out of reach.
6. The SS Kiangya. This Chinese steamer was carrying refugees escaping civil war in their homeland. The manifest listed 2,150 passengers, but with crew and frantic stowaways, it’s estimated close to 5,000 people were onboard. On December 04, 1948, the ship hit an old Japanese mine in the Huangpu River.
7. The Mary Rose. This rebuilt English galleon of King Henry VIII served its country well for years in numerous wars. While repelling a French invasion on July 19,1545, this 90 plus gun ship sank. It’s unclear why. Some speculate it took on water through the gun ports while making a turn in stormy seas. Six hundred and sixty lives were lost.
8. The Empress of Ireland. On May 29, 1914, this ship collided with the Storstad in the Saint Lawrence River in heavy fog. Damage to the starboard side was severe, and the ship listed so quickly only three lifeboats were able to be launched. Out of the 1,477 onboard, 1012 were lost. Because of this tragedy, the design of bulkheads underwent a radical change.
9. The Lusitania. World War I was raging, when this ocean liner packed with civilians was making its way from New York to London. On May 07, 1915, it was torpedoed by a German sub without warning off the coast of Ireland. When it sank twenty minutes later, 1,201 men, women, and children lost their lives. Because the ship sank so quickly, many believe England secretly used the ship to transport munitions, clearly a violation of treaties at the time.
10. The HMS Birkenhead. Used to transport troops, the Birkenhead carried a total of 643 soldiers and their families. The soldiers were being transported to the Kaffir War in South Africa. Deciding he could save time, the captain hugged the coast. Tragedy struck on February 26, 1852 when the paddle wheeled ship struck a rock barely concealed below the water. With the bulkheads shredded, many soldiers died in their beds. The ship immediately broke in two but not before lifeboats could be lowered into the water. Ordered to stand fast so that women and children could enter the lifeboats first, the soldiers calmly stood by, knowing it would cost them their lives. Some soldiers were able to swim the two miles to shore; others were picked up by a passing boat. Most drowned or were eaten by sharks. Because of this act of bravery, 193 survived, many civilians. This heroic act established the worldwide protocol: Women and children first.
11. The Eastland. It was a happy day in 1915 when employees of Western Electric Company boarded the excursion boat at the Chicago pier. They were hard workers and headed to a picnic provided by their company. The ship was loaded with 2,752 passengers and numerous lifeboats thanks to a new law. What could go wrong? With the ship only twenty feet from the dock, the passengers moved en masse to the other side of the ship perhaps to wave goodbye to friends on dock. The sudden move coupled with the weight of the new lifeboats destabilized the ship. It suddenly capsized much to the horror of onlookers and passengers alike. Eight hundred and forty-five people lost their lives, many who were trapped below when the accident happened.
12. Le Joola. Disaster was far from the minds of the passengers on board this ferry. With a capacity of 580 people, Le Joola easily had four times that onboard. When it set out on September 26, 2002, seas were calm and the mood festive. Waters gradually became choppy before the overcrowded ferry ran into a storm. Within minutes, the boat capsized with time to launch only one lifeboat which carried twenty-five people. The dead were estimated at 1,863. The loss would have been greater had it not been for fishermen who were able to pluck passengers from the water.
13. MS Estonia. Bad weather is no surprise to Findlanders, so when passengers boarded the ferry on September 28, 1994, they were unprepared for the horror about to unfold. The ship encountered heavy seas pitching the ship unexpectedly. Something else unexpected happened as well. One of the workers failed to secure the bow doors. When a massive wave hit the ferry, it suddenly keeled over, taking 852 passengers to a watery death.
14. The Halifax Explosion. Halifax wasn’t even a ship. It’s a town in Nova Scotia, but on December 06, 1917, life there would be changed forever. The SS Mont-Blanc, carrying munitions, was en route to France when it collided with the SS Imo. This instigated a fire that rapidly spread. Twenty-five minutes later, the Mont-Blanc exploded with a violence that wasn’t to be seen again till the detonation of the atomic bomb. Not only was much of Halifax wiped off the globe, but the explosion created its own tsunami further adding to the destruction. When the dead were counted, over 2,000 people lost their lives.
15. The Titanic. This ship needs no introduction. Deemed unsinkable, this state of the art liner was destroyed on April 14, 1912 by an iceberg. Some would say incompetence or smugness from the captain played a role when he chose to ignore warnings of icebergs in the area. Evidently, he chose to believe the hype. This came at the expense of 1,517 people who lost their lives.
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