Maritime disasters have often formed a great plot for movies and novels. Some shipwrecks have attained legendary status owing to the sheer magnitude of the disaster. The terrifying accounts of such incidents have been immortalized in folklore.
The dark side of maritime history surfaces time and again whenever another disaster, reminiscent of a previous tragedy, occurs in modern times. While it is natural to assume that gruesome ship disasters are definitely a thing of past, some recent accidents have proved yet again that the cruise industry is still not foolproof.
Although sophisticated navigation and communication techniques have brought the death toll down, the fact remains that human life is still very much at the mercy of nature. In this post, we have given a chronological account of some of the worst shipwrecks to have happened in the past as well as modern times.
(Please note that we have only mentioned the notable peacetime maritime disasters that were covered globally. Apart from those mentioned here, hundreds of other passenger vessel disasters of severe magnitude have occurred.)
Worst Cruise Ship Disasters
Natural elements, collisions and human error in judgment are the most common causes for peacetime ship disasters. Some of these disasters could have been easily avoided or controlled while some could have assumed a more tragic form if it were not for the responsible crew or quick rescue at hand.
SS Sultana (1865)
The St. Louis bound ship left the port of New Orleans on April 21, 1865 with about 100 passengers on board. On its way, it stopped at several destinations to take more passengers. While the legal capacity of the ship was 376, hordes of men threatened the crew and barged inside, making it overcrowded.
These were mostly Union soldiers released from Confederate prisons after the end of Civil War, heading home. Within a short time, the ship was filled to more than six times its capacity, with about 2400 people aboard. During the stopover, the leaking boilers of the ship were also getting repaired. However, the job was done shoddily and in haste.
Instead of replacing the boilers, some cheap, patchy work was done. The consequence was such that, on April 27, three of the ship's four boilers exploded at about 2 am, near Memphis, Tennessee. Soon, the wooden ship became a burning hell for the 2400 people on board. Of these, about 1800 people succumbed to death, owing to drowning, burns and hypothermia.
The reason why Titanic is still talked about even after 100 years of its tragic end is not its opulence or severity of disaster, but the very fact that a ship that was touted as 'unsinkable' sank on its maiden voyage! The New York bound luxury ship left Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 with 2201 passengers on board.
Merely four days into its maiden voyage, the mammoth ship struck an iceberg at about 11.40 pm on April 14. While the impact was not tumultuous initially, chaos and commotion ensued as soon as water started flooding its cabins.
There were very few lifeboats and life jackets available on the ship. The brand new oars of some boats were still tied, making the rescue operation even more difficult. Women, children and first-class passengers were evacuated on a priority basis.
The ship sank completely within 3 hours of hitting the iceberg and took 1517 lives with it. The disaster of RMS Titanic changed the face of maritime travel and brought newer rules and regulations into practice.
The Empress of Ireland (1914)
This Canadian Pacific ocean liner bound for Liverpool encountered poor visibility due to heavy fog on St. Lawrence River near Quebec city, Canada on May 29, 1914. As a result, it collided with a Norwegian freighter SS Storstad. The impact was such that The Empress sank within 14 minutes of collision.
There were about 1477 people aboard the ship, of which, 1012 drowned in the freezing waters. Of the 167 children, only 4 could be rescued. The large number of casualties can be attributed to the open portholes, which clearly violated the regulations. Besides, the cabin design was poor, which allowed rapid flooding of water.
This disaster remains the deadliest one in the maritime history of Canada. Stricter regulations regarding ship design were enforced thereafter. This tragic incident has been chronicled in several books, movies and documentaries.
SS Eastland (1915)
Just a year after The Empress disaster, another tragedy struck maritime travel. On July 24, 1915 SS Eastland was chartered by Western Electric company for its employees. The passengers began boarding the boat at 6.30 am, and by 7.15 am the ship had reached its official capacity of 2572 passengers.
Many passengers moved on the port side deck of the ship, while a few others retired to their respective cabins on the lower floors. At about 7.28 am, the top-heavy ship started listing on its port side. While the crew tried its best to stabilize the ship, it completely rolled over on its side in a matter of seconds.
Those stranded on the deck came under the ship when it rolled over, while those in their cabins were either crushed under heavy furniture or drowned. The tragedy occurred while the ship was only 20 feet away from the wharf. Despite quick help from other vessel Kenosha, 844 passengers and four crew members perished in the accident.
SS Andrea Doria (1956)
The New York City bound Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria was approaching the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts on July 25, 1956, when it was struck by MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line, on the side. Immediately the ship began to list to starboard, which made the launching of lifeboats impossible.
While this situation could have easily escalated to the catastrophic scale of Titanic, the impeccable technical design of the ship allowed it to stay afloat for 11 hours.
This time was sufficient enough to evacuate the 1660 people on board and transport them to safety. The 46 unfortunate individuals who could not make it, mostly died due to injuries resulting from the impact of collision.
SS Admiral Nakhimov (1986)
SS Admiral Nakhimov left the port of Novorossiysk on August 31, 1986 for Sochi, with about 888 passengers and 346 crew members. Within minutes of its voyage, its captain noticed a large bulk carrier Pyotr Vasev headed directly for a collision with Admiral Nakhimov. The captain immediately sent a message to Pyotr Vasev to avoid the collision course.
The other captain assured that the collision would be avoided and the two ships would pass clear of each other. However, despite the assurance, the captain of Pyotr Vasev did nothing to change the collision course. The vessel continued with its dangerous course irrespective of several warnings from Admiral Nakhimov.
At last, Admiral Nakhimov veered to avoid the collision, but then it was too late. The Pyotr Vasev had already taken Admiral Nakhimov, which had started to list.
Chaos ensued in the sinking ship as the lights went off and desperate passengers started diving in the fuel laden waters of Tsemes Bay. Although, the ship sank within 7 minutes of collision, about 836 people could be saved due to immediate rescue efforts.
MV Doña Paz (1987)
The Doña Paz disaster accounts for the worst shipwrecks in the maritime history. On December 20 1987, the passenger vessel left the shores of Leyte island for Manila, the capital of Philippines. Later that night, Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker carrying 8800 barrels of gasoline and other petroleum products.
Upon the collision, an explosion occurred on the oil tanker and fire quickly spread to Doña Paz. There were neither life boats nor life jackets available on Doña Paz, which forced the passengers to dive into the shark-infested choppy waters of Tablas Strait. In all, 4340 people died in the tragic accident.
The accurate death toll cannot be ascertained as the ship was overcrowded with several unregistered passengers. The news of the accident reached the Philippines authorities 8 hours after the event, while the search and rescue operation began several hours after that.
Due to poor distribution of cargo, the ship was tilting on one side, right from the beginning. The first sign of danger came in the form of a loud metallic bang, which indicated a problem with bow visor. Within 15 minutes the bow visor separated from the ship and the ship took a list to starboard.
A message to launch lifeboats was transmitted over the public address system of the ship and the crew was directed accordingly. Meanwhile, the ship heavily lurched about 30 - 40 degrees to starboard.
Although a Mayday was communicated, the crew did not follow international format. Besides, the loss of power made it difficult to convey the position of the ship, which delayed the rescue efforts. Finally, only 137 people could be saved.
MV Le Joola (2002)
MV Le Joola began its fateful journey on September 26, 2002 from Ziguinchor in the Casamance to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, at about 1.30 pm. The ship was carrying about 2000 passengers, which was three times its official capacity of 580. The crew communicated good travel conditions to maritime security center at Dakar at about 10 pm.
Within minutes from its last call, the ship encountered rough weather and turbulent sea. At about 11 pm, the ship quickly capsized throwing passengers in the choppy waters, off the coast of Gambia. Most people drowned immediately following the capsizing of ship.
However, those who managed to stay afloat, could not hold on to their lives for long, as the rescue team did not arrive until daybreak. The local fishermen searched and rescued a few survivors. It is estimated that about 1863 people lost their lives.
The MV Le Joola was built to sail only on coastal waters, but was found to frequently cross its sailing limits. It was not built to cope the rough sea weather. Besides, overcrowding made the ship unstable, which contributed to the quick capsizing.
With 3206 passengers and 1023 crew members on board, the Italian luxury liner was on a 7 day cruise from Civitavecchia to Savona. On the night of January 13, while the ship was sailing off the coast of Isola del Giglio, its captain decided to deviate from its computer programmed course.
He intended to treat people on the isle to the beauty of Costa Concordia, which outshone the stars in the night sky, and as a gesture to honor its former captain. However, this decision of Captain Francesco Schettino proved disastrous to the ship and its four thousand occupants.
As a result of this close sail-past or near-shore salute, the ship hit a reef and ran aground. Post the impact, passengers were neither given any directions by the crew, nor the authorities stayed to help with evacuation. While the rescue teams managed to evacuate most of the occupants of the ship, a few others were feared to be trapped inside the ship.
As of now, 30 people have reported to be dead while several others are missing. The ship's captain and his first mate are under inquiry for the charges of manslaughter, negligence and failure to rescue its passengers. The salvage operation for the ship began in May 2012 and is expected to end by 2013.
When you set for a voyage, the destiny of your travel is greatly decided by the moods of ocean. Human attempts seem futile in the face of ferocious winds and turbulent waves. However, the loss of life can be prevented to some extent by adhering to maritime security regulations and following proper communication codes.
Besides, errors in judgment, miscommunication are other factors that need to be avoided, because when you are sailing, a single error could mean a loss of thousands of lives.