“You Have Sunk My Ship!”: RMS Empress of Ireland

On May 28, 1914 the Empress of Ireland sailed from Quebec down the St. Lawrence and into history.

Formal portrait of Captain Henry Kendall, the ...

Up in the bridge, Captain Henry Kendall, First Officer Edward Jones Third Officer Charles Moore were on watch. So far things had been uneventful. Lookout John Carroll sighted a vessel and Kendall altered his course in plenty of time so that the Empress and the other ship would pass ‘green-to-green’. Then a fog appeared, shrouding the other vessel. Kendall stopped the Empress and blowing the ship’s whistle he ‘signaled’ to the stranger

I am going astern on my engines

When the Empress had stopped he again messaged

My ship is not moving

The Storstad, which was the vessel’s name, answered, but what came next was nothing short of a nightmare. Out of the fog and night, the Storstad was bearing down on the Empress. Kendall tried to maneuver out of the ship’s way and told the Storstad to go astern, which they did. Still it was too late. The Storstad went between the Empress’ ribs, slicing into the ship.

The Storstad was a Norwegian collier. It was designed in such a way that it was able to plow through ice. Taking that into account, one could only imagine what this type of ship could do to another. Its master, Thomas Andersen, was resting in his cabin when the Empress was first sighted. First Mate Alfred Toftenes and Third Mate Jacob Saxe were on the bridge observing the Empress when a fog rolled in. The crew of the Storstad thought that Kendall intended to pass red-to-red, as they had seen Kendall’s red light just before the fog encased it. Toftenes slowed the ship down, while Saxe replied to Kendall’s whistle. Andersen was soon on the bridge and just in time to see the Empress in his path. He ordered engines full astern. The Storstad ripped into the side of the Empress, but soon broke free from the hole and the Empress disappeared into the fog. Toftenes inspected the crumpled bow of the Storstad and reported to Andersen that “She still floats”.

Aboard the Empress, passengers were hardly aware of the collision. It had been very slight, not nearly enough to incite fear. And maybe that would have been the end of it, passengers and crew would have just gone back to bed. But that wasn’t all – the ship was taking on a big list, throwing people from their bunks. Water shot into open portholes and the lights went out. Those that were not drowned had to battle panic-stricken crowds in the corridors, maneuver through the dark ship and/or struggle to climb stairs sideways. Many efforts made to crank shut watertight doors were fruitless, due to the Empress’ list.

Wireless operators Ronald Ferguson and Edward Bramford stuck to their posts as long as they could. Chief Operator Ferguson had just gone to bed but had not fallen asleep, when the collision occurred. He got up and checked to see what was wrong. Taking over the set he sent Bramford to get him clothes, since he was wearing his pajamas.

Empress of Ireland: Standby for distress call. We have hit something.
Station at Father Point: OK. Here We Are.

Ferguson changed clothes and Chief Officer Steede soon appeared telling him to get an SOS off. Already Ferguson was having trouble staying seated as he sent the message.

Empress of Ireland: SOS, we have hit something, sinking fast, send help.

Lady Grey Courtesy Library of Congress

Father Point asked for his position, but Ferguson didn’t know. Instead he thought it was something like “20 miles past Rimouski” although he wasn’t certain.

Father Point: OK, sending Eureka, Lady Evelyn to your assistance.

The wireless set went dead shortly after. Ferguson instead tried to get the emergency set together. Although officers relived them, Bramford and Ferguson didn’t give up. When the acid spilled from the batteries, then they gave up, and not a moment too soon. Along with many others Ferguson was thrown off the ship when she rolled over on her side. Later he was picked up by the Lady Evelyn and took over its wireless set, since they carried no operator. Bramford also survived.

Father Point Courtesy Library of Congress

The crew raced to alert passengers and began swinging the boats out. First Officer Jones tried to get the boats away. When the list got bad, Jones let himself down into the St. Lawrence. He was later picked up by a lifeboat, which he took command of and began picking up survivors. When the Empress rolled over on her side many people were thrown into the river. Others managed to stay on the exposed side of the Empress, thinking the ship was aground. Then it sank taking with her about 800 souls.

Not long afterwards the dreaded fog disappeared. Aboard the Storstad, the Norwegians were wondering what had happened to the Empress, when they heard the screams of the dying in the water. Fourteen minutes after the collision, the Empress had sunk leaving behind a mass of humanity struggling for their lives in the cold St. Lawrence. The Storstad sailed towards the screams and began lowering their lifeboats. They picked up a number of survivors and took them back to the ship, where they were cared for as best as possible. Second Mate Einar Reinterts went in charge of a boat and arrived in time to see the Empress roll over and sink. He piled in his boat more people then it was designed to hold. On his second trip back to the wreck site, there were hardly any living to be found. Saxe also filled his boat far above its maximum capacity.

The Dead Courtesy of Library of Congress

Kendall also survived, having been blown to the surface.  He was picked up by one of the Empress’ boats and like Jones he took command of the boat and began picking up survivors. He loaded it up as much as he could and took the pitiful group to the Storstad. At the Storstad, he got volunteers from among the Empress’ crew and returned to pick up more survivors. Kendall was ‘half-dead’ himself. When he finally met with Andersen he told him “You have sunk my ship”. He later collapsed in the Storstad’s chart room completely exhausted. Ironically, one woman said to Mrs. Andersen “If it had not been for you, we should have gone to the bottom”.

Source: Croall, James. Fourteen Minutes: Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland.