Heavy fog in the North Sea causes the collision of two steamers and the death of 357 people on this day in 1883.
The Cimbria was a 330-foot, 3,000-ton steamship built in 1867 and operated by the Hamburg-Amerika Line. It left Hamburg, Germany, on January 18 with 302 passengers and 120 crew members. Among the passengers were eastern Europeans heading to America, French sailors on their way to Le Havre and a touring group of Native Americans who were exhibiting Wild West paraphernalia.
The Sultan, a smaller Hull and Hamburg Line steamer traveling with only a crew, was also moving through the North Sea on January 19. Although there was heavy fog early that morning, neither boat took any precautionary measures, like reducing their speed, and the Sultan smashed straight into the Cimbria on the port side.
Both steamers were badly damaged and the Cimbria‘s lifeboats were launched. Seven were inflated, but in the confusion, they weren’t filled anywhere near capacity. In addition, three lifeboats quickly disappeared in the heavy fog and were never seen again. For those people who did not make it onto a lifeboat, the cold water was deadly. Hypothermia and drowning claimed hundreds of lives within minutes.
A few nearby ships picked up a couple of lifeboats soon after but the bulk of the 65 survivors from the Cimbria were not picked up until two days later. The captain of the Sultan, which had managed to stay afloat, was widely criticized for his failure to provide any assistance to the passengers and crew of the Cimbria. In total, 357 people lost their lives.