May 29

This Day in History

Disaster

May 29, 1914:

Ships crash in heavy fog

Heavy fog causes a collision of boats on the St. Lawrence River in Canada that kills 1,073 people on this day in 1914. Caused by a horrible series of blunders, this was one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

The Empress of Ireland left Quebec on May 28 with 1,057 passengers and 420 crew members on board. At 2:00 a.m. the following morning, the Empress was near Father Point on the St. Lawrence River when thick fog rolled in. A Norwegian coal freighter, the Storstad, was approaching as visibility was reduced to nearly nothing.

Although each ship was aware of the other, the Storstad failed to follow standard procedures for fog conditions, which call for stopping when visibility is drastically reduced. The Storstad only slowed, while the Empress came to a complete stop. The Storstad hit the Empress mid-ship and sliced through its hull. Captain Thomas Anderson of the Storstad made matters even worse by failing to reverse engines after the crash. He proceeded directly ahead, crushing many people on board and turning the Empress over onto its side. Anderson later told investigators he had feared reversing would have allowed water to rush into the hole.

This was a colossal error. The Empress sank in just 14 minutes, taking the great majority of its passengers with it. Only 217 passengers and 248 crew members survived the collision. The subsequent investigation placed most of the blame on Captain Anderson, but found the Empress had also ignored some critical precautions that would have saved many lives. Because of the risk of collision, the Empress should have sealed its watertight doors, which would have minimized damage from a crash; it did not.

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