The RMS Empress of Ireland was launched on January 27, 1906 as part of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company's "Empress" line of steamships, which carried passengers and cargo across the North Atlantic between Britain and Canada. She was 550 feet (167 metres) long, weighed 14,191 tons and her two propellers produced a service speed of 18 knots (33 miles per hour or 53 kilometres per hour). She had five passenger decks, as well as a boat deck, and could accommodate up to 1,700 passengers and crew. Mail was an important cargo for the Empress of Ireland and as such she earned the prefix RMS (Royal Mail Ship) for her maiden voyage from Liverpool in June 1906.
The Empress' career was uninterrupted until she set sail under clear skies from Québec, on May 29, 1914, with 1,477 passengers and crew and a newly promoted captain, Henry George Kendall, on the bridge. After receiving mail at Rimouski, she continued up to Father Point where the pilot disembarked, saying, "I don't think you'll run into much fog," as he climbed down the rope ladder.
Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on the morning of May 30th, Captain Kendall was warned of an approaching vessel, the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad. A thick fog suddenly rolled in and Kendall ordered a full stop to allow the other ship to pass safely. As the Storstad entered the fog bank, her First Officer later testified, there did not seem to be any possibility of a collision.
The minutes ticked by and shortly before 2:00 a.m. the crew of the Empress was shocked to see the coal freighter emerge suddenly out of the fog, less than 100 feet (30 metres) away and bearing down on them at a fast speed. Kendall grabbed a megaphone in a frantic attempt to alert the Storstad, but it was too late -- the Empress was struck violently mid-ship. The Storstad then reversed, opening up the damaged area and letting the icy waters of the St. Lawrence flood the Empress.
Kendall made a valiant effort to beach his ship, but the collision occurred near the engine rooms, which were quickly flooded, and the ship lost power and the ability to close the watertight doors of her bulkhead. A colossal amount of water was pouring into the Empress as she lurched violently and alarms were sounded for the sleeping passengers to abandon ship.
Only four lifeboats were safely dropped before the ship suddenly capsized, heaving the captain, and hundreds of people who had made it above deck, into the icy water. The Empress then sank so quickly that the captain later gave evidence that after being thrown into the water, he re-surfaced to see nothing but two long waves meeting -- caused by the suction of the ship being dragged to the bottom. A total of 1,012 passengers and crew perished, the great majority of them being far below deck in third class. This accident resulted in the largest number of deaths of any Canadian maritime accident in peacetime.
Some of the 473 survivors were rescued by the badly damaged, but still floating Storstad, whose Captain was found responsible for the collision at the subsequent inquiry.
The wreck of the Empress of Ireland rests on the floor of the St. Lawrence, 11 kilometres off of Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, in 40 meters of water marked by a surface buoy. A monument to those lost stands in the nearby cemetery of Métis-sur-Mer, where many of the victims of this tragedy are buried.
"Empress of Ireland 1906-1914." The Great Ocean Liners.
www.greatoceanliners.net/empressofireland.html (accessed September 30, 2005).
Library and Archives of Canada. RG 12. Transport. Volume 1245. File "Empress of Ireland."
"Pointe-au-Père." The Canadian Encyclopedia.
http://220.127.116.11/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0010150 (accessed September 30, 2005).
Wood, Herbert, P. Till We Meet Again: The Sinking of the Empress of Ireland. Toronto: Image Publishing, 1982.