1914: Empress of Ireland sinks in the St. Lawrence
Seventy-two years later, survivor Grace Martyn recalls being awoken by the crash, then making her way up to the deck with her parents. Because the ship was listing badly, launching more lifeboats was impossible. Then eight years old, Martyn landed in the frigid water and was rescued by a lifeboat. But her mother was missing and her father had perished - two of the 1,012 passengers and crew who would die in the disaster.
• Unlike the Titanic, which had sunk after striking an iceberg two years earlier, the Empress of Ireland was not a glamorous luxury liner. But it was posh enough to have its own orchestra, and was considered the fastest ship travelling between Quebec City and Liverpool.
• The fatal collision happened during the ship's first night at sea near the Quebec city of Rimouski. Around 2 a.m., Captain Henry Kendall spotted the lights of the approaching coal ship, the Storstad, and estimated it was eight miles (about 13 kilometres) away. He changed course so that each ship would pass on the other's starboard (right) side at a safe distance, and slowed to a crawl.
• Meanwhile, fog had settled in, obscuring any further view of what lay ahead.
• On the Storstad, the first mate was in charge that night. He later claimed that he had seen red lights - indicating the port (left) side of the other ship - before the fog enveloped them. He assumed the ship had turned to pass on the port side, and ordered the Storstad to turn starboard to avoid a collision.
• By the time Kendall spotted the Storstad emerging from the fog, it was too late.
• According to PBS.org, "Ironically, had both ships involved exercised less caution, the accident would likely not have happened."
• The Storstad, with its bow built to slice through ice-encrusted northern waters, cut open a huge gash in the starboard side of the Empress of Ireland. Water poured in, dooming the people sleeping on lower cabins on that side.
• The ship immediately began to lean sharply to starboard and lay on its side within 10 minutes.
• The remaining passengers and crew, unable to launch more than five or six lifeboats, were perched atop the hull of the ship. When the ship lurched suddenly, many plunged into the water. The rest were submerged when the ship slipped beneath the surface.
• Rescue efforts began immediately, with boats in the vicinity rushing to the scene to pick up survivors. Only 465 people escaped.
• A British inquiry into the disaster found the crew of the Storstad responsible. But a separate inquiry held by the Norwegians (where the Storstad originated) pointed the finger at the Empress of Ireland.
• Just weeks after the disaster, Canadian Pacific Railways - the operator of the Empress of Ireland - dispatched divers to salvage its cargo of $150,000 in silver bullion (over $2.7 million in 2006 dollars). Also recovered was first-class mail en route to England via the ship, and the purser's safe.
• For the next 50 years, the ship's location underwater was a mystery until it was rediscovered in 1964.
• Over the next three decades the wreck site - under 50 metres of water - was visited hundreds of times by hobby divers who stripped it of virtually anything that could be removed. Even bones of dead passengers were taken from their resting places.
• In April 1998 the government of Quebec declared the wreck a historic site. "It can no longer be pillaged or touched," said Culture Minister Louise Beaudoin.
• Though more passengers died on the Empress of Ireland than on the Titanic - 840 to 832 - the Empress of Ireland is largely forgotten while the Titanic has been immortalized in countless ways.
Also on May 29:
1953: The world's highest mountain is conquered for the first time. Following a five-hour final assault, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal spend about 15 minutes on the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest.
1985: One-legged runner Steve Fonyo, 19, reaches Victoria to complete his 14-month run across Canada. Inspired by Terry Fox, he raises $13-million for cancer research.
1987: The Reform Party of Canada is launched at a Vancouver convention, with Preston Manning as leader. The party is reorganized and renamed the Canadian Alliance in 2000.
Program: The Fifth Estate
Broadcast Date: Sept. 23, 1986
Guest(s): Grace Martyn
Reporter: Hana Gartner
Last updated: January 31, 2012
Page consulted on March 20, 2013
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