Canada's Greatest River Disaster

Chateau Frontenac, in Quebec City, sits upon a promotory overlooking the St. Lawrence River. On May 28, 1914, the beautiful liner Empress of Ireland slipped easily away from the pier below the hotel on its way to England. Forty-three members of a Salvation Army band stood on its deck playing a 'farewell' to friends on shore. The song was: "God be with you till we meet again".

The band was a small portion of a huge delegation of Salvation Army members on their way to London where they would join an international congress to be held there. They also made up a large portion of the 1,479 people aboard the Empress, the queen of the Canadian Pacific Line.

The weather was mild, though overcast, due to a huge forest fire burning in Quebec's northland and many of the passengers soon went below-deck to have a rest in their staterooms before rejoining in the dining room for dinner.

Captain J.E. Dodd, who was the editor of the Salvation Army's War Cry, scribbled down a final dispatch that would be posted from Rimoulski, just 290 km (180 miles) downriver from Quebec City.

Just east was the small hamlet of Father Point. The pilot boat docked here, a ferry connecting with Baie Comeau, Sagenay, which lead into the northern wildernesses of Quebec. Father Point would soon become the focal point of newspapers all over North America.

Aboard the Empress, the hymns were finished and Captain Kendall, the ship's master, shook hands with Pilot Adelhard Bernier and ordered the ship to be stopped. This was to be Kendall's first voyage as master of the Empress. The time was 1:20 a.m.

A light fog was swirling about the ship when the Kendall noticed the starboard running lights of another ship, possibly 3.5 km (2 miles) distant, but closing. Kendall judged that there was plenty of room in the river to pass safely, but decided to 'play safe' and ordered the ship to be stopped once again. Then the approaching hulk suddenly disappeared in the thickening fog.

Aboard the Storstadt, a Norwegian colliery, riding low in the water from the 8 million kg (10,000 tons) of coal aboard, continiued menacingly through the dark. Chief Officer Alfred Toftenes had seen the lights from the Empress and had also calculated that he would pass her safely to the port. And then he heard three long blasts, which meant that the Empress was proceeding full speed astern. Toftens knew that he must stop the collier, but he also knew that it would be impossible. With the intention of widening the 'margin of safety', he ordered the Storstadt to port --- and directly at the liner. The Storstadt rammed into the Empress of Ireland amid-ships, right between the two smoking funnels, all but slicing her in two.

Most of the survivors felt little more than a slight 'bump'. Meanwhile, sparks flew from the point of impact as the Storstadt swung out of the massive gash, sliding past the doomed Empress and disappearing into the fog.

Captain Kendall realized quickly that his ship had received a mortal wound as she had developed a sudden and very dangerous list.

His order was clear: "Prepare to abandon ship."

With the shoreline (and safety) within sight, the Empress was plunged into total darkness as the power systems failed. Scores of people drowned in their staterooms as water poured through the portholes. Much of the crew became lost in a wall of cold, black water.

Except for an occasional burst of hysterics, there was a frightening calm in the air, as if everyone on board had resigned themselves to their fate. People moved along the slanted decks of the ship as if they were on their way to a picnic.

Attempts to launch lifeboats were futile. It was impossible to launch from the starboard side as much of it disappeared under water within minutes. The lifeboats that were loosened on the high portside failed to clear the davits, scraping the sideplates and spilling the passengers over the deck and into the icy river.

The St. Lawrence River was dotted with hundreds of people, many of whom simply disappeared without a struggle. Others who fought for their lives, grasping at any floating debris to stay afloat in the freezing water, quickly lost their battles and slipped silently beneath the waves.

Captain Kendall ripped off his coat before jumping into the mass of bodies. Survivors heard him shout: "Heaven help us because we cannot help ourselves."

In only 14 minutes, the Empress of Ireland was gone. Of the 1,479 people aboard, 1,012 were dead or missing. Of the numerous Salvation Army members aboard, only 26 survived. Most appalling was the number of children lost.

The Empress of Ireland disaster was lost in the shadow of Titanic, which had sunk only 2 years earlier, and never received the attention it may well have gained, but it remains Canada's greatest river disaster of all time.

Canadiana