Tag Archives: maritime disasters

Remembering The Sultana

"Sultana" at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865. Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)
“Sultana” at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865.
Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)

On 27 April 1865 the steamboat Sultana carrying recently released Union army prisoners of war exploded on the Mississippi River resulting in 1800 deaths. It is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

The steamboat was already in dire need of repairs before it departed on 24 April from Vicksberg, Mississippi. Sultana’s captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, was told a proper repair would take days. However the War Department was paying $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Not wanting to miss a big payday, Mason ordered temporary patches and filled the steamboat with as many officers and enlisted that he could. Thanks to a corrupt Union Army quartermaster, 2,400 enlisted and officers were steered to a ship that was rated to carry only 376.  Its decks began to sag and needed reinforcement before it departed for Cairo, Illinois its final destination.

After unloading cargo in Memphis, Tennessee the Sultana appeared top heavy. The boilers were forced to work hard against the current and swollen Mississippi River. Sometime around 0200 on 27 April three boilers exploded instantly killing many. The explosion caused massive holes and flaming debris that included hot coal that came raining down back on the ship. The Sultana erupted into flames. Frantic Union Army soldiers jumped overboard but many were weakened by being prisoners of war. Some clung to debris, and so many clamored to get on a lifeboat after it was lowered that it sank. Bodies would be found far down river and in trees.

Sadly other historical events, such as the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and the capture of John Wilkes Booth pushed this news story aside. It never got the attention it should have.

While overcrowding and corruption are considered the reasons for the disaster, some claim sabotage by Confederate agents using a coal torpedo. Some evidence, such as testimony of eyewitnesses, suggests its possibility. However more recent examinations such as done on History Detectives shows it more likely a disaster caused by overloading a ship that was already in dire need of repair.

Sources
1. Christopher Klein, The Forgotten History of America’s Titanic 150 Years Ago,History.com,27 April 2015.
2. Sultana (Wikipedia)
3. Stephen Ambrose, Remembering Sultana, National Geographic, NationalGeographic.com, 1 May 2001.
4. Sultana Disaster, Tennessee State Library and Archives: Disasters in Tennessee, www.tn.gov

Titanic Chronology April 15-16, 1912

Photograph of iceberg taken by chief steward of Prinz Adalbert on morning of 15 April 1912 near where Titanic sank. At the time he had not learned of the Titanic disaster. Smears of red paint along the base caught his attention. The photo and accompanying statement were sent to Titanic’s lawyers, which hung in their boardroom until the firm dissolved in 2002. Public Domain

1. Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 pm ship time on 14 April 1912. The night was moonless and the sea calm with temperatures at or below freezing. Titanic was moving quickly but did not see the iceberg until it was nearly upon them. An attempt to steer around it resulted in a collision on Titanic’s starboard side. The iceberg would puncture Titanic enough so that the first five compartments would flood. Since the compartments were not totally sealed all the way up, water would go from one compartment to the other making her sink at the bow.

2. Titanic would transmit signals by wireless telegraph, Morse lamp, and rockets. The ship nearest by most accounts was SS Californian. Her telegraph operator turned off his equipment at 11:30 pm and never heard the distress calls. Questions linger to this day whether or not they saw Titanic or her rockets being fired. The SS Carpathia received the SOS and its captain, Arthur Rostron, immediately ordered to proceed directly to the last known coordinates to locate survivors despite having to navigate a dangerous ice field on a moonless night.

RMS Carpathia (date unknown) Image: public domain
RMS Carpathia (date unknown)
Image: public domain

3. RMS Titanic would sink on 15 April 1912 at 2:20 am. Although Titanic met the British Board of Trade regulations and exceeded it for the number of lifeboats required, it did not have enough for the full complement of passengers and crew. As a result over 1,500 men, women, and children would had no means of escape from the sinking ship.

4. SS Carpathia arrives at 4:10 am to rescue survivors who were in lifeboats or able to reach them. 71o survived the initial sinking but the final tally would be 705 due death from freezing cold. SS California would arrive later but would find no survivors. At 12 noon Carpathia sounded her horns and began heading back to New York.* It was the moment that many wives knew for certain their husbands had perished.

Collapsible lifeboat D photographed by passenger on Carpathia on the morning of 15 April 1912. Public Domain(Wikipedia)
Collapsible lifeboat D photographed by passenger on Carpathia on the morning of 15 April 1912.
Public Domain(Wikipedia)

*SS Carpathia was on her way to Fiume then part of Austria-Hungary in the Adriatic Sea. Today the city is Rijeka and major city in Croatia owning to its deep port and cultural significance.

Sources:
Books
Eaton, John P.; Haas, Charles A. (1994). Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. Wellingborough, UK: Patrick Stephens
Lord, Walter (2005) [1955]. A Night to Remember. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin
Lord, Walter (1987). The Night Lives On. London: Penguin Books
Lynch, Donald (1998). Titanic: An Illustrated History. New York: Hyperion

Websites:
Encyclopedia Titanica: Titanic Facts, History and Biography

Take a look at  Amazon Titanic Books

New York Times Reports Titanic Sunk With Loss Of Life (16 April 1912)

Confusion reigned in the United States owing to news reports that later were found inaccurate. Some reports said Titanic was okay, others not. It was attributed, in part, to mashed up wireless messages that got reported widely in the press making it sound less of a tragic event than it really was. The New York Times was one of the papers that got it mostly right. Final confirmation of what happened would occur when Carpathia arrived bearing the survivors and the only remaining parts of Titanic to survive–the lifeboats.

New York Times Front Page 16 April 1912 Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)
New York Times Front Page 16 April 1912
Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

Titanic: Lingering Images

Titanic. Put that into a search engine and you get a lot back. Lots of sites to explore devoted to the subject (shameless plug alert for Titanic News Channel) along with sites that incorporate it in some fashion. Of course the entertainment news sites are full of stuff about the stars of that Cameron movie and what they think today about their roles. The movie is still widely popular and many will likely see the 3-D version. It is a visually stunning movie with perhaps the best recreation of what the ship and people looked like in 1912.

The 100th anniversary has come and gone. And yet people still flock to Titanic Belfast and other Titanic connected sites and exhibits. The question I posed in 2012 still holds true today: Why Does Titanic Still Grab Us? I said back then that a National Geographic documentary provided a clue and that is images linger long after leaving. And with Titanic its images remain with us. There are a lot to choose from: photos of the ship, the crew, the passengers, stories of their lives, the names of the band that played on that fateful night. The list goes on. The image of the  grand ship stays with us because it has so many stories to tell and those stories have images that linger.

There have been numerous books on Titanic to keep those images such as  Walter Lord’s  A Night To Remember (and later its sequel The Night Lives On) that connect us to what happened in 1912.  And the movies that follow bring it even more alive in the big screen. Add to it the Titanic memorials and exhibits all over the world. Some ask why this ship is remembered while other maritime disasters with great loss of lift isn’t. The images linger.

Some images provoke disagreement. To salvage or not or was Captain Stanley Lord a villain? The images of the wreck itself are testament to the final outcome. It lies, broken in two, two miles below the surface of the ocean. And it is slowly being claimed by the sea. The artifacts brought up by the various salvage expeditions will soon be all the remains of that once great ship. At Titanic memorials on land and sea, people will remember those who died on Titanic. We know it ought not to have happened. So many what-ifs could have changed the outcome but they all added up to the same deadly outcome for over 1500 people.

The images linger.

Titanic mural at Newtownards Road and Dee Street in Belfast, NI. (Andy Welsh,http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallrevolution/68715920/)
Titanic mural at Newtownards Road and Dee Street in Belfast, NI.
(Andy Welsh,http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallrevolution/68715920/)

Iceberg The Titanic Hit Was 100,000 Years Old

Photograph of iceberg taken by chief steward of Prinz Adalbert on morning of 15 April 1912 near where Titanic sank. At the time he had not learned of the Titanic disaster. Smears of red paint along the base caught his attention. The photo and accompanying statement were sent to Titanic’s lawyers, which hung in their boardroom until the firm dissolved in 2002. Public Domain
Photograph of iceberg taken by chief steward of Prinz Adalbert on morning of 15 April 1912 near where Titanic sank. At the time he had not learned of the Titanic disaster. Smears of red paint along the base caught his attention. The photo and accompanying statement were sent to Titanic’s lawyers, which hung in their boardroom until the firm dissolved in 2002. Public Domain

It has never really crossed my mind to consider how old the iceberg Titanic hit. Possibly as part of an intellectual exercise and a desire to alleviate boredom, scientists at Sheffield University crosschecked data on ocean currents and witness descriptions from 1912. And now they believe it was snow that formed glaciers 100,000 years ago in southwest Greenland that ended up being the infamous iceberg that collided with Titanic in 1912. And it originally was 100ft above the water and possibly 1,700ft long when first formed. By the time it hit Titanic it had shrunk a bit in size but still quite large.

Source(s)
1. Iceberg that sank the Titanic was more than 100,000 years old, only a fraction of its original massive size, scientists discover (New York Daily News,6 Mar 2016)

2. Iceberg that sank the Titanic killing 1,517 people was 100,000-year-old, scientists discover (Daily Mail,6 Mar 2016)

A Forgotten Maritime Tragedy: MV Wilhelm Gustloff (30 Jan 1945)

Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939. Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )
Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939.
Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )

The German military transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff carrying German civilians with their families along with Nazi government and military personnel, was sunk by a Soviet submarine on 30 Jan 1945 after it had departed Gotenhafen (Gdynia) in the Baltic Sea. The loss of life is estimated to be around 9,400, the largest loss of life to date in a maritime tragedy.

Originally designed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) organization, it was requisitioned by the German navy (Kriegsmarine) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship from 1939-1940. She then served as a floating barracks before pulled into use as an evacuation vessel due to the Red Army advances in Poland. The ship early on was being escorted two torpedo boats and another liner, the Hansa. Mechanical problems beset that liner and one of the torpedo boats so they did not continue the journey. Though fitted out with anti-aircraft guns, they were inoperable due to freezing conditions. The accompanying torpedo boat was not much help either as its submarine sensor had frozen over.

The Gustloff’s captain, Friedrich Petersen was advised to stick to shallow water and run without lights on but opted to head into deeper water. A mysterious message–possibly sent by either Soviet agents or the Soviet submarine–said a German minesweeper convoy was nearby so Peterson turned on the navigation lights making the ship visible in the night. It was spotted by Soviet submarine S-13 commanded by Captain Alexander Marinesko who fired torpedoes that sank the Gustloff. The initial deaths were from the torpedoes themselves and later from the extremely cold sea (estimated to be between 0-14F) that had ice floes on it. In less than forty minutes, the ship was lying on its side and sank bow-first in 144 feet of water. German forces rescued 1,252.

The German Navy did convene a board of inquiry and Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, the commander of the U-Boat unit and a well regarded submariner, was asked to justify his actions. He blamed both Croatian crew members and the ship captain for what happened. However the war ended before any formal resolution of the matter occurred. The Soviet submariner captain Marinesko though fared worse. He was already facing a court martial for his excessive drinking and not considered a suitable person to be a hero and got the lessor award Order of the Red Banner. He was demoted and dishonorably discharged in October 1945 though he was considered an excellent submariner and commander. Stalin’s death and other things led to re-evaluations of many officers denied awards and promotions got him reinstated as a captain third class (a rank that equals a major in the Soviet army) and a full pension. In 1963 just three weeks prior to his death he was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon a successful return from a mission. He was awarded posthumously Hero of the Soviet Union in 1990 by Mikhail Gorbachev.

The wreck lies in Polish waters and is classified as war grave. To prevent scavengers and treasure hunters diving to it, it is forbidden to dive within 1,600 feet of the wreck radius.

The question many ask is why this has gotten so little notice. The simple and most compelling answers are that it took place during World War II and the casualties were  Germans fleeing home to escape being captured by the Russians. There is not a lot of sympathy for Germans after the war and especially when the horrors of the holocaust were revealed. So despite the large loss of life, the sinking has become a footnote and sometimes not even referenced at all.

Empress Of Ireland Exhibit Opens In Halifax

 RMS Empress of Ireland 1908 Photo:Public Domain (Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389)
RMS Empress of Ireland 1908
Photo:Public Domain (Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389)

An exhibit honoring the Empress of Ireland opened this week in Halifax and will run for the year. “The exhibit includes historical documents, eyewitness accounts and 81 artifacts from the liner. One of those artifacts is a pair of pajamas worn by passenger John Langley, who survived the sinking in remarkable fashion,”reports CBC News.

Further information at Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Source:Empress of Ireland ship sinking exhibit opens at Pier 21(CBC News,24 Nov 2015)

Remembering the Empress of Ireland

 RMS Empress of Ireland 1908 Photo:Public Domain (Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389)
RMS Empress of Ireland 1908
Photo:Public Domain (Library and Archives Canada / PA-116389)

The Titanic disaster of 1912 was still making waves when on 29 May 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland collided with the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad in the Saint Louis River at  Pointe-au-Père, Quebec. It occurred around 0200 in the morning. Storstad hit the starboard side, causing severe damage. Empress began to list and quickly fill with water. Portholes had not been secured before leaving port so many were open (many passengers complained of poor ventilation) so that allowed a lot of water to enter. Many in the lower decks drowned from water coming in from the open portholes.

Also failure to close the watertight doors led to the quick sinking. Three lifeboats were launched quickly with passengers and crew that were in the upper deck cabins able to get away but as the ship listed further starboard, the other lifeboats could not be used. Ten minutes after the collision, Empress lurched violently on the starboard side allowing 700 passengers and crew to crawl out of portholes and decks on her side. Then 15 minutes later, after it briefly looked like she might have run aground, the hull sank dumping all the people left on her into the icy water. When the final tally was done, 1,012 people lost there lives. 465 survived. Many on the starboard side where asleep and likely drowned in their cabins.

The official enquiry, which began on 16 June 1914, was headed by Lord Mersey who had previously headed the British Titanic enquiry (he would also lead up the enquiry into Lusitania later). Two very different accounts emerged of the collision from the Storstad and Empress. At the end of the day, the commission determined that when Storstad changed course, it caused the collision. The Norwegians did not accept the verdict and held their own enquiry which exonerated the captain and crew of the Storstad. Canadian Pacific, which owned the now sunk Empress of Ireland, pursued a legal claim and won. The Norwegian owners countersued but in the end the liabilities forced them to sell Storstad to put money in the trust funds.

What happened to Empress, though not receiving the same attention as Titanic, was to change ship design. The reverse slanting bow was dangerous in ship-to-ship collisions resulting in below the waterline damage. Bows were redesigned so the energy of the collision would be minimized below the surface. Longitudinal bulkheads were discontinued as they trapped water beneath them causing the ship to list and capsizing. Needless to say portholes were to be secured from that point on (in fact nearly all cruise ships use decoratives that can never be opened). The wreck today has been salvaged many times and is now the only underwater historic site in Canada. The wreck is in shallow water (130 feet) but is notably dangerous dive due to the cold waters, currents, and often impaired visibility.

Sources:
1. The Empress Of Ireland Was Canada’s Titanic(2 Jul 2013, Niagarathisweek.com)

2. RMS Empress of Ireland(Wikipedia)

3. Royal Alberta Museum Online: The Empress of Ireland

Amazon books: Empress of Ireland

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Remembering The Sultana

"Sultana" at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865. Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)
“Sultana” at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865.
Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)

On 27 April 1865 the steamboat Sultana carrying recently released Union army prisoners of war exploded on the Mississippi River resulting in 1800 deaths. It is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

The steamboat was already in dire need of repairs before it departed on 24 April from Vicksberg, Mississippi. Sultana’s captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, was told a proper repair would take days. However the War Department was paying $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Not wanting to miss a big payday, Mason ordered temporary patches and filled the steamboat with as many officers and enlisted that he could. Thanks to a corrupt Union Army quartermaster, 2,400 enlisted and officers were steered to a ship that was rated to carry only 376.  Its decks began to sag and needed reinforcement before it departed for Cairo, Illinois its final destination.

After unloading cargo in Memphis, Tennessee the Sultana appeared top heavy. The boilers were forced to work hard against the current and swollen Mississippi River. Sometime around 0200 on 27 April three boilers exploded instantly killing many. The explosion caused massive holes and flaming debris that included hot coal that came raining down back on the ship. The Sultana erupted into flames. Frantic Union Army soldiers jumped overboard but many were weakened by being prisoners of war. Some clung to debris, and so many clamored to get on a lifeboat after it was lowered that it sank. Bodies would be found far down river and in trees.

Sadly other historical events, such as the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and the capture of John Wilkes Booth pushed this news story aside. It never got the attention it should have.

While overcrowding and corruption are considered the reasons for the disaster, some claim sabotage by Confederate agents using a coal torpedo. Some evidence, such as testimony of eyewitnesses, suggests its possibility. However more recent examinations such as done on History Detectives shows it more likely a disaster caused by overloading a ship that was already in dire need of repair.

Sources
1. Christopher Klein, The Forgotten History of America’s Titanic 150 Years Ago,History.com,27 April 2015.
2. Sultana (Wikipedia)
3. Stephen Ambrose, Remembering Sultana, National Geographic, NationalGeographic.com, 1 May 2001.
4. Sultana Disaster, Tennessee State Library and Archives: Disasters in Tennessee, www.tn.gov


New Titanic Sinking Theory:Bilge Pump Opened Hastened Sinking

Captain David Brown, who teaches at the Maritime Academy of Toledo, believes that Titanic stoker Frederick Barrett’s actions on the fateful night contribute more to the ship’s demise than previously thought. Barrett had been sent down to reconfigure the bilge pumps. However the valve quickly filled the boiler room with water causing the downward tilt to become severe and catastrophic. Brown does not believe the gash doomed Titanic as previously thought, nor does he believe that water rose over the bulkheads until human intervention made it possible. He believes Barrett hid that fact to avoid being labeled as the one who sank Titanic. Brown argues that until that valve was opened, Titanic was not sinking and that this singular act not occurred the ship would not have sunk.

Frederick Barrett survived and gave accounts of what happened when the iceberg struck. He was in boiler room 6 at the time, felt the impact of the collision, and heard the sound of it as well. However his account given to the British enquiry and then given to Walter Lord (for A Night To Remember) is not the same. As noted at Encyclopedia Titanica entry on Barrett:

According to the account given in A Night to Remember when water suddenly began to gush through the forward bulkhead Shepherd urged Harvey and Barrett to get out but Harvey rushed to save his colleague, the last thing Barrett noticed as he clambered up the escape ladder was the two engineers disappearing under a torrent of ice cold water.
Barrett’s testimony to the British enquiry does not mention this scenario and actually indicates that Shepherd had already been carried to another compartment before that in which he was injured became flooded and therefore Barrett could not have seen him as he made his escape. The truth remains a mystery.

Barrett also contributes to the Coal Fire Theory. During the British enquiry, he described a coal fire in one of the bunkers. Lord Mersey pressed him on this as to whether the bulkhead that gave way (which forced him to evacuate) was due to the coal fire. Barrett said it “would be hard to say.”

Brown also believes Titanic captain Edward J. Smith got a bad reputation from the sinking. He says that Captain Smith did not ignore the ice peril, instructed officers to be vigilant, and made at least two course corrections based upon ice warnings.

The problem with this theory is that we know slits were cut by the iceberg allowing water to enter multiple compartments. Because of this, the volume of water entering Titanic was fatal. Too much water was already entering causing it to sink at the bow. Keeping the bilge valve closed would make no difference but I will defer to more educated minds to further look into this claim. As for his claims about Captain Smith, the problem is that he decided to speed up Titanic on a moonless night through an ice field. More prudent ship captains stopped for the night rather than taking the risk.

Sources:
1.Seaman Floats Theory Of What Really Sank Titanic(2 June 2014,Toledo Blade)
2.Frederick Barrett (Encyclopedia Titanica)


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