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Canada’s Titanic – the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, 29th May 1914

30th May 2014

On the night of 29th May 1914, the Empress of Ireland, a Canadian passenger ship, was struck by a Norwegian collier. It had been a clear night, but a fog bank descended between the two ships. The Empress of Ireland signalled to the Norwegian ship, the Storstad,  that it had stopped to let it pass and avoid collision. The Storstad answered, alarmingly close, and within minutes had ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the Empress of Ireland. The Storstad immediately pulled back, allowing the sea to pour into the passenger ship. An explosion was triggered in the Empress of Ireland’s engine room.

The ship sunk in 15 minutes. Most of the passengers had been asleep in their berths and died instantly. Others were flung into the sea from the explosion. There was no time to lower lifeboats. 1,023 were lost out of a total 1,467 aboard. 444 people were saved: 207 of them crew – a large proportion, simply because they had been ‘lucky’ enough to be on deck at the time of the collision.

How is it that we know so much about the Titanic and so little about this terrible tragedy? The Titanic had indeed been billed as a star in its own right – the biggest, the best – before its disastrous maiden voyage, but the impact of the Empress of India’s tragedy may also have been lost in the subsequent build-up to World War 1. The ‘Great War’ began on 28th July 1914, only 8 weeks later.