Story of the RMS Empress of Ireland

Empress of Ireland, the most luxurious passenger ship to ever sail the St. Lawrence, set sails from Quebec City at 16:27 on 28 May 1914 for its 192nd crossing of the Atlantic with about 1500 people onboard.

Around 23:00, most of the passengers withdrew to their cabins for their first night aboard. At 01:40, the lookout of the Empress of Ireland signaled the sighting of a white light at a distance of 6 nautical miles.

That was the collier Storstad underway to the Pointe-au-Pere Pilot Station, in Lower St. Lawrence. Two minutes later, the collier disappeared in thick fog. At 01:55, the bow of the Storstad emerged from the fog heading directly toward the Empress of Ireland. The collier spurred the cruiser dead amidships, creating an immense opening almost 5 meters (15 feet) wide and 14 meters (45 feet) high. Fifteen minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland capsized.

That was the end: the ship sank taking more than one thousand sailors and passengers to their death.

The official number of dead was 1012 people. Almost all of 138 children aboard perished. The 465 survivors arrived at Rimouski, where they received help and care. About half of the survivors were crewmembers, while 840 passengers lost their lives, more than on the Titanic.

A Royal Commission presided by Lord Mersey was set in Quebec on 16 June 1914 to determine the cause for such a quick sinking. After weeks of hearing the testimonies, it concluded that both ships had committed navigational errors.

The main blame was placed on Alfred Toftenes, first mate on the Storstad, for not contacting his captain once in fog. As for the quick sinking, it was determined that the major cause was the problem of watertight doors. The commission proposed that all watertight doors and portholes be shut at night and in fog.

A few other recommendations were made. For many years, divers visited the wreck, bringing up pieces of forgotten history of the Empress of Ireland that still lies 45 meters (147 feet) deep in the waters near St-Luce-sur-Mer.

In 1999, Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications classified the wreck as a historical and archaeological property.

This status prohibits any uncontrolled intervention or salvaging of artifacts from the ship. Diving on the wreck is still permitted as long as the divers respect the regulations outlined by the Ministry.

NB: Emmy, the ships cat of the C.P.R. liner the Empress of Ireland, had made many trips on the Empress until May 28, 1914, when she left the ship as it prepared to cast off from Quebec City bound for England. Nothing would induce her to go aboard again. Even the fact she was leaving a litter of kittens. During the night, the Empress sank with a loss of over a thousand lives…

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