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A Look Back: Shipwrecks Throughout History

Cody Warner   |   June 3, 2015

Late Monday night an Eastern Star pleasure cruise ship overturned in a vicious storm and tornado in the Yangtze River, leaving over 400 people still unaccounted for, hopefully in the air pockets of the cruise ship. This is a not-so-gentle reminder of how unpredictable the waters are and how dangerous it can be for people to travel through them. This is the deadliest passenger ship disaster in Asian history (CNN 2015).

An accident of this nature may seem foreign to the Western world, but here’s a look back at a Global history of the deadliest ship disasters.

Titanic Shipwreck Disaster

  1. R.M.S. Titanic
The Titanic was an Olympic-class passenger liner owned by the White Star Line and built in Ireland. On April 14th, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg, and sank less than three hours later. At the time, she was the largest passenger steamship in the world. The sinking resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people, ranking it as one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history and by far the most infamous. The Titanic used some of the most advanced technology available at the time and was popularly believed to be “unsinkable.” It was a great shock to many that despite the advanced technology and experienced crew, the Titanic still sank with a great loss of life. The media frenzy about Titanic’s famous victims, the legends about what happened on board the ship, the resulting changes to maritime law, the discovery of the wreck in 1985, and the James Cameron directed film “Titanic” has made this the most famous shipwreck in our history. (Listverse 2008).

Sultana Shipwreck Disaster

  1. Sultana
On April 27th, 1865 the steamboat Sultana was destroyed in a boiler explosion on the Mississippi River. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War. Most of the new passengers were recently released Union soldiers from Confederate prison camps. The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. The boiler (or “boilers”) gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M. in a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis. (Listverse 2008).

MV Joola Shipwreck Disaster

  1. MV Joola
On September 26th, 2002, MV Le Joola was a Senegalese government-owned ferry that capsized off the coast of Gambia. The disaster resulted in the deaths of at least 1,863 people. The ferry Joola set sail from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region on one of its frequent trips between southern Senegal and the country’s capital Dakar. It was about 1:30 p.m. At the time of voyage the ship was designed to carry approximately 580 passengers, however there were 2,000 passengers believed to have been on board. The last call from the ferry staff broadcast to a maritime security center in Dakar was at 10 p.m. and reported good travel conditions. In Titanic style, people were dancing and drinking inside the ship to the sound of a live band playing. At around 11 p.m., the ship sailed into a storm off the coast of Gambia. As a result of the rough seas and wind, the ferry quickly capsized, throwing passengers and cargo into the sea. Detailed reports indicate that this happened in less than five minutes. Only one lifeboat was deployed and was able to transport 25 people. Government rescue teams did not arrive at the scene until the morning following the accident, although local fishermen rescued some survivors from the sea several hours before. (Listverse 2008).

Halifax Shipwreck Disaster Explosion

  1. Halifax Explosion
On December 6th, 1917, a French cargo ship Mont-Blanc, fully loaded with wartime explosives accidentally collided with a Norwegian ship E-mo carrying relief supplies in the Halifax Harbour. Approximately 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. This is still one of the world’s largest man-made, conventional explosions to date. Mont-Blanc caught fire ten minutes after the collision and exploded about twenty-five minutes later. All buildings and structures covering nearly two square kilometres along the adjacent shore of the exploded ship were obliterated, including those in the neighbouring communities of Richmond and Dartmouth. The explosion caused a tsunami in the harbour, and a pressure wave of air that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. (Listverse 2008).

MV Dona Paz Shipwreck Disaster

1. MV Doña Paz

On December 20th, 1987 the passenger ferry Doña Paz sank after colliding with the oil tanker Vector. The Doña Paz was en route from Catbalogan, on Samar Island, Philippines, to Manila when, while it was in the Tablas Strait, between the islands of Mindoro and Tablas, it collided with a small oil tanker, the Vector, which was carrying 8,800 barrels of petroleum products. The Vector’s cargo ignited and caused a fire that rapidly spread onto the Doña Paz, which sank within minutes. Two of the 13 crewmembers aboard the Vector survived but all 58 crew of the Doña Paz died. The official death toll on the ferry is 1,565 although some reports claim that the ferry was overcrowded and that the true death toll was at least 4,341. The ships would put the death toll at 4,375 although admitting that only 1,568 were on the manifest (still more than the licensed maximum of 1,518). The 21 survivors from the ferry had to swim, as there was no time to launch lifeboats. An inquiry later revealed that the crew of the Vector was under-qualified and that the boat’s license had expired. It is the worst ferry disaster and the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history.

The unfortunate part of rescue efforts is the length of time to deployment, where response with divers can take hours. Search and Rescue teams operating mini ROVs are able to deploy much faster and safer because they are not risking additional lives in the effort to save those lives.

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