20 Worst Civilian Shipwrecks of the Twentieth Century
Some of these maritime disasters altered history in profound ways
Shipwrecks have been happening for thousands of years and most we’ll probably never learn about - unless salvagers, treasure hunters or archaeologists find more of the estimated three million shipwrecks that exist on the bottom of the ocean or other bodies of water. Yes, it’s always been dangerous traveling over water!
By the way, this list doesn’t include military vessels heavily damaged or sunk during acts of war, or in peacetime for that matter. It also doesn’t include civilian ships obviously engaged in military operations of some kind. But a ship or two on this compilation may have carried military ordinance or supplies or chemicals that could have been used to produce explosives. Also, the order of shipwrecks is determined by the number of deaths, which may be approximations.
Now let’s begin the countdown!
20. SS Grandcamp
Location: Port of Texas City, Texas
The deadliest industrial accident ever in the US, the destruction of the Grandcamp, formerly a liberty ship, began when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, often used in fertilizers or explosives, began smoldering. When this fire of mysterious origin, which defied methods of suppression, reached an explosive point in the ammonium nitrate, an explosion suddenly blew the ship to smithereens. The blast was heard 100 miles away and destroyed other ships and more than a 1,000 buildings and homes in the port. More than 5,000 people were injured, and the death toll may have been hundreds higher than the reported body count. Afterwards, a protracted legal battle ensued, involving the first ever class action lawsuit against the US government, which led to awards of nearly $17 million to survivors of the catastrophe.
19. SS Norge
Location: Rockall, Denmark
A Danish passenger ship, the Norge, while sailing north of Scotland on its way to NYC in foggy weather, ran around on Hasselwood Rock, Helen’s Reef, near Rockall, a tiny island owned by the UK. The ship quickly reversed off the reef but the hull had been ripped open, and the boat sank in 12 minutes. Five lifeboats were launched successfully but two were destroyed by high waves. Some people jumped overboard but most of them drowned in the choppy water. Captain Gundal went down with his ship but managed to swim to a lifeboat. The demise of the Norge was the worst civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic Ocean until the sinking of the Titanic eight years later.
18. KMP Tamponas II
Location: Java Sea, northern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia
An ocean liner that had many maintenance issues going back to 1956, the year it was built, the Tamponas II, while sailing in stormy weather, experienced trouble in one of its engines which, because of fuel leaks, caught fire. The crew fought the quickly spreading blaze but soon realized their effort was hopeless. Thirty minutes after the fire started, passengers were ordered to board lifeboats, but no crew members helped them deploy the boats – and there were only six lifeboats with a capacity of 50 people per boat for 1,500 passengers. Some people jumped into the sea, while scores were trapped below decks. The following day, the fire spread throughout the engine room and caused an explosion, which soon sent the ship to the bottom of the Java Sea with 288 hapless folks still trapped in lower parts of the ship.
17. SS Ramdas
Location: Bombay, India
A coastal passenger ferry, the Ramdas, while steaming toward Rewas in Maharashtra, India, capsized near Gull Island killing most of the 713 people onboard. Happening in stormy weather, a huge wave struck the starboard side of the vessel, after which many people rushed to the other side of the ferry, unbalancing it, which then promptly sank. Some of the people were rescued by fishermen. The captain of the ship, Sheikh Suleman Ibrahim, survived and provided facts about the disaster.
16. SS Camorta
Location: Irrawaddy Delta, India
Caught during a monstrous cyclone, the Camorta sank with passengers and crew, all Indo-Asian people, killing everyone aboard. In transit from Madras, India to Rangoon, Burma, the ship ran into dire trouble crossing the Baragua Flats near the Irrawaddy Delta. Days after the ship disappeared, the shipwreck was found in 90 feet of water; only one empty lifeboat was found. This is the fourth-worst maritime disaster in history involving a British civilian vessel following the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland.
15. SS Indigirka
Location: Sarufutsu, Japan
The Indigirka was an American-built Russian steamer designed to carry prisoners for the gulag prison system of the Soviet Union. The ship could carry as many as 5,000 prisoners, who were confined in cargo holds under deplorable conditions, in which only the strongest could survive. On its final voyage, the Indigirka, while steaming through a blizzard, ran aground and, as the ship turned over, the guards prevented prisoners from escaping. The ship lay in shallow water until the hull was opened with acetylene torches. Captain Lapshin of the Indigirka was executed for abandoning ship and the chief of the NKVD convoy was given eight years in prison for preventing the prisoners from fleeing cargo holds, which could have saved lives.
14. SS Eastland
Location: Chicago River, Chicago, Illinois
Top heavy and therefore prone to listing even to the point of taking on water, the Eastland, while tied to a dock and taking on more than 2,000 passengers, suddenly began capsizing onto its port side in only 20 feet of water, trapping scores of hapless folks below decks. Some people managed to escape through portholes, though many people drowned or were crushed to death by falling objects within the ship. Ironically, the ship had become even more top-heavy after it had been retrofitted with a full number of lifeboats. After the sinking of the Titanic, an international maritime treaty passed regulations requiring all passenger ships to provide enough lifeboats to save all people aboard. Subsequently, the ship’s owners were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted because the court ruled that the ship had provided safe passage for many years.
13. MS Estonia
Location: Baltic Sea
The Estonia, a cruise ferry traveling from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden, encountered rough weather in the Baltic Sea. The ship was loaded with cars and passengers and listing to starboard. Loud noises were heard in the bow and then water began flooding cars and the bow ramp. Then the bow door opened, letting in much more water. The ship began listing heavily to starboard until it reached 90 degrees, flooding most of the ship, and then the ferry sank. Some people saved themselves by finding liferafts or lifeboats. But scores of people died by drowning or hypothermia, while 650 people sank with the ship, dying in a watery grave. Failure of the bow ramp was blamed for the sinking of the ferry. Notably, this maritime catastrophe led to changes in safety regulations for the operation of ferries and also improvements in liferaft design.
12. MV Bukoba
Location: Lake Victoria, Tanzania
Loaded to capacity with hundred of tons of cargo and passengers, the Bukoba, a Lake Victoria ferry, sank in 25 meters of water, killing around 1,000 people. Since there was no manifest for third class passengers, the total number of deaths is uncertain, though the official death toll is 894. Multiple safety violations could be blamed for the disaster: a lack of lifejackets and lifeboats; the ferry was overloaded; regular ferry maintenance was lax; and the coxswains or persons in charge of the ferry were poorly trained regarding the operation of ships and navigation.
11. SS Hong Moh
Location: South China Sea
Sailing in high seas with poor visibility while traveling from Hong Kong to Swatow, China, the Hong Moh ran aground on the White Rocks, and then the captain ordered the passengers to abandon ship. But rough weather conditions made it impossible to launch lifeboats. Hours later, the Hong Moh broke in two. Finally another ship, the SS Shansi came to the rescue, attempted to launch lifeboats but failed to do so. However, the crew of the Shansi recued 45 people who had abandoned ship and tried to swim to safety. In subsequent days, many others were rescued, making a total of 265 survivors out of a total of 1,183 passengers and crew.
10. SS Kiche Maru
Location: Pacific Ocean
Nineteen Twelve was very bad year for shipwrecks. The Kiche Maru, a Japanese steamship, while caught in a typhoon, sank in September 1912, just five months after the Titanic hit an iceberg and plunged to the bottom of the sea. Tragically, hundreds of other maritime mishaps happened about the same time during a tropical storm off the coast of southern Japan.
9. RMS Empress of Ireland
Location: Mouth of the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, Canada
Even though the Empress of Ireland had plenty of watertight compartments and lifeboats for everyone, it sank in just 14 minutes after colliding with the SS Storstad. Steaming in thick fog, the Storstad’s bow essentially rammed the Empress on her starboard side, opening a massive hole. But the Storstad stayed afloat while the Empress took on massive amounts of water, both through the breach and many open portholes. Eventually the Empress rolled to starboard, which soon drowned scores of folks but made it easier for people on the port side of the ship to escape through open portholes. Of the 1,477 passengers, 1,012 died. And, as is often the case, this maritime disaster brought about changes to the design of ocean liners, particularly as they relate to minimizing damage during collisions between ships.
8. PS General Slocum
Location: East River, New York City
The only sidewheel passenger steamboat on this list, the General Slocum, caught fire and sank while on an excursion in the East River. This was the worst disaster in terms of human deaths in NYC until the 9/11 attacks. The passengers and crew may have extinguished the fire before it destroyed the ship but the safety equipment onboard was hopelessly inadequate: fire hoses were rotten; fire extinguisher didn’t work; lifeboats were inaccessible; and lifejackets fell apart while being used. Also, the captain could have run the ship aground before people abandoned ship and began jumping into the water, where many drowned. Notably, the demise of the General Slocum has many references in pop culture; in fact, this disaster may have more such references than the 9/11 attacks that shocked the world nearly a century later.
7. Tōya Maru
Location: Tsugaru Strait, between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu
The Tōya Maru, a Japanese train ferry, while steaming toward the city of Hakodate, was struck by the ferocious Typhoon Marie. While trying to ride out the storm, the captain tried to anchor the vessel in place but it broke free in strong winds. Next, as seawater poured into the engine compartment, causing the steam engine to stop running, the ferry became uncontrollable. The captain tried to beach the vessel but massive waves made this maneuver impossible. Battered by savage seas, torrential rain and high winds, the ferry soon capsized and sank. Thirty five American soldiers, members of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division Artillery, died in the disaster. Tragically, Typhoon Marie also sank four other ferries, increasing the storm's death toll to 1,430 souls.
6. RMS Lusitania
Location: Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland
The sinking of the Lusitania may have caused the United States to enter WW I much earlier than it would have otherwise. In May 1915 German submarine U-20 torpedoed the giant ocean liner, blowing a hole in the starboard side, and another more powerful explosion followed. Since its bunker contained hundreds of tons of coal, there was plenty of combustible material aboard ship. (A second torpedo may have hit the ship but this has never been proven.) This beautiful ship sank in only 18 minutes. The ship was carrying 1,959 passengers, 139 of whom were US citizens, and 128 of them died. Supposedly only a passenger ship, the Lusitania’s cargo included bomb parts and millions of rifle cartridges. Nevertheless, the US didn’t enter WW I until 1917, though its late entry certainly helped end the war the following year.
5. Taiping Steamer
While seriously overloaded with 1,000 war refugees, the Taiping, a Chinese steamer sailing from Shanghai, China to Keelung, Taiwan (aka Formosa), collided with the cargo vessel Chienyuan, and then sank. Fleeing the Chinese Civil War, the Taiping shouldn’t have been carrying more than 580 passengers, which didn't help it stay afloat. Plus, per curfew restrictions, the Taiping was steaming without lights near the Zhoushan Islands off mainland China, a precaution which probably led to the deaths of at least 1,500 unfortunate people.
4. RMS Titanic
Location: North Atlantic Ocean
The Titanic, as most people know, broke in two and sank after colliding with an iceberg in frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. But perhaps it was hubris that sunk that grand ocean liner; after all, it was declared unsinkable before it had even set sail on its maiden voyage. At the very least, the builders of the ship could have included enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew, couldn’t they? But then we wouldn’t have one of the greatest stories of all time to watch in numerous movies, TV shows and documentaries, maybe the greatest of which James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. Perhaps elements of this tragedy are offset somewhat by the fact that the ship’s demise led to many improvements of ship safety, which almost certainly saved lives.
3. SS Mont-Blanc
Location: Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia
Bound for France during WW I, the Mont-Blanc, a tramp steamer, was heavily loaded with 2,300 tons of picric acid and benzole, 200 tons of TNT and 10 tons of guncotton, when it collided with the SS Imo, causing sparks to fly into the hold of the Mont-Blanc, which soon ignited a blaze that eventually caused a monstrous explosion, turning the steel hull of the Mont-Blanc into shrapnel that pummeled nearby structures and people. (It was considered the largest man-made explosion until a nuclear bomb was detonated over the city Hiroshima in 1945.) At least 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured; 1,600 homes were destroyed and 12,000 damaged. Notably, nobody was convicted of committing any crime that led to the shipwreck or subsequent explosion.
2. SS Kiangya
Location: Mouth of the Huangpu River in China
A Chinese passenger steamship packed with refugees, the Kiangya was steaming from Shanghai to Ningbo, China during the Chinese Civil War, when an explosion rocked the ship, which promptly broke in two and sank. The prevailing theory is that it hit a naval mine left by the Imperial Japanese Navy during WW II. Other vessels rescued 700 survivors of the disaster. Interestingly, in 1956, remnants of the ship were salvaged and then refurbished into a new ship, the Dongfang Hong 8.
1. Doña Paz Ferry
The Doña Paz was a Philippine-registered passenger ferry that collided with another vessel, the MT Vector, an oil tanker filled with gasoline and other petroleum products, and then the Vector caught fire, which spread to the Doña Paz, after which both vessels burned and then sank two hours after the collision. This disaster may have been inescapable. The Doña Paz was overloaded by 2,000 passengers or more; its lifejackets were locked away; it had no radio; and the crew had no firefighting training. But the Vector had issues too: it was operating without a license and had no qualified master. In 1999, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ordered that owners of the Vector had to indemnify people involved in the tragedy. To date, this is the worst civilian maritime disaster in history.
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© 2019 Kelley Marks