2012 Jan 16

‘Costa Concordia’ and History’s Worst Shipwrecks

Luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy, killing at least five people and leaving more than a dozen missing. Tragic though it is, most of the passengers were saved, and it is hardly one of the worst sea disasters. From the RMS Titanic to the MV Doña Paz, see some of the deadliest shipwrecks in maritime history.


Costa Concordia

With more than 4,000 people aboard, the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13, 2012, then began taking on water and capsized. The ship had departed Civitavecchia, near Rome, just a few hours before.

A lifeboat drill had not yet been held for the newly arrived passengers. Five people have been confirmed dead and others are missing, but the majority of the 4,234 people on board at the time of the accident have been accounted for. While the ship had enough lifeboats for everyone, the severe list made launching them difficult and some passengers had to be evacuated by helicopter. One passenger described the chaotic scene, saying, "We were having supper when the lights suddenly went out, we heard a boom and a groaning noise, and all the cutlery fell on the floor.”


“RMS Titanic” (1912)

The Titanic may just be the most famous shipwreck in history. The world’s largest, most luxurious, and supposedly safest, ship sank on its maiden voyage in the early hours of April 15, 1912, roughly two hours after striking an iceberg.

The ship’s insufficient number of lifeboats resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.


“MV Doña Paz” (1987)

The MV Doña Paz, a ferry, sank on Dec. 20, 1987, after colliding with an oil tanker in the Philippines. Only 24 passengers from the ferry and two of the 13 crewmen on the oil tanker survived the resulting fire. The ferry was overloaded, and the disaster resulted in the deaths of 4,341 people—the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history. Reportedly officers on the ferry were watching television and drinking beer at the time of the collision.


SS Sultana (1865)

The SS Sultana sank on the Mississippi River, seven miles north of Memphis, on April 27, 1865. Three of the ship’s four boilers exploded at 2 a.m., causing the tragedy. Sultana was legally allowed to carry only 376 people but was carrying 2,300 newly released Union prisoners of war, 1,700 of whom were killed. The sinking was not considered newsworthy at the time because it occurred so close to the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.


“RMS Empress of Ireland” (1914)

The Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River in Quebec after being struck by a smaller ship, Storstad, in heavy fog on May 29, 1914. Very few of the ship’s lifeboats could be successfully launched as she had listed onto her side within 10 minutes, and many of the ship’s manual watertight doors could not be closed. She sank completely in just 14 minutes. Of the 1,477 people on board the ship, 1,012 died.


“RMS Lusitania” (1915)

The Lusitania was one of the few Atlantic liners that remained in service during World War I, as it was thought that her speed would keep her safe from German submarines. At the time, she was one of the fastest ocean liners in the world, second only to her sister ship, Mauretania. Despite a warning from the German Embassy that was published in U.S. newspapers that morning, Lusitania left New York on May 1, 1915. On May 7, a single German torpedo struck the ship, and it was followed by a mysterious secondary explosion. The ship sank in 18 minutes, and 1,195 of the 1,959 people aboard died, including 123 Americans. It is thought that the sinking helped to turn American public opinion in favor of entering the war. The cause of the second explosion has never been determined.


“MV Wilhelm Gustloff” (1945)

The Wilhelm Gustloff sank on Jan. 30, 1945, after being torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. The ship was overcrowded with German refugees and had roughly 10,582 people aboard; an estimated 9,343 people died in the disaster. The sinking, which took just 62 minutes, is the worst maritime disaster in history.


Halifax Harbor (1917)

Early on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a French ship, the Mont-Blanc, collided with a Norwegian ship, Imo, in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Mont-Blanc quickly caught fire and the captain ordered an evacuation. The abandoned ship then drifted against one of the harbor’s piers, where it continued to burn. Crowds quickly gathered to watch the burning ship. Unbeknownst to the spectators, the Mont-Blanc was loaded with 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton, and 35 tons of benzol. At 9:05 a.m. the ship exploded, killing more than 1,900 people in the surrounding area and damaging 12,000 houses in the town.


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