5 Most Disastrous Shipwrecks in History

Here are the worst & most famous ship wreck disasters. These shipwrecked boats & ships have caused some of the worst historic tragedies in the history of sailing.

5: The Sultana

April 27th, 1865: steamship Sultana explodes on the Mississippi River, killing roughly 1,800 people on board, including a group of recently paroled Union prisoner of war soldiers. This incident holds the distinction of the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. However, since it happened at the tail-end of the Civil War & was overshadowed by the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the event is often forgotten in the annals of American history. The Sultana was just two years old when she was making her fateful trek from St. Louis to New Orleans. Although she was meant to carry only 376 passengers, she was carrying over 2,000 people on this particular journey as the ship’s captain, J. Cass Mason, was hoping to receive bribes for returning the prisoners of war back north. During the journey, however, one of the ship’s boilers sprang a leak. It therefore pulled into the harbor of Vicksburg, Mississippi in order to undergo repairs. Mason was told that in order to properly fix the boiler it would need to replaced; an undertaking which would last a few days. The captain knew that if that were the case, the soldiers would be sent home on different boats, costing him thousands of dollars in potential revenue. So instead, Captain Mason decided to have the boiler only partially repaired in order to finish the journey as soon as possible. Because it was already severely overloaded, the Sultana caught fire during the early morning hours of April 27th when the damaged boiler exploded. The explosion hurled many of the crew & passengers into the water, while parts of the deck collapsed & caught fire in the furnace below. Its passengers—many of whom were soldiers already weakened from their time in prison camps—tried escaping into the water, but soon found it hard to swim against the current. Thus, many of them died from either drowning or from hypothermia. Also included in the long list of deaths was Captain Mason himself.

4: The Doña Paz & Vector Collision

December 20th, 1987: one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history occurs when the passenger ferry Doña Paz collides with the oil tanker, Vector, near the Philippines’s capital city of Manila. Of the estimated 4,386 people on board, only 26 survived. The Doña Paz was only supposed to hold 1,500 people. But for reasons that still remain unclear, it was carrying over 4,000 passengers & crew members on that particular voyage, many of whom were not registered passengers. Furthermore, the ship did not have nearly enough life jackets for everyone aboard, & the ones they did have were locked away. Reports also show that the Doña Paz did not have any radios to communicate with the coast guard or with nearby ships in the case of an emergency. Additionally, the Vector was also said to be unfit for the sea, as it had no license or experienced captain on board. It was carrying over 8,000 barrels of oil when it collided with the Doña Paz. Based on survivors’ testimonies, the crash caused pandemonium on both vessels as neither were prepared to handle an emergency. Most of the Doña Paz’s crew was said to be drinking beer in their recreation cabin while the captain was supposedly watching a movie in his own cabin. To make matters worse, the crash started a fire on board the Vector that quickly spread to the Doña Paz. Even the water near the ships ignited in flames as thousands of gallons of oil poured into the sea. As the Doña Paz’s crew panicked, passengers tried escaping into the fiery waters, which were also known to be shark infested. It took 16 hours before a rescue mission could be organized & in the end, more than 4,000 people lost their lives.

3: The PS General Slocum

From 1891 until her ultimate demise in 1904, the PS General Slocum was known for her frequent mishaps. Within her first month of voyages, she ran aground & had to be rescued by tugboats. In 1894 alone she was grounded on three separate occasions. Then in 1901, she collided with another ship. But on June 15th, 1904, the PS General Slocum caught fire & sank in New York City’s East River, killing just over 1,000 people. The ordeal stands as the worst maritime disaster in New York City’s history & was the city’s deadliest event up until the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001. For most of her existence, the ship served as a passenger boat, taking people on excursions all around New York. Its last tour saw a fire start in the lamp room of the ship, which contained oily rags & straw that spread the flames around quickly. The ship’s captain, Van Schaick, became aware of the fire about 10 minutes after it began, but decided not to ground the ship as he feared that doing so would spread the flames onto buildings onshore & to nearby oil tankers. By sailing into the headwinds, he unknowingly fanned the flames, spreading the fire even more. As passengers tried to escape, they drowned in the water as their heavy clothing, insufficient life vests, & inability to swim served as a their own death sentence. The PS General Slocum ultimately sank in shallow waters & when all was said & done, 1,021 people either drowned or were engulfed in the flames. There were 321 survivors total who were rescued thanks to bystanders & staff members of a nearby hospital forming a human chain & pulling passengers in from the water. Captain Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence, as it was discovered that he had not maintained satisfactory safety standards & that he deserted his post as captain. He spent three & a half years in prison before he was pardoned by President Taft in 1912.

2: The Titanic

At the time of her sinking, the RMS Titanic was the largest cruise ship in the world & deemed unsinkable. But on April 14th, 1912 it struck an iceberg & sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking the lives of roughly 1,500 passengers & crew members as she sank the next morning. The wreck occurred just four days into the Titanic’s maiden voyage, & its ship owners were trying to see how fast she could travel in order to receive good publicity. But despite numerous warnings of icebergs, the Titanic was traveling at her maximum speed when an iceberg was spotted. She was traveling too fast to avoid the iceberg, striking it on the starboard side & tearing a series of massive holes in the ship. This caused the bottom compartments to become flooded & ultimately sink the ship. The Titanic’s departure from Southampton, England on April 10th, 1912 was a highly publicized event. The world had not yet seen a ship like this, as it was the most luxurious, largest, & fastest passenger ship in the world at the time. First class passengers paid enormous sums of money to cross the Atlantic on her, which by today’s standards would equate to more than 100,000 USD. But none of that could have saved the ship from sinking. After striking the iceberg, the Titanic began sending out distress signals to nearby ships, which were initially misinterpreted. This, in turn, delayed their response. To compound the problem, there were not nearly enough lifeboats for all of the passengers onboard, & many of the lifeboats that were lowered into the water were only half full. Meanwhile, as the ship sank, the passengers that weren’t able to make it onto the lifeboats were plunged into the icy cold water, which was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit; well below freezing temperature & cold enough to cause hypothermia. Many of these passengers either drowned or died of hypothermia. It took a total of two hours & forty minutes for the RMS Titanic to sink after hitting the ice, & another several hours for the Carpathia to finally arrive on the scene & rescue the remaining survivors.

1: The RMS Lusitania

May 7th, 1915: the RMS Lusitania is in the midst of traveling from New York to Britain when it’s sunk by a missile from a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 passengers & crew were killed during the attack, sparking an international outcry against Germany. Additionally, over 100 American lives were taken on that ship, ultimately causing the United States to join the war effort against Germany & her allies during the first World War, which claimed the lives of more than 16 million civilians & soldiers & saw the end of the German, Ottoman, & Prussian empires. Though the war had been already raging in Europe for over a year, the United States initially remained neutral. However, they had been sending war supplies to Great Britain on passenger ships such as the Lusitania, believing that the Germans wouldn’t attack them. Attacks such as these would also violate international law. Germany in the meantime declared the waters near the United Kingdom a war zone as they were engaged in a fierce trade battle & had been using submarines to sink vessels for months. Then on May 7th, a German submarine—or U-Boat as they were known—fired a missile at the Lusitania without warning, badly damaging the premier luxury passenger ship. This sparked a mysterious explosion on board, which ultimately sank her & killed 1,198 people in the process. While many passengers attempted to escape on lifeboats, the rescue effort proved to be chaotic, as lifeboats overturned & crashed onto the deck. But a handful of other lifeboats managed to remain upright & save some drowning passengers. Under international law—specifically under what is known as the Cruiser Rules—military vessels must allow passengers & crew to safely escape their ship before sinking it. The German submarine provided no such accommodation during this attack, claiming the United Kingdom & United States had already violated international law. This event ultimately played a significant role in convincing the United States to join the war effort & was consequently instrumental in securing a victory for the Allied Forces.


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