The Empress of Ireland was 550 foot long, 14,000 ton, twin screwed ocean liner. Built in Scotland by Fairfield Shipping Company. She was commissioned as a pair of identical ships, the other being the Empress of Britain, for the Canadian Pacific Line's transatlantic trade on the Canadian route. Hull No. 443 was launched on January 27, 1906 and her fitting out was completed shortly there after when she underwent 2 days of sea trials in early June.
On June 29, 1906, the Ireland began her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Quebec. On her 3rd crossing, the Ireland set a new record, from Moville to Pointe au Pere in 5 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes. However, she was not awarded the Blue Riband since it did not apply to the Canadian run, nor was there any award given. Still, it was good publicity and she served the Canadian Pacific Line well for the next 8 years until her untimely demise.
On May 1st, 1914, the Empress of Ireland traded hands and recieved a new captain, one Henry Kendall a seasoned Canadian Pacific captain reaching the acme of his career as he commanded the line's flagship. As passengers boarded for the 96th and final crossing a foreshadow of the disaster may have been the lack of Emmy, an orange tabby cat who had been on board for 2 years and beacame the ship's offical mouser was found watching the Ireland depart from her Quebec dock on May 28, 1914 when the Ireland had her last load of coal and cargo. The Ireland departed for Europe at 4:27 PM with an underbooked 1st Class and a total of 1,477 passengers. As evening approached on the St. Lawrence River, the Ireland steamed toward the small towns of Rimouski and Pointe au Père.
At 12:30 AM, the Empress of Ireland slowed to 8 knots and steamed into a fog bank and anchored near Rimouski for a Royal Mail delivery that lasted about 30 minutes before departing for the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean around 1:30 AM. A scant 8 minutes later the first sighting of the Norwegian coal ship Storstad was made. However, before each ship was able to determine how to avoid the other, the fog rolled in enveloping both ships. Confusion on both ships' bridges led to disaster, each thinking the other was where they weren't. The Storistad's thick bow, designed for the sailing through the Scandinavian ice flows ramed the Ireland between her 2 funnels and a foot below her Shelter Deck. She left a hole 14 feet wide and 25 feet high.
Captain Kendall had on the bridge when the disaster occured, he ordered the sirens sounded, an SOS radioed, and the crew to man the lifeboats. All watertight doors were closed except for a faulty one that allowed water to rush into the 3rd class rooms on Lower Deck. The accident had occured around 1:55 AM, and in a minute the ship was already listing 9°. Kendall also attempted to contact the Storistad, but the Ireland's forward momentum had sent the ship into the dark.
In all but a few minutes the ship was listing 30° as people clung to the port side for dear life and in about 14 minutes, the Empress of Ireland sank beneath the fridge waters of the St. Lawrence. Most of those who survived the sinking died from the cold or the lack of a life jacket. Rescue boats arrived at around 4:00 AM, but by then only 465 passengers of 1,477 remained. The Ireland had claimed 1,012 lives in less than 30 minutes. The Ireland disaster was unlike that of the Titanic's in that there were more than enough lifeboats and life jackets for all passengers. However, the speed of her sinking was the key factor in her enormous fatalities. However, like most disasters, it can be traced to human error.
Today the Empress of Ireland lies in 130 feet of freezing cold water, and is marked by a buoy. Divers are free to visit the wreck, but cannot take any artifacts. With that aside, it should be noted that it is risky to attempt to visit her as the dangerous currents of the St. Lawrence have caused many casualties and often unburies and reburies things constantly. Still, some items including 212 bars of silver and the the ship's purser safe were recovered in the weeks following the disaster.