The story of the sinking of the RMS Titanic with the loss of nearly 1500 souls mesmerizes those that imagine the worst disasters involving cruise liners or other passenger vessels. Conveyed by motion pictures the story reaches into the hearts of people, especially romantics and maritime enthusiasts a century after her demise. The story is legend. The largest ship then in existence, called “unsinkable” she was the symbol of pre-World War One hubris. The arrogance of her owners, the hubris of her Captain and the storied passenger list which included some of the wealthiest and most famous people of her time lend themselves to a romantic tragedy at sea brought to us by Hollywood.
However as great of tragedy as was the Titanic disaster the great liner was neither the largest passenger vessel to sink nor the most souls lost at sea. The Costa Concordia now has the dubious distinction of being the largest passenger vessel to ever sink but comes in very low on the scale for number of fatalities.
SS Sultana disaster
The ships with the greatest number of lives lost came in much more obscure disasters. The greatest loss of life on a passenger vessel during peacetime was the SS Sultana, a side-wheel steamer returning Union Soldiers home following the end of the Civil War. Grossly overcrowded, the ship which was designed to carry under 400 passengers had nearly 2400 souls aboard when one of her boilers exploded causing a fire which consumed the ship. Only 741 people were rescued.
Yet as bad as this tragedy was the worst disaster in maritime history occurred near the end of the Second World War when the SS Wilhelm Gustlaff, a 26,000 ton 684 former cruise liner in the service of the German Navy was torpedoed by the Soviet Submarine S-13 on the night of 30 January 1945. Over 9000 souls, the vast majority civilians or military dependents fleeing the Red Army went down with the ship. Another great ship, the 38,000 ton RMS Lusitania was sunk by the German U-boat U-20 on May 7th 1915 with the loss of 1198 lives including 128 Americans.
RMS Lusitania (above) and MV Dona Paz (below)
The MV Dona Paz, a ferry with Sulpicio Lines in the Philippines collided with the tanker MT Vector on 27 December 1987 with a loss of over 4000 souls. Called the “Asian Titanic” it was one the worst maritime disasters of modern times.
Titanic’s sister the RMS Britannic was serving as a hospital ship in the First World War when she struck a mine in the Aegean Sea sinking in 55 minutes with the loss of only 30 of over 1100 souls aboard.
Andrea Doria sinking off of New York-New Jersey
Another well known wreck was that of the beautiful Italian liner Andrea Doria which collided with the MV Stockholm and sank on July 26th 1956 with the loss of 46 passengers. The sinking was one of the most memorable of all time because of how it was filmed and the heroism of her Captain who unlike Captain Schettino of the Concordia did not leave the ship until he was sure that all passengers and crew were off and was willing to go down with the ship.
RMS Queen Elizabeth
Yet the largest liners ever sunk were two of the most glorious of their era the RMS Queen Elizabeth and the French SS Normandie. Both sank under different names and both were due to fires while in port. The the 83,673 ton Queen Elizabeth was retired from the Cunard Line in the late 1960s and taken to Hong Kong where she was renamed SS Seawise University and burned and sank in Hong Kong harbor on 9 January 1972.
The 83,423 ton SS Normandie, one of the most beautiful ships ever to grace the sea and was the first ship of over 1000 feet long. She was taken over by the US Navy after the French surrender to the Germans. She was renamed was renamed USS Lafayette and while undergoing conversion to a troopship in New York on burned and capsized on the 9-10 February 1942.
SS Normandie/USS Lafayette sunk
Costa Concordia now lies a few hundred yards off Giglio Island and could either break up or sink into deeper water before she can be salvaged.
All of these events were tragic in their own way be they in war or peace. Some claimed vast numbers of lives while others resulted in the loss of the most significant ships of their day. The Costa Concordia is the largest liner ever to go down and things being what they are may not be the last. Her loss was avoidable by all accounts and hopefully will result in owners, captains and governments doing more to ensure the safety of all that sail the high seas.
For those in peril on the sea….