18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic

Larry Holzwarth - September 11, 2018

The disaster which befell RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage was well known before it received yet more attention in the 1990s, thanks in large part to the fictional saga of Jack and Rose in the film by James Cameron. Its story thus overrides other nautical disasters which occurred throughout history, on the seas, and on rivers and lakes inland. Not fewer than six maritime disasters occurred with greater loss of life than that of the Titanic incident, including one on the Mississippi River in the United States in 1865. At least sixteen ships were lost in which more than 1,000 people died, most of them all but forgotten.

This is not a comprehensive list of ship disasters based on the number who died in them, but a presentation of several lost ships and the impact their loss had on history. For example, in the year 1120, the ship White Ship was lost when a drunken crew, according to the two survivors, lost control of the vessel and it sank, with more than 300 dead. Among them was the heir to the throne of England. The result was nearly two decades of civil war over the right to the British Crown. The period of time in British and Norman history is known as The Anarchy.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The legendary Flying Dutchman in a painting from 1887. Wikimedia

Here are twenty maritime disasters and their impact on history.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The explosion and destruction by fire of the river steamer Sultana in April, 1865. Library of Congress

1. The Sultana explosion was the worst maritime disaster in American history

April 1865 was an eventful month in America’s story. Robert E. Lee surrendered, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and the largest manhunt America had yet mounted culminated in the killing of the president’s murderer on April 26. So it is little wonder that the accident which befell the wooden sidewheel river steamboat Sultana was all but forgotten, especially considering the nation had become immune to the reports of heavy loss of life during the preceding four years. Sultana was carrying more than five times its designed capacity of passengers when three of the vessels’ four boilers exploded, starting a fire which totally destroyed the less than two-year-old vessel.

The government had offered to pay four dollars for every enlisted man and ten for officers who had been held prisoners by the Confederacy to steamboat operators willing to convey them north. Kickbacks and false reports allowed Sultana’s owners to pack the boat well beyond the level of safety. As the boat headed upriver with the former prisoners, overpressure in the boilers caused the explosion and resulting fire, and up to 1,500 were killed. The exact count remains unknown due to the falsified manifests. There were about 750 survivors treated for injuries. Sultana’s captain and most of the crew were among the dead, and nobody was ever held accountable for the disaster. Because the Mississippi River has changed its path since the disaster, the remains of the wreck are now buried under dry land near Memphis, Tennessee.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
This drawing of the collision of Bywell Castle and Princess Alice appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1878. Wikimedia

2. SS Princess Alice sank while insight of its pier

SS Princess Alice was ten years old when the London Steamboat Company purchased the paddle steamer to operate it as an excursion boat on the Thames River in 1875. In September 1878 the vessel embarked on what was billed as a moonlight cruise, beginning at Swan Pier in London, cruising to Gravesend, and returning to its embarkation point. There were planned stops during the cruise, for passengers to disembark if they desired. At all points of the trip the vessel was within sight of land, and for the most part within reach of piers, wharves, docks, and waterside steps. Shortly before eight o’clock, Princess Alice, which was moving against the ebbing tide, collided with the collier Bywell Castle.

Princess Alice was sliced in two by the heavier collier, and the remains of the steamer sank in less than five minutes, with hundreds of passengers unable to escape below decks. The area of the Thames where the vessel sank was polluted from the effluence of raw sewage. Crew from Bywell Castle attempted to rescue those they could, as did observers from the banks of the river, but over 650 passengers of the vessel who set out on an excursion that evening died in the accident. A board of inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the captain of the excursion steamer, finding that the vessel was undermanned and operated unsafely by its master, who died in the waters of the Thames that night.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
La Bourgogne entering port in France in 1895 in a colorized print. Library of Congress

3. La Bourgogne’s loss included 299 of the 300 women on board

An unwritten and longstanding law of the sea is that when a vessel needs to be abandoned women and children are first. It was a law forgotten on the morning of July 4, 1898, when the French passenger and mail steamer La Bourgogne, a vessel noted for its speed, collided with a British windjammer off Sable Island, near Nova Scotia. The French ship was traveling at full speed in a heavy fog, with visibility limited to less than twenty yards. An immediate list to starboard rendered the port-side lifeboats unable to be launched, and several of the starboard boats were damaged. In the darkness and fog, there was a panicked rush to the usable boats.

There were 726 passengers and crew aboard the vessel, and of the three hundred women aboard only one survived. None of the children aboard survived. Of the 173 who did live through the disaster less than seventy were passengers, and only one ship’s officer survived the sinking. The captain and deck officers went down with the ship. The British vessel, Cromartyshire, rescued those that it could once the fog thinned and daylight revealed the victims in the water and on the few ship’s boats which were deployed. Those crew members who survived were disembarked in New York when the British ship arrived there and required protection from the police when the account of the sinking became known to the public.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
This drawing of the collision between Lady Elgin and the schooner does not accurately depict the relative size of the vessels, and appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Wikimedia

4. The loss of the steamer Lady Elgin changed Milwaukee politics

Lady Elgin was a passenger steamer on the Great Lakes prior to the Civil War. The vessel was a hard-luck ship during its relatively short career, including being sunk once, raised and refitted, stranded on a reef, and damaged by fire. Nonetheless, the vessel was known for its luxurious fittings and was a popular passenger and excursion vessel. In September 1860, the vessel departed Milwaukee carrying a large contingent of that city’s mostly Irish political leadership, bound for Chicago where the group were to hear a speech by Stephen A. Douglas. After a day of campaigning the vessel was returning to Milwaukee when it was rammed by Augusta of Oswego, a poorly lighted schooner.

In the prevailing high winds and low visibility, the schooner maintained its course for Chicago. Lady Elgin quickly broke apart, and of the passengers and crew aboard 98 survived. More than 300 perished. Of the survivors, one was a drummer for a band on board which had played during the campaign rally in Chicago; he used one of his drums as a flotation device. Many of the dead were killed when the stormy waters crushed them against the rocky shoreline. So many of the Irish political leaders of Milwaukee were killed in the disaster that the Germans became the leading ethnic group in city politics following the sinking. The Lady Elgin disaster was the largest loss of life on the Great Lakes, and remains so as of 2018.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
Cherokee Chief Joseph Vann lived in this house in Georgia, and falsely claimed American citizenship to operate Lucy Walker. Library of Congress

5. The Lucy Walker disaster led to increased government legislation regarding steamboats

Lucy Walker was a river steamer owned by a Cherokee named Joseph Vann, who falsely claimed American citizenship in order to obtain certification from the government to operate the vessel. Its crew were slaves owned by Vann (who owned over 100 at his Georgia plantation) who had participated in a slave revolt. Vann placed them on the vessel in order to separate them from other slaves. Vann began operating Lucy Walker in 1843, advertising it as a “fast-running vessel”. The steamer operated primarily on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, usually as a special charter rather than as a scheduled packet service. At times the vessel contracted with the US Army.

On October 23, 1844, the vessel was on the Ohio River just below the town of New Albany, Indiana, when it stopped in mid-stream to perform maintenance on its engines. Just after five in the afternoon all three of the boat’s boilers exploded tearing the vessel’s upper works to pieces. Bodies living and dead were thrown into the air and the river, and the remnants of the boat quickly burned. At least 56 passengers and crew died, the exact number unknown because the manifest was destroyed in the fire. Vann was killed in the explosion. Changes to operating regulations were made as a result of the accident, including making steamboat racing illegal with passengers aboard, though there was little evidence the boat had been racing. The cause of the accident was never determined, though murder/suicide by a crew member was suspected.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
A depiction of G. P. Griffith being destroyed by fire, from Lloyds Steamboat Directory. Wikimedia

6. G. P. Griffith set itself on fire

The lake steamer G. P. Griffith was a scheduled packet steamer which operated on the Great Lakes, primarily on Lake Erie, during the warm months of the year. Its trips included several stops, running between Buffalo, New York, and Toledo, Ohio, with dockings at Erie, Fairport, Cleveland, and others. The vessel was between Fairport and Cleveland on June 16, 1850, carrying an estimated 326 passengers, most of them recently arrived immigrants, when sparks from its smokestacks ignited the vessel’s upper works. The captain increased speed in an attempt to reach shore, but the speed fanned the flames aft and the crew was forced to abandon its stations. The vessel went aground in about eight feet of water and was quickly consumed.

The captain, C. C. Roby, threw his wife and children over the side before abandoning the ship himself, hoping to save them. All drowned, including the captain. Thirty-seven survived, and the rest of the passengers and crew died in the flames or the water. Most of the bodies initially recovered were buried in a mass grave on the Ohio shore, which was later looted when it became known that most of the immigrants were carrying all of the money they had with them. Later, bodies which rose from the water were found to be weighted down with money belts containing their owner’s wealth in gold. Bodies of the victims continued to wash ashore two weeks after the disaster. The steamer’s manifest was lost, so the exact death toll remains unknown.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
One of the first ships to operate profitably in the transatlantic passenger trade, City of Glasgow vanished without a trace. Wikimedia

7. SS City of Glasgow simply vanished without a trace

The screw steamer City of Glasgow was one of the first vessels to profitably operate in the cross Atlantic passenger trade without relying on government assistance. It was also one of the first passenger ships to offer cabins in steerage class. Previous vessels provided space on the open deck for steerage passengers, making the City of Glasgow an attractive option for those immigrating to America. The city of Glasgow originally operated on the Liverpool – New York route before being purchased to operate between Liverpool and Philadelphia by the new Liverpool and Philadelphia Steamship Company in the autumn of 1850. The city of Glasgow was not known for its speed, but it carried a large number of passengers comfortably.

On the first of March 1854, the City of Glasgow departed Liverpool for Philadelphia, due to return to the British port on March 25. The ship carried 480 passengers and crew. Once out of sight of its home port the vessel was never seen nor heard from again. Several other shipwrecks were believed to be the remains of the ship over the years, but all were later discounted. No trace of its wreckage has ever been found, and the fate of the ship and the 480 souls aboard it is one of the mysteries of the sea. The ship was declared lost at sea in May 1854, and Lloyd’s of London paid its owners 50,000 pounds sterling, roughly $6 million in 2018.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The destruction of Halifax and Dartmouth on the far side of the harbor is clearly evident in this 1917 photograph. Wikimedia

8. The largest explosion before the atomic bomb was caused by a maritime accident

On December 6, 1917, the French ship Mont Blanc was carrying its cargo of high explosives from New York to Bordeaux via the port of Halifax, where convoys were formed for the crossing of the Atlantic under escort. Denied entry into the port the previous evening by the closing of the submarine nets, Mont Blanc was entering the harbor as the Norwegian vessel Imo was departing. Imo, traveling at a higher rate of speed than allowed and with an inexperienced pilot aboard, collided with Mont Blanc, though both vessels attempted to avoid contact. Mont Blanc was lightly damaged, but barrels of benzol were spilled, and the fumes ignited by sparks as the ships disengaged. The crew immediately abandoned the ship.

Mont Blanc went aground near Pier 6, and several vessels, unaware of the cargo aboard, approached to try to extinguish the fire. Shortly after 9.00 AM, the ship exploded with such force that a half-ton portion of its anchor landed more than two miles south of the site of the detonation. Halifax was showered with flaming debris. 400 acres surrounding the site were destroyed and a tsunami wave swept over the seawall. Sixteen hundred people were killed by the blast, another almost 400 died of injuries later. Twelve thousand buildings were destroyed. It was the largest explosion caused by human beings until the Trinity test of the atomic bomb. There were 9,000 additional injured, and in the aftermath, more than 30,000 were left without adequate shelter as winter was about to begin.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
General Slocum takes on passengers for an excursion before disaster befell the poorly maintained vessel. National Archives

9. The General Slocum disaster occurred during a church picnic excursion

General Slocum was a paddle-wheel steamer which operated out of New York, primarily as a chartered excursion boat by 1904, at which time the vessel was 13 years old. During those 13 years the vessel suffered a series of mishaps and accidents, often running aground, but few injuries to passengers or crew. In June 1904 the vessel was chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to convey members to a picnic ground on Long Island, an annual event then in its 17th year. About 1,400 men, women, and children boarded the vessel, which got underway at 9.30 in the morning to cruise up the East River and then across Long Island Sound to the picnic grounds near Eatons Neck. Sometime around ten, a fire was reported to the captain.

Probably started by a carelessly discarded cigar or cigarette, the fire spread quickly. The captain remained on the course rather than trying to steer for the shore or landings along the New York waterfront. Fire hoses had not been maintained and were rotten, as were the lifejackets. Some passengers threw themselves into the East River, where they drowned, dragged down by their sodden clothing. General Slocum finally sank near the Bronx. Over 1,000 men, women, and children died from the result of the fires or drowned in the river. Only five of the 40 man crew died. The captain survived. He later was sentenced to ten years in prison for failing to maintain his vessel, he served just over three. It was the largest loss of life in a single incident in New York City until September 11, 2001.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
Eastland with its port side resting on the bottom of the Chicago River while work was underway recovering the bodies of the dead. Wikimedia

10. Passengers sank the excursion ship Eastland as it was moored to its pier in Chicago

In July 1915, Eastland was one of five lake steamers chartered to carry employees of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Plant on a company-sponsored excursion. Eastland was a poorly designed ship, top heavy and prone to listing, and the changes mandated by the Titanic disaster regarding sufficient lifeboats made the vessel more so, since the additional boats were stored on the upper decks. On July 24, Eastland took aboard over 2,500 passengers, and when many of them crowded along the port side of the ship, on the upper deck, it began to lean away from the pier. As even more crowded to the port side, eager to see the view, the ship heeled over on its side and sank to the bottom of the Chicago River.

The water was only about 20 feet deep, with the starboard side breaking the surface, but most of the passengers below the decks were trapped as the vessel flooded. Many others were killed by furniture and equipment which broke loose when the ship rolled. Among the initial list of the dead was George Halas, later owner of the Chicago Bears, who had been scheduled to be aboard but was late arriving. When he wasn’t located during a muster of the survivors he was assumed to be trapped aboard. Eight hundred and forty-four passengers and crew weren’t as lucky. Eastland was later raised, modified, and served in the US Navy as USS Wilmette in both world wars.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
Dona Paz and Vector, both illegally operating, collided in the shark-infested waters of the Philippines. NASA

11. MV Dona Paz and MT Vector collided killing more than 4,000 passengers and crew

Dona Paz was a ferry operating on a scheduled service between Leyte, Samar, and Manila in the Philippines when it collided on the night of December 20, 1987, with the gasoline-laden tanker Vector. Both ships were disasters waiting to happen. Dona Paz was severely overloaded, carrying over four thousand passengers, well above its limit, while Vector was operating without a license, a qualified master, or lookouts. Both ships were essentially operating illegally, and when they collided none of the qualified deck officers were on the bridge of either ship. The collision caused Vector to burst into flames, the fire spread to Dona Paz and the surrounding waters, into which panicked passengers leaped. The waters were also infested by sharks.

Because Dona Paz carried passengers not listed on its manifest, the exact casualty count could only be estimated. Of the bodies recovered, more were not listed than were. Only 24 people survived the accident, including two crewmen from Vector. An official Philippine presidential task force estimated that 4,386 victims died in the accident, making it in terms of loss of life the worst maritime disaster of the twentieth century, according to TIME magazine. The official manifest for Dona Paz listed just over 1500 passengers, an indication of how overloaded the vessel was. The official investigation blamed the accident on Vector and its owners were required to compensate the families of the victims of the tragedy.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
A German depiction of the sinking of the armored cruiser Leon Gambetta by Georg von Trapp in 1915. Wikimedia

12. Leon Gambetta was sunk by a man who became famous for music

Leon Gambetta was an armored cruiser built for the French navy at the turn of the twentieth century, which saw most of its pre-war service in the Atlantic. Functionally obsolete by the time of World War I, the ship served as an escort vessel in the Mediterranean during the early war years. The French fleet in the Mediterranean was involved in blockading the Austro-Hungarian fleet in the Adriatic while also showing the flag to the Italians, in the hope that Italy would enter the war on the side of the Allies. On April 27, 1915, Leon Gambetta was at sea without escorts, steaming at a relatively slow speed in the Adriatic near the Otranto Straits.

Leon Gambetta was hit by at least two torpedoes, quickly capsized, and sank beneath the waves in less than ten minutes. Of its crew of 821, only 137 survived. All of the officers aboard died in the sinking, including Rear Admiral and commander of the cruiser division Victor Senes. The submarine which sank the French cruiser was the Austro-Hungarian U-5, commanded by Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp, an Austrian baron who became famous as the husband of Maria von Trapp and father of the children which together became the Trapp Family Singers, the subject of the musical play and subsequent film, The Sound of Music.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
RMS Lancastria sinking off the French port of St. Nazaire in 1940, taken from a rescue vessel. Imperial War Museum

12. RMS Lancastria was sunk after the evacuation of Dunkirk

RMS Lancastria was a trans-Atlantic liner built for a subsidiary of Cunard, which operated primarily between Glasgow and Montreal before being refitted to accommodate more than one class of passengers. The ship then operated on the Liverpool-New York schedule throughout the 1930s. When World War II began the British government commandeered the vessel for refitting as a troop transport. After the British army was driven from France and evacuated at Dunkirk, Lancastria was sent to St. Nazaire to evacuate the remaining British citizens, military officers, troops, and diplomats from France. Lancastria was ordered to carry as many passengers as possible, rather than adhering to its passenger limits.

The ship’s passenger limit, including its crew, was 2,200. Lancastria had as many as 8,300 persons aboard when it was attacked by German aircraft while in the Loire estuary. Hit by four bombs the ship sank in less than twenty minutes, with the Germans continuing to strafe survivors in the water. Rescue vessels from the Royal Navy managed to save just under 2,500 from the passengers and crew, but up to 5,800 were killed in the sinking, most of them the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force in France, which the Royal Navy and Churchill’s government did their best to cover up, stressing instead the salvation of the troops at Dunkirk. The loss of Lancastria was the largest loss of life in British maritime history.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
MV Goya in Akers Shipyard, Oslo, Norway in 1940. Wikimedia

13. The loss of MV Goya was one of the worst days of World War II in terms of casualties

MV Goya (MV stands for Motor Vessel) was a freighter in the Norwegian service, seized by the Germans after their successful invasion of Norway in the early days of the Second World War. The Germans used the vessel to support operations in the Baltic region throughout the war. By 1944 the ship was used to support U-Boat operations both as a depot and as a target ship, attacked by German submarines using dummy torpedoes. In 1944 the ship was fitted out as a troop transport, in preparation for evacuating German units and support groups retreating before the Soviets. By the spring of 1945, Goya was evacuating German units as part of the Kriegsmarine’s Operation Hannibal, between Danzig and Kiel.

Goya was attacked by Soviet aircraft, hit by at least one bomb, and emerged relatively undamaged. Its escorts were not so lucky, and Goya was forced to slow to maintain the integrity of the convoy in which it was sailing. A Soviet minelaying vessel then launched torpedoes against the convoy, two of which struck Goya, which broke apart in the explosions and sank in less than five minutes, most of its passengers immersed in the frigid Baltic. The Soviets made no attempt to rescue survivors, and between 6,000 and 7,000 German refugees and evacuating, troops were killed in the explosions or died of hypothermia. Less than 200 survived the disaster.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The Empress of Ireland tragedy was one of the worst to ever occur on Canadian waterways. Library of Congress

14. Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River in sight of land

RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Empress of Ireland was in the process of beginning its 96th crossing of the Atlantic in May, 1914 when it collided in foggy conditions with a Norwegian freighter near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. The two ships had sighted each other earlier, before the fog engulfed them, and had remained in communication through the use of their ship’s whistles, but the Norwegian vessel nonetheless struck the passenger ship amidships, cutting a gash in the side. The passenger’s vessel was equipped with watertight doors, but they required the crew to shut them manually, and the ship flooded too quickly for the crew to respond in time. There were 1,477 passengers and crew aboard, 1,012 of them died as the ship went down.

Empress of Ireland was upgraded to include new safety procedures and equipment following the loss of Titanic two years earlier, but many of them were ignored as the vessel approached the open sea. Numerous portholes, some just above the waterline, had been left open to allow for ventilation, and the watertight doors were open throughout the ship. The flooding following the collision was so severe that the ship capsized in less than fifteen minutes, and sank quickly, without enough time to load most of the lifeboats, of which there were enough to accommodate all passengers aboard. Most of those who were not drowned by the water flooding the vessel died of hypothermia in the waters of St. Lawrence. Survivors from the crew outnumbered those from the passengers.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The wreck of USS Thresher lies on the ocean floor more than 8,000 feet beneath the surface, the tomb for 129 men. US Navy

15. USS Thresher changed US Navy submarine operations

In April 1963 USS Thresher, as part of its testing operations following a shipyard overhaul, was engaged in diving operations, escorted by the rescue ship Skylark. On April 10, after the submarine had remained submerged for the night, Thresher began a deep dive test, gradually working its way down to its test depth in a series of steps. The submarine followed a circular path beneath Skylark as it worked its way down. It never resurfaced, and after receiving some garbled communications Skylark realized that the submarine had been sunk. It was the first loss of a nuclear-powered submarine, and 129 members of its crew and shipyard personnel were killed in the disaster.

Subsequent to the loss and following the investigations into its cause, the US Navy instituted a program of safety procedures and equipment known as SUBSAFE. SUBSAFE was the creation of strictly adhered-to inspections, safety procedures, and redundancy of design to protect submarines and the personnel involved in their construction, maintenance, and operation. Since the implementation of SUBSAFE only one American submarine has been lost, USS Scorpion, and that vessel had not yet been SUBSAFE certified. The wreck of Thresher was mapped and photographed in color by Dr. Robert Ballard in the 1980s (as was that of Scorpion), funded by the Navy and screened by his successful search for the wreck of Titanic.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
A dramatic photograph showing the severity of the list on Vestris, taken by a crewman before boarding on of the last lifeboats. Wikimedia

16. The story of the SS Vestris sinking led to the first byline from a woman in The New York Times

On November 12, 1928, the sixteen-year-old passenger steamer SS Vestris was en route from New York to the River Plate in South America when it developed a list following an encounter with a storm while off New Jersey. The list caused a shifting of poorly stowed cargo, which served to increase the list further. As the ship leaned yet further to starboard, its coal bunkers shifted as well, further increasing the list to the point that the ship began to take on water. The ship began transmitting an SOS, giving its position incorrectly, at about 10 AM, and rebroadcast the distress call about an hour later. By noon, with the ship about 200 miles out to sea from Norfolk, Virginia, the decision was made to abandon ship.

The abandonment was mishandled, leading to two of the lifeboats which were loaded with women and children being sunk when the ship went down. Another was swamped and its passengers were dumped into the water. Of the 128 passengers aboard, sixty survived, 155 members of the crew lived through the ordeal, while 43 crew members, including the captain, were killed. There were thirty-three women and thirteen children aboard Vestris, only eight women survived, and none of the children. Among the ships which arrived to take aboard, survivors was the battleship USS Wyoming, dispatched from Norfolk. A woman correspondent from the Associated Press covered the story, and it appeared under her byline, Lorena Hickok, in the New York Times, the first woman’s byline in the newspaper’s long history.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
The Argentine cruiser General Belgrano is the only warship to have been sunk by a hostile nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror. Wikimedia

17. General Belgrano is the only ship to have been sunk by a nuclear-powered submarine

General Belgrano was originally USS Phoenix, a light cruiser that was a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II. In 1951 the ship was sold to the Argentine Navy, which commissioned the ship 17 de Octubre, which remained its name until Juan Peron was overthrown in a coup (in which the ship participated). It was then renamed, General Belgrano. The ship was upgraded with anti-aircraft missiles but by the 1980s it was for all practical purposes obsolete. When the Falklands War erupted General Belgrano was in service near the exclusion zone mandated by the British Navy surrounding the Falkland Islands when it was tracked by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror.

Conqueror hit General Belgrano with two of the three torpedoes it launched, and the old cruiser sank quickly. Electrical failure prevented the ship from issuing distress calls before going down, and the cruiser’s escorts did not recognize its sinking until much later. The loss of life was 323 dead, most of them due to the explosion of the torpedoes and the resulting fire. Over 700 men were rescued by the Argentine navy and civilian ships. HMS Conqueror was the second submarine to sink an enemy vessel since the Second World War ended (the first occurred in the Indo-Pakistani War) and remains to date the only nuclear submarine to attack and destroy an enemy ship.

18 Maritime Disasters other Than the Titanic
USS Maine photographed circa 1897, the year before it was lost in an explosion at Havana. Library of Congress

18. The loss of the Maine led to the Spanish-American War

Often erroneously referred to as a battleship, USS Maine was an armored cruiser which became obsolete while still under construction, but was nonetheless a symbol of pride for the United States Navy. The ship entered service in 1895 and in 1898 was sent to Havana during the Cuban revolution against Spain, as a sign of American strength and to protect American interests in Cuba. During the evening hours of February 15, 1898, Maine was riding at anchor in the harbor when it was racked with a tremendous explosion as more than five tons of gunpowder detonated. Two hundred and sixty-six American sailors were killed in the explosion and sinking. There were 89 survivors.

Remember the Maine became a rallying cry for those lobbying for war with Spain, and yellow journalists blamed the explosion on a Spanish mine, though the most likely explanation for what happened is that it was an accident. Coal bunkers were likely the source of a fire which created intense heat alongside a powder magazine, which then detonated, destroying the ship. An investigation by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of America’s nuclear navy, determined that the coal bunker fire was the most logical conclusion based on the evidence, and further considered that the Spanish had no motives for inciting America to go to war, and great motives for preventing that eventuality.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“This Civil War Boat Explosion Killed More People than the ‘Titanic'”. Kat Eschner, Smithsonian Magazine. April 27, 2017

“Loss of the French Liner La Bourgogne With 550 Lives”. Marine Engineering. August 1898

“Fearful Disaster On Lake Michigan; The Steamer Lady Elgin Sunk by Collision with a Schooner”. The New York Times. September 10, 1860

“Transatlantic”. Stephen Fox. 2003

“The silence after the blast: How the Halifax explosion was nearly forgotten”. Brett Bundale, Global News. November 30, 2017

“A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum”. Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine. February 21, 2012

“Excursion to Death”. John Griggs, American Heritage Magazine. February 1965

“The Philippines Off Mindoro, A Night to Remember”. Howard Chua Eo and Nelly Sindayen, Time Magazine. January 4, 1988

“Vienna Confirms Disaster: Lieutenant von Trapp in Command of Submarine that Sank the Cruiser. French Warship Sunk. 552 Perish”. The New York Times. April 29, 1915

“Lancastria: The forgotten tragedy of World War Two”. Graham Fraser, BBC Scotland. June 13, 2015

“Wartime Disasters at Sea”. David Williams. 1997

“Empress of Ireland, ‘Canada’s Titanic,’ finally getting its due after 100 years”. Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail. May 23, 1014

“USS Thresher (SSN-593) 3 August 1961 – 10 April 1963”. Vice-Admiral E. W. Grenfell, Proceedings. March 1964

“The Evening Read: The sinking of SS Vestris – the shipping disaster that time forgot”. Paddy Shennan, The Liverpool Echo. October 21, 2013

“Falklands War: HMS Conqueror remembers Belgrano sinking”. Allan Little, BBC News video report. May 2, 2012

“How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed”. Hyman G. Rickover. 1995