Top 10 Catastrophic Shipwrecks

Most people are familiar with the tragic loss of the Titanic and most of its passengers, but it is, surprisingly, not the worst maritime disaster in history – in fact it only ranks as number 5 (based on death toll). This is a list of the most disastrous catastrophes involving ships. This list is ranked from least to most deaths.

10 Mary Rose

Death Toll: 400

The Mary Rose was an English Tudor carrack warship and one of the first to be able to fire a full broadside of cannons. She was one of the earliest purpose-built warships to serve in the Royal Navy; it is thought that she never served as a merchant ship. In 1545 King Francis I of France launched an invasion of England with 30,000 soldiers in more than 200 ships. Against this invasion fleet—larger than the Spanish Armada forty-three years later—the English had about 80 ships and 12,000 soldiers, with the Mary Rose the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir George Carew. On July 19th, 1545, the two sides fought a fairly inconsequential battle (the Battle of Solent) with little damage being done to either side. Next day, toward evening, a breeze sprang up and as Mary Rose advanced to battle she capsized and sank with the loss of all but 35 of her crew. There were sources that said that the ship had fired from the port side and made a sharp turn so she could fire from the starboard side. The turn was so sharp that the ship heeled sufficiently to submerge the open gun ports, allowing enough water to enter to sink the ship. At the time, many sailors did not know how to swim as they considered this “tempting fate”. Pictured above is the hull of the Mary Rose – recovered in the 21st century. [Source]

9 HMS Birkenhead

Death Toll: 460

HMS Birkenhead, also referred to as HM Troopship Birkenhead or steam frigate Birkenhead, was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. She was initially designed as a frigate, but was converted to a troopship before being commissioned. On 26 February 1852, while transporting troops primarily of the 73rd Regiment of Foot to Algoa Bay, she was wrecked at Gansbaai near Cape Town, South Africa. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats on board for all the passengers – however the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people onboard survived, the soldiers’ chivalry gave rise to the “women and children first” protocol during the procedure of abandoning ship, while the “Birkenhead Drill” of Rudyard Kipling’s poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances. [Source]

8 SS Eastland

Death Toll: 845

The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship based in Chicago and used for tours. On July 24, 1915, the Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take employees from Chicago’s Western Electric Company to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This was a major event in the lives of the workers, many of whom could not take holidays. Due to a recent act passed by Woodrow Wilson, the ship was carrying so many lifeboats that it became top-heavy and unstable. On the fateful morning, passengers began boarding the Eastland on the south bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets around 6.30 a.m., and by 7:10, the ship had reached its capacity of 2752 passengers. The ship was packed, with many passengers standing on the open upper decks, and began to list slightly to the port side (away from the wharf). Sometime in the next 15 minutes a number of passengers rushed to the port side, and at 7:28, the Eastland lurched sharply to port and then rolled completely onto its side, coming to rest on the river bottom, which was only 20 feet below the surface. Many other passengers had already moved below decks on this relatively cool and damp morning to warm up before the departure. Consequently, hundreds were trapped inside by the water and the sudden rollover; others were crushed by heavy furniture, including pianos, bookcases, and tables. Although the ship was only 20 feet from the wharf, and in spite of the quick response by the crew of a nearby vessel, the Kenosha, which came alongside the hull to allow those stranded on the capsized vessel to leap to safety, a total of 841 passengers and four crew members died in the disaster. Many were young women and children. [Source]

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