Was the sinking of the Titanic the worst ever sea disaster?

Sinking of the Lancastria, 17 June 1940Sinking of the Lancastria, 17 June 1940, by Robert W. May. Repro ID: BHC0673 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.There have been several ships lost with much greater loss of life than the Titanic, although it is the Titanic that has kept its hold on the public imagination.

When the Titanic sank in April 1912, 1503 lives were lost. However, few people have heard of the loss of the Empress of Ireland in May 1914 just two years later. When this Canadian Pacific liner sank after colliding with a Norwegian ship in the St. Lawrence River, 1024 lives were lost.

The greatest maritime disaster in peacetime happened in December 1987, when the Philippine inter-island ferry Doa Paz collided with the Vector, a small coastal petrol tanker. The impact triggered an explosion in the tanker, and the resulting fireball set fire not only to the ferry, but also to the surface of the sea as the spilt petrol spread. Of the Doa Paz’s 4317 passengers (only 1586 appeared on the manifest) only 24 survived; all 58 crew and 11 of the Vector’s crew of 13 perished. Of the 4386 who lost their lives, over 1,000 were children. The annual death toll in maritime accidents in Philippine waters has been estimated at 40,000; Philippine authorities say this figure is too high and put it nearer 20,000 to 30,000 annually.

Even less public notice was taken of the loss of the small Haitian ferry Neptune, which sank in February 1993. Grossly overcrowded with over 2000 passengers on their way to market, the 150ft vessel capsized in a squall. It was said that the capsize was caused by passengers rushing to the leeward side of the ship to shelter from a rain shower. An estimated 1700 people lost their lives – 200 more than with the Titanic.

Wartime sinkings eclipse even these tragedies. Few remember the Cunard White Star liner Lancastria, bombed and sunk off St. Nazaire in June 1940 while evacuating British troops from France. Exact figures are hard to ascertain, but an estimated 2500 lives were lost in this, the worst loss of life in a British ship.

The worst recorded losses of life at sea came at the end of the Second World War. On 30 January 1945, the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic while crowded with evacuated civilians and troops, fleeing the Soviet forces approaching Gdynia and Gdansk. Over 7000 people died in the freezing water. Just 10 days later on 9 February, the same submarine, the Russian S 13, sank the Steuben with the loss of over 3000 lives; and on 16 April the Soviet submarine L 13 sank the Goya, with only 183 survivors from more than 7000 men, women and children on board.