Ocean Tragedies

by Navya Mohindra

You must have heard about the infamous Titanic disaster which led to the death of 1,496 people. But if you think that it was the worst maritime disaster, you are gravely mistaken.

The Halifax Explosion

On 6 December 1917, the Halifax explosion occurred in Halifax, Canada as Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, exploded after colliding with another vessel.

As World War 1 rampaged on in Europe, the ports in Halifax bustled with ships carrying troops, relief supplies, and munitions. On the morning of 6 December 1917, the Norwegian ship, SS Imo headed out of Halifax harbor, carrying supplies for the Belgium Relief Commission.

Unbeknownst to others in the harbor, the Mont-Blanc was carrying 2,925 metric tons of explosives — including 62 metric tons of guncotton, 246 metric tons of benzol, 250 metric tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,367 metric tons of picric acid — destined for the French war effort.

Both ships were granted signals to depart, unaware of the fact that they might be heading into one of the worst maritime collisions in history. Realizing that a crash was imminent, sailors on nearby ships gathered to watch Imo collide with Mont-Blanc. Both ships had cut their engines by this point, but their momentum carried them further.

Unable to ground his ship for fear of a shock that would set off his explosive cargo, Francis Mackey ordered Mont-Blanc to steer hard to port and crossed the bow of Imo in a last-second bid to avoid a collision. The two ships were almost parallel to each other when Imo suddenly sent out three signal blasts, indicating the ship was reversing its engines.

The combination of the cargoless ship's height in the water and the transverse thrust of her right-hand propeller caused the ship's head to swing into Mont Blanc. The French ship caught fire after several drums of benzol tipped over on the deck, spilling and igniting their contents. But, the vessel drifted into a pier. Crowds, drawn in by the rising pall of smoke, gathered and emergency personnel was called in to try to control the damage.

However, the Mont-Blanc exploded. The blast and the resulting tsunami, surging at approximately 60 feet above the high-water mark, pressed three blocks into the city. Over 1,600 buildings were destroyed by the wave, and debris was scattered for several miles. The force of the wave heaved the Imo toward the shore where it became grounded.

In the aftermath of the explosion, hospitals were inundated with the wounded, and morgues struggled to identify the dead. News of the disaster spread quickly, and aid soon arrived from within Canada as well as from the United States. The blast shattered windows and displaced doors in Truro, 100 km away. The crew of a fishing boat working off the coast of Massachusetts even claimed to have heard the boom rumbling across the ocean.

The massive explosion killed more than 1,800 people, injured another 9,000, and destroyed almost the entire north end of the city of Halifax, including more than 1,600 homes.

MV Dona Paz- The Titanic of Asia

Just before midnight of December 20, 1987, the passengers of the MV Doña Paz were confronted with a choice: to die by drowning or to die by burning.

MV Doña Paz was a Filipino registered passenger ferry that sank after colliding with the oil tanker Vector on December 20, 1987. Built by Onomichi Zosen of Hiroshima, Japan, the ship was launched on April 25, 1963, as the Himeyuri Maru, with a passenger capacity of 608. In October 1975, the Himeyuri Maru was bought by Sulpicio Lines and renamed as the Don Sulpicio.

After a fire on board in June 1979, the ship was refurbished and renamed Doña Paz. Traveling from Leyte Island to the Philippine capital of Manila, the vessel was exceedingly overcrowded.

One of the survivors of the wreck was Luthgardo Niedo, a military officer who was on his way home to Manila from Leyte. He and about 1,000 other military and police officers, still wearing their uniforms, boarded the Doña Paz. It was so crowded, the Doña Paz tilted to one side... I told myself, it must really be overcrowded since it’s nearing Christmas,” he said.

On December 20, 1987, at 06:30, Dona Paz left from Tacloban, Leyte, for Manila, with a stopover at Catbalogan, Samar. The vessel was due in Manila at 04:00 the next day, and it was reported that it last made radio contact at about 20:00. However, subsequent reports indicated that Doña Paz did not have a radio.

At around 22:30, the ferry was at Dumali Point, along the Tablas Strait, near Marinduque. A survivor later said that the weather at sea that night was clear, but the sea was choppy. While many of the passengers slept, Dona Paz collided with MT Vector, an oil tanker en route from Bataan to Masbate.

Vector was carrying 1,050,000 liters of gasoline and other petroleum products owned by Caltex Philippines. Upon collision, Vector's cargo ignited and caused a fire on the ship that spread onto Dona Paz. As the passengers sensed a collision, panic and chaos spread amongst the people.

Survivors recounted that the flames spread rapidly throughout the ship and that the sea all around the ship itself was afire. With all the life jackets locked up, passengers were forced to jump off the ship and swim among charred bodies in flaming waters around the ship, with some using suitcases as makeshift flotation devices.

Dona Paz sank within two hours of the collision, while Vector sank within four hours in the shark-infested waters of Tablas Strait. Even after the rescue mission, there were only 26 survivors. It reportedly took eight hours before Philippine maritime authorities learned of the accident, and another eight hours to initiate search-and-rescue operations.

After an investigation, it was found that only one of the apprentices was monitoring the ship during the collision, while the others were partying and inebriated.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff

Last, but certainly not the least, MV Wilhelm Gustolf was a German armed military transport ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilian refugees from East Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Estonia as well as military personnel from Gotenhafen (Gdynia) as the Red Army advanced.

Originally the ship was to be named ‘Adolf Hitler’ but Hitler decided to change it after sitting beside Wilhelm’s widow at his memorial service. The people who were allowed to travel on the Kraft Durch Freude flagship were chosen by the party. Aside from its operation as a cruise ship, the Gustloff was used for public-oriented missions.

As the Red Army advanced, Karl Donitz began preparations for Operation Hannibal, the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians from the area. Beginning on January 21, 1945, an estimated two million Germans were brought to the west. The Gustloff was ordered to bring the soldiers of the 2nd Submarine Training Division to Western Germany.

On January 25, the ship started taking other refugees on board, and by the afternoon of January 29, the count had reached 7,956 when registration was stopped. Witnesses estimated that perhaps another 2,000 people boarded after that point.

For the fear of engine failure, Capt. Friedrich Petersen decided that the ship would travel no faster than 12 knots (22 km per hour), he ignored the advice of Wilhelm Zahn, commander of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, who argued that increasing speed to 15 knots (28 km per hour) would reduce the likelihood of an attack, as Soviet submarines would not be able to keep up.

At about 6:00 pm, a message warned the captain that a minesweeper convoy was headed their way, prompting him to activate the ship’s navigation lights to prevent a collision. The origin of the message is unknown and could have been a possible sabotage attempt. Gustloff did not meet any minesweepers on its way.

However, it was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13 at about 7:00 pm. At 9:16 pm the Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes and proceeded to sink over the course of one hour. The ship was carrying lifeboats and rafts for 5,000 people, but many of the lifesaving appliances were frozen to the deck.

One of the torpedoes had also hit the crew quarters, killing those best trained to deal with the situation. Nine vessels took on survivors throughout the night. Of the estimated 10,000 people on board the Gustloff, only 1,239 could be registered as survivors, making this the sinking with the highest death toll in maritime history.

The Soviet torpedo killed 9,343 people, most of them war refugees and about 5,000 of them children.

Some of these seemingly small mistakes ruined so many innocent lives. These accidents constitute only a small fraction of the total destruction caused by maritime disasters and yet they are so rarely discussed. My heart goes out to the survivors and the families of the unjustly demised.


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