1. Introduction
    2. Summary of Facts)
    3. Questions raised by the Inquiry
    4. Passenger and Crew Numbers
    5. Download: Testimony of Captain Henry Kendall
    6. Download: Answers to Question Raised
    7. Suggestions made by the Commission


The 1915 report and evidence of the Commission of Inquiry into the loss of the British steamship Empress of Ireland of Liverpool (No. 123972) through collision with the Norwegian steamship Storstad Québec June, 1914.

FIRST DAY: Québec, Tuesday, June 16, 1914.

The Commissioners appointed by the Honourable John-Douglas Hazen, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries of Canada, under Part X of the Canada Shipping Act as amended, to enquire into a casualty to the British Steamship Empress of Ireland, in which the said steamship belonging to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was sunk in collision with the Norwegian Steamship Storstad, in the River St. Lawrence on the morning of Friday the 29th day of May, 1914, met at Québec this morning, the sixteenth day of June, 1914.



The Right Honourable John Charles, Baron Mersey, President; The Honourable Ezekiel McLeod, Chief Justice of New Brunswick, local Judge in Admiralty for the Exchequer Court of Canada for the New Brunswick Admiralty District; and The Honourable Sir Adolphe Basile Routhier, Ex-Chief Justice of Québec, local Judge in Admiralty of the Exchequer Court of Canada for the Québec Admiralty District. Assessors: Commander W. F. Caborne, C.B., R.N.R. Engineer Commander P. C. W. Howe, R.N. Capt. L. A. Demers, F.R.A.S., Dominion Wreck Commissioner. Professor John Joseph Welch, MSc. Inst. C.E. Alleyn Taschereau, Secretary of the Commission.


Facts Regarding Sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland

Mr. Newcombe.—My Lord, the commission has been read and the purpose of the inquiry has been made known. It is a commission constituted under statutory powers to investigate the causes of a shipping casualty which most deplorably reaches the dimensions of an appalling disaster. The steamship Empress of Ireland left Québec at about twenty-seven minutes past four on the afternoon of the 28th of May in charge of the Québec pilot Camille Bernier with a crew of 420 hands and 1,057 passengers of whom 87 were First Class, 253 Second Class and 717 Third Class, and carrying some general cargo bound for Liverpool.

She put down her pilot at Father Point at about half past one in the morning of the 29th of May and proceeded to sea. She arrived off Cock Point buoy, which is the next point marked upon the chart shortly below Father Point on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, at, or about, two o'clock, and at that time, apparently, as far as I understand the case, she was still on her course to make the offing usual or necessary before directing her course down the river to the sea.

At that place she came into collision with the Norwegian steamer Storstad, which was bound from Sydney, Nova Scotia, up the river to Montréal with a full cargo of coal. On board the Empress of Ireland there were 1,477 persons; 463 were saved and 1,014 lost their lives. The catastrophe was very sudden; the Empress of Ireland received a very severe blow on her starboard side struck by the starboard bow of the Storstad. She began to fill, turned over on her “beam ends and sank almost immediately”; according to the estimate she remained afloat not more than fifteen or twenty minutes at the outside from the time of the contact.

As to the classification and rating of the passengers and crew, there were 87 First Class passengers of whom 36 were saved and 51 lost; of the 253 Second Class passengers, 48 were saved and 205 lost; of the 717 Third Class passengers, 133 were saved and 584 lost. Of the crew of 420 hands, 246 were saved and 174 lost. These figures have been supplied by the owners of the ship and are subject to correction in the inquiry.

I am informed that they have experienced very great difficulty in getting out an exact list owing to the discrepancies in the names of the passengers, particularly in regard to the continentals, shown on the manifest, and the names given by the survivors. The figures, therefore, must be accepted subject to such further information as may be obtained in the inquiry. This dreadful catastrophe was the subject of very earnest consideration by His Majesty's Government and by the Government of this country, and the sympathy of both Governments, no doubt, goes out in the largest measure to the survivors and to the relatives and friends of those who so unfortunately perished. It was felt that the case invited the most searching inquiry, not only to ascertain the immediate cause of such an extraordinary and disastrous occurrence, but also that the investigation might extend to the more remote causes, if any, connected with the structure, equipment or mechanism of the ship so that it might be known whether any lesson could be learned for future guidance in the projecting, preparation and outfitting of passenger ships in order to see to their preservation in case of similar accidents. Communications were exchanged between the two Governments.

It was considered that the case should properly be investigated in Canada where the accident occurred and that the best talent, skill and experience should be made available upon the Commission of Inquiry. Special legislation was obtained at the Session of Parliament which has just closed. Your Lordship yielded to an invitation to preside at the inquiry, two distinguished Canadian Judges have loaned their services, technical officers and assessors in various branches of the sciences, arts and crafts involved, architecture, structure and navigation, have been named; and so, as this has been the most dreadful shipping disaster in the history of the country, the most important Board ever constituted here to consider a shipping casualty has been named to investigate and inquire.

The causes, present and remote, contributing to the accident will doubtless be ascertained. I am not quite, at the moment, in a position, unfortunately, to outline or indicate to the Court the rival contentions of the two ships. They had apparently sighted each other and come into such relations as would require their navigating officers to determine the application of the rules for safe crossing at a time and under conditions which not only made possible but should have facilitated the execution of any proper manoeuvre and it would seem to be impossible to suppose that such an accident could have occurred without fault on the part of one or perhaps both of the ships concerned.

It will be realized that the force of the collision was very great and that immense damage must have been done to the hull of the Empress of Ireland considering that she remained afloat for only a few minutes. This is a very great shock to the confidence which people were beginning to feel in the floating capacity of these large passenger ships and to their belief that no collision, no matter how severe, could have the effect of sinking a ship of the size and equipment of the Empress of Ireland in such a short space of time. The nature of the damage which the Empress of Ireland received cannot be proved. She disappeared immediately.

Divers have been there but I am informed that it is impossible for divers, owing to the fact that she is lying on her wounded side in the mud, to ascertain what the condition of the starboard side of the ship is unless the ship can be raised which, I anticipate, is impossible. Plans and details of the ship will be produced and witnesses will be called to explain and comment on these phases of the case.

Explanations will be called for as to the boats, life preservers and such life-saving furniture as were provided. Moreover, it is intended to afford the fullest opportunity, and an invitation is extended to all persons who can give any useful information or make any material inquiries or statements, to come forward and assist the Tribunal with testimony or suggestions.

By reference to the chart it will be seen that the accident happened 700 miles or more from the point where the St. Lawrence expands into the gulf, and yet the Empress of Ireland was only at the beginning of the great waterway which forms such a magnificent entrance to .this country. The St. Lawrence route is, of course, not free from those perils which are incident to all navigation in touch with the land, but the Government has taken care to provide an adequate system of lights and the channel has been well buoyed and marked where requisite in order to make safe, as far as may be artificially possible, the unequalled natural advantages which have been provided by this magnificent system of river and lake navigation.

It is anticipated with confidence that those who desire to disparage the St. Lawrence route cannot propound or suggest a reason for attributing this disaster to any peril especially incidental to the St. Lawrence route or even to the river navigation. The question of pilotage is not involved. The ship had passed the pilotage district. She was in sea-way of upwards of 30 miles in breadth. She lies upwards of two miles from the south shore from which she was making her offing, so that the difficulties of navigation, whatever they may have been, were not due to the proximity of the land or to the lack of sea room.

The pilotage district extends from Québec to Father Point. That was the place where the pilot was put down, and the Empress of Ireland was at that time opposite that point. The vessels were practically in such a position that they were at sea and the regulations for preventing collisions at sea applied to the case.

In accordance with the requirements of the general rules for formal investigating shipping casualties under the Merchant Shipping Act, and having regard to the provisions of the Canada Shipping Act, part 10, sections 788 and 795, the surviving officers of the Empress of Ireland, and the officers of the Norwegian vessel, have been served with notice and questions. Section 788 of the Canada Shipping Act, and there is a similar section in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, provides that “whenever a formal investigation is likely to involve a question as to cancelling or suspending of the certificate of competency or service of any master, mate, pilot, or engineer, he shall be furnished with a copy of the report or statement of the case upon which the investigation has been ordered.” And every “formal investigation shall be conducted in such manner that, if a charge is made against any person, such person shall have an opportunity of making a defence.”


The Questions to be answered by the Inquiry

1. When the Empress of Ireland left Québec on or about the 28th of May last:-

(a) What was the total number of persons employed in any capacity on board her, and what were their respective ratings?

(b) What was the total number of her passengers, distinguishing sexes and classes and discriminating between adults and children?

2. On leaving Québec, on or about the 28th day of May last, did the Empress of Ireland comply with the requirements of the Merchant Shipping Acts, 1894 to 1906 and the rules and regulations made thereunder, with regard to the safety and otherwise of passenger steamers' and 'migrant ships? '

3. In the actual design and construction of the Empress of Ireland what special provisions, if any, were made for the safety of the vessel and the lives of those on board, in the event of collisions and other casualties?

4. Was the Empress of Ireland sufficiently and efficiently officered and manned?

5. Were the arrangements for manning and launching the boats on board the Empress of Ireland in case of emergency proper and sufficient? Had a boat drill and bulkhead door drill been held on board, and if so when? What was the carrying capacity of the respective boats? What number and description of life buoys and life jackets were on board the vessel? Where were they carried? Were they in good condition and adequate for the purpose intended?

6. What installations for receiving and transmitting messages by wireless telegraph were on board the Empress of Ireland? How many operators were employed in working such installations? Were the installations in good and effective working order? Were the number of operators sufficient to enable messages to be received and transmitted continuously by day and night?

7. At or prior to the sailing of the Empress of Ireland from Québec on the 28th May last, what, if any, instructions as to navigation were given to the master, or known by him to apply to her voyage? Were such instructions, if any, safe, proper and adequate, having regard to the time of the year and dangers likely to be encountered during a voyage?

8. When leaving Québec on or about the 28th of May last, was the vessel in charge of a Québec pilot? If so, when and where was the pilot discharged, and what was the condition of the weather at that time?

9. After the pilot left the Empress of Ireland was there a double watch on deck?

10. At what time on the morning of the 29th May last:-

(a) Did the Empress of Ireland first sight the light or lights of the Norwegian steamer Storstad, and in what position was the Empress of Ireland then?

(b) Did the Norwegian steamer Storstad first sight the light or lights of the Empress of Ireland and in what position was the Storstad then? At this time were the vessels crossing so as to involve risk of collision within the meaning of Article 19 of the regulations for preventing collision at sea? If so, did the Empress of Ireland comply with the provisions of the said article and of articles 22 and 23, and did the Storstad comply with article 21 of said regulations?

11. After the vessels had sighted each other's lights did the atmosphere between them become foggy or misty, so that lights could no longer be seen? If so, did both vessels comply with article 15 and did they respectively indicate on their steam whistles or sirens the course or courses they were taking by the signals sent out in article 28 of the said regulations?

12. Were the circumstances of this case such as to bring into operation the provisions of articles 27 and (or) 29 of the said regulations? If so, did the masters of both vessels take prompt and proper means or measures to comply with the requirements of the said articles?

13. In what position in the River St. Lawrence and at what time on the morning of the 29th of May last, did the collision occur between the Empress of Ireland and the Storstad? At what time did the Empress of Ireland founder, and how was it that she sank so quickly after the collision had occurred?

14. Was proper discipline maintained on board the Empress of Ireland after the casualty occurred?

15. What messages for assistance were sent by the Empress of Ireland after the casualty, and at what times respectively? Were the messages sent out received at the wireless station at Father Point? Were prompt measures taken by those on shore to render assistance? What assistance was rendered by the Government steamers Eurika and Lady Evelyn?

16. Was the apparatus for lowering the boats on the Empress of Ireland at the time of the casualty in good working order? How many boats got away before the vessel sank? Did the boats, whether those under davits or otherwise, prove to be serviceable for the purpose of saving life? If not, why not? What steps were taken immediately on the happening of the casualty? How long after the casualty was its seriousness realized by those in charge of the vessel? What steps were then taken? Were all water-tight doors in bulkheads immediately closed? What endeavours were made to save the lives of those on board and to prevent the vessel from sinking?

17. How many persons on board of the Empress of Ireland at the time of the casualty lost their lives by (1) being killed by the collision, or injuries from the collision, or (2) accidents on board?

What was the number of (a) passengers; (b) crew, taken away in each boat on leaving the vessel? How was this number made up, having regard to 1, sex; 2, class; 3, ratings? How many were children and how many were adults? Did each boat carry its full load, and if not, why not?

How many persons were ultimately rescued, and by what means? What was the number of passengers, distinguishing between men and women, and adults and children, of the First, Second and Third Classes respectively, who were saved? What was the number of the crew, discriminating their ratings and sex, who were saved?

18. Did the Master of the Storstad comply with Article 422 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894?

19. Was a good and proper lookout kept on board of both vessels?

20. Was the loss of the Empress of Ireland and (or) the loss of life caused by the wrongful act or default of the Master and First Officer of that vessel, and the Master, First, Second and Third Officers of the Storstad, or of any of them? These are the questions and the order for the inquiry which have been served.


Passenger and Crew Numbers

On leaving Liverpool on the 15th of May last, as an emigrant ship, the report of the survey shows that the vessel carried:

16 steel boats under davits accommodating 764 persons

20 wood and canvas Engelhardt boats accommodating 920 persons

4 wood and canvas Berthon boats accommodating 176 persons

Total boat accommodation 1,860 persons

She carried 2,212 life belts, 150 children’s life belts and 24 life buoys. The surveyor certifies that the ship was supplied with all the life-saving appliances. I am able to produce a copy of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company's Regulations and Instructions in book form, issued by them to their masters and officers, and which were the instructions prevailing as between Captain Kendall and his Company upon the occasion of this voyage. There are a number of these Rules which it might be important.


Click here to download Captain Henry George Kendall Testimony

Click here to download Answers to Questions Raised


Suggestions of the Commission

1. Close Watertight Doors in Foggy Weather

In order to prevent, if possible, disasters such as that into which we have been enquiring, we think that in foggy weather it would be desirable to close all watertight doors and port holes below the top of the watertight bulkheads, and to keep them closed until the fog has completely cleared. We think also that wherever practicable all watertight doors and port holes below the above level should be closed at sunset and kept closed until sunrise.

Precautions of the kind suggested would have the effect of securing the floatability of the ship in accordance with the intentions of the designer, whereas neglect of such precautions may lead to the foundering of a vessel which would otherwise have remained afloat.

2. Rafts to be placed in such a position that they could float automatically on water

The rapidity with which the vessel foundered after the collision made the lifesaving appliances on board of little use. Most, if not all of the passengers were in bed when the vessel was struck, and there was an interval of only about fifteen minutes between the collision and the foundering. The list which the vessel took to starboard was so sudden and so great that the lifeboats on the port side were rendered useless almost at once.

Some of them were indeed worse than useless for they broke adrift and injured people as they clattered down the sloping deck. Of those on the starboard side only six were launched, although the best was done in the short time available to get them into the water. These circumstances lead us to suggest that it might be desirable to consider whether rafts could not be placed in such a position on the upper deck that they would float automatically on the water as the ship sank.

Such rafts would doubtless have to be attached to the deck in such a way as to prevent them from getting adrift in bad weather; but the attachments might be of a simple kind which could be loosened in a very short time.

3. Navigation of St. Lawrence to be made safer

It has not been suggested during our inquiry that the catastrophe was in any way attributable to the arrangements made by the Canadian Government for the navigation of the St. Lawrence, nor have we any reason to suppose that those arrangements are in any way unsatisfactory: but we suggest that it might be worthwhile for the Government to consider whether it may not be desirable and practicable to arrange for the picking up and dropping of pilots to be done at different points so that incoming and outgoing ships may, so far as is possible, be relieved of the necessity of crossing one another.