Passenger Ship Disasters - Part 1
- 1 Introduction & Contents
- 2 Definitions
- 3 International Passenger Ship Regulations
- 4 Summary
- 5 Passenger Ship Disaster Fatalities
- 6 The worst maritime disasters
- 7 The worst peacetime maritime disasters
Introduction & Contents
This series of articles records the successes that the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations have achieved in combating maritime disasters. The articles also provide a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. A commentary is given on the most significant incidents, many of which have helped to drive and shape the development of the SOLAS regulations.
For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -
- Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
- Part 2. Fire
- Part 3. Collision,
- Part 4. Other Navigational Error
- Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
- Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
- Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
- Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
- Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
- Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
- Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in USA, Canada & Australasia
- Part 12. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in South East Asia & Africa
Major Passenger Ships:
Vessels measuring over 10,000 gross registered tons (GRT), or after 1982 gross tons (GT), certified to carry more than 12 passengers. Ocean liners, cruise ships, troop ships, hospital ships and ferries are included. Former passenger ships that have been converted to undertake other duties are excluded. Exclusions include passenger vessels that were lost after they became armed merchant cruisers, naval depot ships, whale factory ships, livestock carriers, hotels, training ships or cargo ships.
Smaller Passenger Ships:
Follows the definition of Major Passenger Ships, except that it refers to ships smaller than 10,000 GRT or GT and excludes ferries, which are referred to separately.
Passenger carrying vessels engaged on regular, relatively short distance routes. This definition includes inland waterway craft, excursion, coastal and sea-going vessels, including ships providing passengers with sleeping accommodation for one or two nights. The ferry industry has in the past 40 years also become increasingly devoted to the carriage of motor vehicles using ro-ro technology.
Gross Registered Tonnage:
Was a measurement based upon a survey of the total enclosed volume of a vessel with 1 gross registered ton being equal to 100 cubic feet. The calculation was complex and subject to manipulation, with increases sometimes being engineered for prestige reasons and (more frequently) decreases being made to reduce harbour dues, pilotage charges, etc. A new survey would often produce a minor variation. As a result the tonnage figure for an individual ship often varied during its life. The tonnage given in this article is believed to the applicable figure when the vessel was lost.
Is the current metric based measurement of the internal volume of a ship. Tonnage measurements are governed by an IMO Convention (International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships, 1969 (London-Rules)), which applies to all ships built after July 1982. This is a much more consistent figure and any change in tonnage normally indicates a real change in the structure of the ship. The new measurement produces a slightly smaller figure than the previous Gross Registered Tonnage measurement.
For consistency all dimensions are given in feet and inches. Length is usually Length Over All (LOA), although Length Between Perpendiculars (BP) is also given. Some source documents do not define this measurement.
Ship losses include total loss (when the ship is totally destroyed) and most constructive total loss cases (when the ship is so severely damaged that repair is uneconomical). A ship is included in the tables if it becomes a constructive total loss, but is salvaged and rebuilt for non-passenger carrying activities. A ship is not included in the tables if a constructive total loss is rebuilt as passenger ship again. Nor is it included if the ship is lost after it has ceased to be used as a passenger vessel. In this respect ships that sink on the voyage to a ship-breaker (often after being laid-up) are excluded, as they were no longer passenger carrying vessels when they were lost.
This is the name of the ship when she was lost. The ex-name is the name of the ship when she was delivered. Any other intervening names are excluded from the tables.
This is the normal abbreviated name of the owners at the time the vessel was lost.
Casualty figures are in some cases subject to dispute. In many cases the exact wartime casualty figures are unknown. Casualty figures are estimates in some cases because the only copy of the ship’s manifest went down with the ship. Casualty figures for some ferry disasters are estimates, usually because no passenger numbers were counted at the time of the disaster.
International Passenger Ship Regulations
The first SOLAS Conventions
The provision of adequate life saving equipment was the primary topic when the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea met in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster. The main objectives of SOLAS Conventions are to specify minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships, compatible with their safety. In the early Twentieth Century very little attention was paid to containing and extinguishing fires in ships. The 1914 Convention did however give some consideration to fire hazards. This was largely because of the public impact of the loss of the small British emigrant carrier Volturno (3,581 tons) which had been destroyed by fire in mid-Atlantic the previous year with the loss of 136 lives. A further Convention in 1929 ratified and strengthened these initial thoughts by requiring the provision of fire resistant bulkheads in passenger accommodation. Unfortunately the new regulations proved to be inadequate to protect ships from fire hazards arising from the growing sophistication and luxury adopted in the outfitting of passenger ships.
Photo 1: Canadian Northern Steamship’s emigrant carrier Volturno, on fire in Mid-Atlantic on a voyage from Rotterdam. Although 11 ships heeded Volturno’s SOS and 521 were rescued, the death toll was 136; sadly mainly women and children killed during the ship’s initial attempts at lifeboat launchings in heavy seas. See Part 9.
The 1948 and 1960 Conventions
Further action was needed to combat disasters like those contained in the following Parts of these Articles, but wartime conditions delayed matters until 1948 when a third Convention was held, which adopted regulations based on intensive technical studies of fire in ships. Well over half of all peacetime large passenger ship losses have been caused by fire, although many of these were in port, which contained the loss of life. New rules were introduced for structural fire protection; fire-fighting equipment; alarm and detection systems (by then in common use in the building industry) adapted for vessels and to ensure that these measures were effective, fire patrols by the crew were advocated.
The 1948 Convention also decided to create a new United Nations body, the International Maritime Organisation to develop and maintain a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping. One of IMO’s duties was to act as a co-ordinating body for the development of maritime safety.
As will be seen from the tables in the following parts of these articles, the existing measures sadly still did not eliminate further ship losses. A new Convention was therefore called.
The 1960 Convention - which was adopted on 17 June 1960 and entered into force on 26 May 1965 - was the first major task for IMO after the Organization's creation and it represented a considerable step forward in modernizing regulations and in keeping pace with technical developments in the shipping industry.
The intention was to keep the Convention up to date by periodic amendments, but in practice the amendments procedure proved to be very slow. As the IMO had to obtain agreement amongst its 168 members, it became clear that it would be impossible to secure the entry into force of amendments within a reasonable period of time.
The 1974 Convention
To overcome this major defect a completely new Convention was adopted in 1974, which included not only the amendments agreed up to that date, but adopted a new amendment procedure - the tacit acceptance procedure - designed to ensure that changes could be made within a specified (and acceptably short) period of time.
Instead of requiring that an amendment only enters into force after being accepted by a defined majority of IMO Member States, the tacit acceptance procedure provides that an amendment enters into force on a specified date, unless before that date, objections to the amendment are received from an agreed number of Members.
As a result the 1974 Convention has been updated and amended on numerous occasions. The applicable Convention has usually been referred to as “SOLAS, 1974, as amended”.
Normally amendments are proposed by an IMO Government and are circulated at least six months before consideration by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), where the final wording of the amendments are adopted by a two-thirds majority of Governments present and voting in the MSC. To allow time for protests, approved amendments are deemed to be accepted twelve months after first consideration by the MSC. Amendments enter into force six months after their deemed acceptance. The usual time frame from circulation of proposed amendments through to entry into force is 24 months. A resolution adopted in 1994 however, makes provision for an accelerated amendment procedure to be used in exceptional circumstances - allowing the entire process to be cut to 12 months. To gain acceptance, amendments are often only mandatory for ships built after a specified date.
The regulations stipulate that the subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments must be such that after assumed damage to the ship's hull the vessel will remain afloat and stable. Requirements for watertight integrity and bilge pumping arrangements for passenger ships are also laid down as well as stability requirements for both passenger and cargo ships.
The degree of subdivision - measured by the maximum permissible distance between two adjacent bulkheads - varies with ship's length and the service in which it is engaged. The highest degree of subdivision applies to passenger ships.
Requirements covering machinery and electrical installations are designed to ensure that services which are essential for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew, are maintained under various emergency conditions.
Detailed fire safety provisions for all new passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers include the following principles:
- division of the ship into main and vertical zones by thermal and structural boundaries;
- separation of accommodation spaces from the remainder of the ship by thermal and structural boundaries
- restricted use of combustible materials
- detection of any fire in the zone of origin
- containment and extinction of any fire in the space of origin
- protection of the means of escape, or of access for fire-fighting purposes
- ready availability of fire-extinguishing appliances
It must be understood that these important safety requirements were not mandatory for older vessels. At the end of 2008, there were still five old cruise ships in active service that were built to SOLAS 1948 regulations.
Major amendments entering into force in 2010
The MSC during its 82nd session in November-December 2006 adopted a package of amendments to SOLAS, which were the result of a comprehensive review of passenger ship safety initiated in 2000, with the aim of assessing the adequacy of the current regulations, in particular for the large passenger ships now being built.
The guiding philosophy in developing the new and amended regulations is based on the dual premise that the regulatory framework should place more emphasis on the prevention of a casualty from occurring in the first place and that future passenger ships should be designed for improved survivability, so that in the event of a casualty, persons can remain safely on board as the ship proceeds to port.
The amendments introduce new concepts into SOLAS, incorporating casualty threshold criteria (the amount of damage a ship is able to withstand, according to the design basis and still safely return to port). The amendments also provide regulatory flexibility, so that ship designers can meet any safety challenges the future may bring. The amendments include:
- allowance of alternative designs and arrangements
- safe areas and the essential systems to be maintained while a ship proceeds to port after a casualty, which demand duplication of propulsion and other essential systems
- on-board safety centres, where safety systems can be controlled, operated and monitored
- fixed fire detection and alarm systems, including requirements for fire detectors and manually operated call points, to be capable of being remotely and individually identified
- fire prevention, including amendments aimed at enhancing the fire safety of atriums, the means of escape in case of fire and safe ventilation systems
- stipulated times for orderly evacuation and abandonment, including requirements that essential systems must remain operational in the event that any one main vertical zone is unserviceable due to fire.
Part 6 and Part 7 of these articles cover the great number of major passenger ship losses and deaths suffered in 20th Century maritime hostilities. The tables include ocean liners continuing their basic duties and those that were converted into troop ships and hospital ships. Sadly these tables cover some of the greatest maritime casualties ever experienced. Former passenger ships that were lost after they became armed merchant cruisers, naval depot ships, training ships or other military ships are excluded from the tables.
Photo 2:The Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff in service in the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) programme. Astern of her is the Hamburg Sud Amerika liner Cap Arcona. Both ships later took part in Operation Hannibal, one of the largest emergency evacuations by sea in history. Over a period of 15 weeks in early 1945, between 800,000 - 900,000 evacuees and 350,000 soldiers were rescued from the Soviet advance into East Prussia. The rescuing ships were subjected to continuous attack from Soviet aircraft, small naval units, and submarines plus aerial attacks by the British RAF. Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed and sunk by the Soviet submarine S-13 off the Pomeranian coast, with possibly as many as 9,400 fatalities, making this the worst maritime disaster in history. Cap Arcona and two smaller ships were set on fire by RAF Typhoons during an attack on Lübeck, four days before the end of the war. They were filled with prisoners of war and the German SS guards tried to prevent the prisoners escaping from the burning ship. It is thought that at least 7,000 prisoners plus some 1,000 guards perished.
The SOLAS regulations have developed since 1914 in an effort to avoid repetition of the disasters that are covered in detail in these articles. Many rules have only applied to vessels built after the adoption of the regulations, which has delayed their effectiveness. SOLAS 2010 is a major development because these regulations aim to be pro-active and apply to all passenger vessels engaged on international voyages.
Along with most of the maritime world, the SOLAS regulations were slow to recognise the special peril of water gaining access to ferry vehicle decks. (See Part 10, Part 11 and Part 12) This failure has led to a high level of ferry casualties, but these have been far exceeded by deaths suffered in ferries that were only subject to national regulations, especially as these regulations have frequently been ignored. The world’s worst peacetime maritime accident is the 1987 sinking of the Philippine ferry Dona Paz. This ship entered Japanese domestic ferry service in 1963 with approved capacity for 608 people. When she was bought by Sulpicio Lines in 1975 the Philippine authorities allowed her passenger capacity to be increased to 1,424 people. There is no reliable record of the number of people she was carrying when she fatally collided with a tanker, but the death toll is thought to be 4,314.
Photo 3: The Sulpicio Lines ferry Dona Paz in 1984. On 20 December 1987 in the Tablas Strait, the heavily overloaded Dona Paz, with only one trainee member of the crew on the bridge, collided with the products tanker Vector, which was operating without a license, lookout or properly qualified master. The collision ignited the Vector's cargo and the fire spread onto the Doña Paz. It reportedly took eight hours before the Philippine maritime authorities learned of the accident, and another eight hours to organize search and rescue operations. Amazingly 26 survivors were rescued; most sustaining burns from jumping into the flaming waters. It was claimed that no life jackets were issued and that the safety lockers were locked. Since 4,341 died in the Dona Paz tragedy, four more Sulpicio Lines ferries have sunk with the loss of a further 1,404 lives.
There are considerable gaps in available information; nevertheless this series of articles shows clearly the great advances in peacetime maritime safety, in those areas that have been covered by SOLAS since 1914. The following table summarises the information contained in the remaining articles:
Passenger Ship Disaster Fatalities
|Deaths in disasters to ALL liners over 10,000 GRT pre-1914||2,522|
|Deaths in disasters to ALL liners over 10,000 GRT post-1914||1,620|
|Total deaths in disasters to ALL liners over 10,000 GRT||4,142|
|Deaths in disasters to ALL transatlantic liners under 10,000 GRT (pre-1914)||8,490|
|Deaths in disasters to SOME other (pre-1914) liners under 10,000 GRT||3,144|
|Total deaths in disasters to SOME (pre-1914) liners under 10,000 GRT||11,634|
|Deaths in disasters to ALL ferries over 10,000 GRT||3,075|
|Deaths in disasters to SOME ferries under 10,000 GRT||38,005|
|Total deaths in disasters to SOME ferries||41,080|
The worst maritime disasters
These articles are essentially about ship losses; they do not deal with accidents where people are killed, but the ships are only damaged and return to service after repair. Nevertheless, the following table may be of interest, as it lists by order of magnitude, all peacetime maritime disasters where it is believed that 1,000 people, or more, have been killed. The word “believed” is used because the exact number of deaths is unknown, in most cases, including in the case of the sinking of Titanic. It will be seen that despite its notoriety, Titanic is actually the sixth worst peacetime maritime disaster.
The worst peacetime maritime disasters
|1987||Dona Paz||Sulpicio (Philippine)||Collision||Ferry||2,602||4,314|
|1948||Kiang Ya||China Merchants S N||WW2 Mine||Coastal Steamer||3,731||2,750|
|2002||Le Joola||Republique Senegal||Foundered||Ferry||2,087||1,863|
|1865||Sultana||J Cass Mason||Boiler explosion||Steamboat||1,719||1,800|
|2011||Spice Islander I||Unknown Zanzibary||Foundered after engine failure||Ferry||863||1,573|
|1954||Toya Maru||Japanese National Railways||Foundered||Ferry||3,898||1,153|
|1904||General Slocum||Knickerbocker SS Co||Fire||Ferry||1,200||1,021|
|2006||al-Salam Boccaccio 98||El Salam Maritime Transport||Fire||Ferry||11,799||1,020|
|1914||Empress of Ireland||Canadian Pacific||Collision||Liner||14,191||1,012|
A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 12.
Three photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. The other is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 1 have been provided as follows: -
Frontispiece - Ships Nostalgia - Marconi Sahib
- Ships Nostalgia - linerrich
- Ships Nostalgia - shipmate 17
- Wikimedia Commons
Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson
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