Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April 1

On this date in 1873, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company -- better known as the White Star Line -- lost a passenger ship off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The RMS Atlantic was making its 19th voyage, having departed on March 20 from Liverpool to New York with nearly a thousand souls aboard, 833 of whom were passengers. After encountering rough weather, the ship’s captain decided to make a coaling stop in Halifax before continuing on to New York. The Atlantic had been loaded with only 13 days’ worth of coal and was, in the judgment of the captain, not likely to have enough for the rest of the trip.

Unfortunately -- because the ship’s crew apparently misread their position in the dark and underestimated the speed at which they were traveling -- the ship ground to a halt early in the morning of April 1 overtop Golden Rule Rock, a obstacle that sat a mere 50 yards off Meagher’s Island near the town of Lower Prospect. Within minutes, the 3700-ton ship stood nearly perpendicular in the water, and nearly all of the passengers were trapped in their sleeping berths. When the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats, the turbulent waters created by the rapidly sinking ship washed them away; a few of the crew members managed to reach the island with rescue lines, but more than 560 passengers drowned, including all of the women on board, all of the married men, and every child on the ship with the exception of a single boy. The entire crew survived. Survivors of the Atlantic were rescued the next day.

Meantime, the recovery effort began as boats and divers combed the beach and waters for the remains of the dead. One of the divers later described the scene in one of the sleeping quarters:
Here, piled up in heaps on the port side, were numbers of bodies of men, and strewn among them bed clothing of one kind and another. From continual knocking against the stanchions and sharp, jagged woodwork which is splintered and broken front the linings of the bunks, the faces and limbs of these dead are more ghastly than any I have ever seen. Imagination cannot picture anything more terrible than what was in this compartment. The flesh is torn from the faces of many of the dead; others, again, are bruised and battered about their heads and faces, which are red and bloody, and in striking contrast to the pale, livid features of others which the action of the water has not disturbed. While I stand here, another of the divers descends and commences to send up some of the bodies. He, however, is more intent upon securing the cargo than sending up the bodies, and only does so now to gain access to some boxes and trunks which are lying beneath them. Having seen enough of the horrors beneath the water on that fatal reef - horrors of the deep which will never be erased from my vision - I decided to ascend, and motioned accordingly to the men who were above in the boat, and pumping down to me the necessary supply of air to sustain life; in a few minutes I was once more at the surface, gazing upon the light of heaven and experiencing a sensation of relief at having left the chambers of death in the cabins of the ill-fated Atlantic.
At the time, the Atlantic catastrophe was the worst civilian maritime disaster. Nearly 39 years later, the White Star line would lose a more famous ship called the Titanic.