Shipwrecks have a significant amount of intrigue, mystery, and curiosity surrounding them. There are some shipwrecks that allow diving expeditions to explore them but many shipwrecks are in waters much too deep for divers to reach. Scientists must rely on sonar and the latest technology to help locate shipwrecks.
The Titanic sunk in 1912 and was undiscovered until a team of scientists discovered the majestic liner on the ocean’s floor in 1985. Christopher Columbus’ ship The Santa Maria, is one of the most sought after shipwrecks in history. It sunk off the coast of Haiti after Columbus and his crew turned in for the night leaving only a cabin boy to steer the three-mast flagship. The ship ran aground, Columbus and his crew safely disembarked but the ship disappeared into the seas never to be seen again.
What happened to these great ships for them to sink—a rouge wave, an attack of piracy or a collision with another ship? We have combed through some of the biggest ships that have ended up on the bottom of the seas and have brought you 15 of the biggest shipwrecks. We have some idea how these ships met their unfortunate fate. Let’s take a closer look at 15 of the biggest ships that ever sank and find out how they came to meet their fate resting in their watery graves.
15. The SS Eastland
Chicago’s Western Electric Company had chartered three ships including the S.S. Eastland to take employees on a special company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. The other ships were the Petoskey and the Theodore Roosevelt. When the S.S. Eastland was boarded by hundreds of excited passengers, which included the employee’s families, the ship began to list to one side. Then all of a sudden the crowds moved to the other side of the ship and the ship suddenly rolled over, coming to rest on the bottom of the Chicago River. It was in water that was 20 feet deep and right next to the pier but because many of the people had gone inside the ship, they remained trapped by the furniture that had flipped over.
The women and children were wearing heavy wool garments that weighed them down and made swimming impossible. Men attempted to cut into the ship to rescue people that were stuck and drowning inside. A nearby ship, the Kenosha, tried to assist in rescuing people but tragically 841 people lost their lives in this terrible disaster.
There were court hearings after the tragedy that placed blame on the President of the company that owned the ship and also on the Captain of the ship but there was no evidence to convict them. The ship was resurrected and renamed the USS Wilmette before she was sold as scrap in 1946. There is a historical marker alongside the Chicago River to commemorate this event.
14. The Taiping
In 1949 the Chinese passenger ship, Taiping, was headed to Taiwan with Chinese refugees. It was over-capacity and had double the amount of passengers allotted. 1,500 passengers boarded the Taiping with the anticipation and excitement of starting over in a new country. They had waited a very long time to board the Taiping and begin a new life.
The Taiping had to travel under the cover of darkness and very slowly. She had to avoid detection by the Communists. Tragically because the Taiping was traveling in total darkness, not only could the Communists not see her but neither could passing ships. Disaster struck when a smaller ship collided with the Taiping.
The Taiping sunk and took 1,500 lives with her. Only around 30 people were rescued by passing ships.
13. The MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98
In 2006, the ship MS al-Salam Boccaccio was traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt when a fire broke out in the engine room. The ship was already in poor condition with drainage pumps that weren’t working. As the crew used fire hoses to extinguish the fire, the water from the hoses had started accumulating in the stern. The Captain radioed the ship’s owners for permission to return to port but the owners insisted he keep going.
The water building up in the hull eventually caused the ship to capsize, trapping hundreds of people. The weather hindered rescue efforts and over 1,000 people died in the Red Sea. In 2009, the owners of the ship were jailed for their careless actions resulting in the staggering death toll.
12. The SS General Slocum
In 1904 the passenger steamboat the SS General Slocum was filled with passengers that were parishioners of St.Mark’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church. They were headed to the annual church picnic located at the Long Island Sound. It was a short trip up the East River.
Down below deck in the Lamp Room a fire broke out. The Lamp Room was filled to the brim with lamp oil and there were also buckets of paint and gasoline. The crew’s attempt to put up the rapidly growing fire was thwarted when the fire hose disintegrated in their hands. The life vests were also worthless and broke apart as people tried to put them on. The lifeboats were only for looks and weren’t usable. The people jumped from the flames in terror. They had the choice to either burn alive in the flames or try to swim to shore.
Women and children sunk straight to the bottom as they were wearing heavy wool and layers of clothing, and most didn’t even know how to swim. In total, 1,021 people lost their lives, with the majority being women and children. Bodies continued to wash ashore for weeks afterwards. The Captain of the ship, Captain Van Schaick, was tried and found to be guilty of criminal negligence. He had failed to conduct fire drills as required by law; and the crew were untrained in what to do in an emergency situation. The Captain was sentenced to 10 years hard labor at Sing Sing prison. His distraught wife pleaded leniency with President Taft and was able to secure her husband’s early release from Sing Sing prison.
11. The Salem Express
In 1991, the Saudi Arabian ship Salem Express was traveling from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and was overflowing with unregistered passengers. The ship struck a coral reef, the Hyndman Reef, and sunk shortly after midnight on December 17th, 1991. It’s estimated that 690 people lost their lives. The official number is unknown due to controversy and the politics surrounding the sinking.
The shipwreck is a very popular tourist attraction for diving expeditions. Divers can access the wreck and view passenger luggage and vehicles. The Egyptian government had stated that they installed metal plates along all access points to prevent diving expeditions but divers have found no such existence of attempts being made to block access routes.
10. The Toya Maru
The Toya Maru was a Japanese ferry that was the pride of Japan when it was launched in 1947. It was one of the first Japanese ships to be equipped with radar equipment. Sadly, only seven short years later the Toya Maru would be on the bottom of the sea.
The Toya Maru had an estimated 1,300 passengers and crew about when it succumbed to Typhoon Marie. The typhoon had hit but then quickly faded, giving the captain of the Toya Maru the false impression that the typhoon was over. As soon as the captain had pulled the Toya Maru out of the safety of the harbor and into the sea, the typhoon picked up steam. It was too late for the Captain to turn the ship around so he dropped anchor, hoping to wait it out. The storm was so strong that the anchor didn’t hold the ship in the typhoon’s winds. The ship was blown adrift and all control of the ship was lost and left up to the typhoon.
The Toya Maru’s engine room flooded, taking out the electricity. She was tossed around the sea. The Toya Maru went down and took over 1,200 lives, including 35 American soldiers.
9. The RMS Lusitania
On May 7, 1915, when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat and 1,198 lives were lost. There was public outcry that Germany sunk a non-military ship, however, Germany claimed that the Lusitania was also carrying weaponry and was not protected by the Cruiser Rules. The Cruiser Rules were a set of laws that nations agreed upon, protecting civilians that could be caught in crossfire or attacks.
Similar to the Lusitania’s sister ship, Titanic, she did not have enough life boats on board for everyone. Even after Titanic’s sinking, White Star Line, didn’t provide enough practical life boats for all passengers on-board ships.
8. The RMS Titanic
By far the most famous shipwreck in the world is the RMS Titanic. “The unsinkable ship!” as she was called departed from Southhampton, England to New York. After iceberg warnings were ignored, on April 15th, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. The iceberg acted like a can opener, it opened up five of her 16 compartments.
Attempts at contacting other ships for immediate assistance were futile. There were also not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers and crew. The decision was made to allow women and children to go into the lifeboats first. Unfortunately not all the lifeboats were loaded to full capacity thus preventing more lives from being saved.
The night was very cold and the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean were frigid. It is thought the temperature was only 28 degrees Fahrenheit when Titanic foundered. The ship went down with mostly men and second and third class passengers. 1514 lives were lost.
7. The SS Sultana
The SS Sultana was a steam-powered paddlewheeler that perished in the Mississippi River during the spring of 1865. The SS Sultana was just on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee when three of her four boilers exploded. It created a massive inferno and the ship disintegrated into the Mississippi. 1,547 people died either from injuries sustained in the fire or drowning.
Why haven’t you heard of the SS Sultana? Well it occurred only a few days after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The nation was in mourning and the limited news coverage that was available during this time period was covering the President’s assassination.
6. The HMT Royal Edward
August 13th, 1915, the passengers, who were mostly soldiers at the time, aboard the HMT Royal Edward had just finished a boat drill and were enjoying some leisure time below deck when two torpedoes were fired from a German submarine hitting the magnificent ship in her side.
The HMT Royal Edward started going down stern first and many of the men were trapped below deck. A few survivors managed to escape certain death by squeezing themselves through portholes. 935 souls were lost when the HMT Royal Edward went down. It only took a little under six minutes for the ship to sink to the bottom of the sea.
5. The MV Joola
The Sengalese government owned ship, the MV Joola was equipped to hold a maximum of 586 passengers, including crew. On September 26th, 2002, the MV Joola had loaded over 2,000 passengers on. The ship was extremely overcrowded and top-heavy as passengers had taken to sleeping on the top deck as there was no room below deck.
The ship was sailing near Gambia when she encountered a storm. The wind combined with the ship being top-heavy flipped the ship over. Over 2,000 people were tossed into the sea like rag dolls. The ship was upside down for a few hours with people still alive and trapped within the ship. Finally she succumbed and slid into the waters taking with her the people trapped within the interior of the ship.
Only a little over 100 passengers were rescued. The MV Joola went to the bottom along with approximately 1,863 men, women, and children. The aftermath resulted in blame being placed on the Sengalese government for allowing a ship that was known to get by with overloading to continue carrying passengers.
4. The RMS Lancastria
The largest British maritime disaster in history occurred on June 17th, 1940. Over 4,000 lives were lost when RMS Lancastria was taking part in Operation Ariel. Operation Ariel was a massive rescue effort of British citizens and soldiers from France during World War II. The RMS Lancastria’s sinking by the Germans was kept out of the news on orders of Winston Churchill. Churchill imposed a “D-Notice” on the horrific event, meaning nothing of it was to appear in the news. Churchill didn’t want the British morale to be effected by such a massive loss of life. It wasn’t only until after the war that people learned of this catastrophe.
In 2015, with pressure from the families of the victims, the British government finally acknowledged the event. Due to the news blackout imposed by Churchill there is not a lot of information available about the RMS Lancastria or the victims. It is thought that there were over 4,000 victims but some studies have put that number closer to 6,000. In either case, the death toll was staggering.
3. The SS Kiangya
In 1948 the passenger ship, Kiangya, exploded while carrying between 3,500-4,000 people that were fleeing the People’s Liberation Army. It isn’t 100% known what caused the ship to explode but speculation is that they hit a mine that was forgotten during World War II.
The ship exploded and sunk within of couple minutes. Many passengers remain trapped and drowned within the ship. Of the 3,500-4,000 passengers, less than 1000 survivors were rescued by passing ships.
2. The MV Goya
On April 16th, 1945, the MV Goya was transporting 6,700 German soldiers and civilians from areas around the Baltic Sea when a Soviet submarine attacked and sunk the ship. It took four torpedoes to break the massive ship into two pieces. The ship was on the ocean floor within 4 minutes of the torpedo strikes. There were only 183 survivors.
The majority of those that lost their lives on the MV Goya went straight down with the ship. The ship is now considered a war grave and it is illegal to dive within 500 meters of the wreck.
1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff
In January 1945, when the German military transport ship, MV Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine, 9400 lives were lost. This is the largest loss of life from a single ship in recorded maritime history.
The most devastating statistic in regards to the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff is that 5,000 of those that perished were children. Only 1,252 survived the sinking and were rescued from the icy Baltic Sea by several torpedo-recovery and patrol boats.
The Soviet submarine that sunk the Gustloff was under the impression that the ship was filled only with German Nazis.