World Facts

Deadliest Civilian Shipwrecks In History

A 1987 Filipino ferry sinking resulted in the loss of more than 4,000 lives.

Though the word "shipwreck" may conjure up idyllic visions of SCUBA diving for treasure in exotic locales, in actuality certain shipwrecks list among the most horrific events in human history. Below is a list of the 10 Worst Civilian Shipwrecks in Human History, excluding those occurring as a direct result of wars and naval conflicts.

10. Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, Saudi Arabia/Egypt, February 3, 2006 (1,101 deaths)

On February 3, 2006, the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98, a ship carrying over 1,400 passengers, sank in the waters of the Red Sea, killing 1,101 of the passengers on board. The ship was sailing between the Saudi Arabian port of Dubah and the Egyptian port of Safaga. The majority of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, returning to their homeland after a long time abroad. A fire that broke out in the ship was held responsible for its sinking. The negligence of the ship’s captain, Sayed Omar, was found to be responsible for this disaster. He, despite a fire breakout, insisted on moving forward towards Egypt, though the ship could have returned back to safety, since it was just 20 miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

9. General Slocum passenger steamer, USA, June 15, 1904 (1,021 deaths)

June 15, 1904, is marked as a black day in the history of New York, as the city suffered one of its worst maritime disaster on this date. The PS General Slocum, a passenger steamboat that carried people on excursions around New York City, was carrying around 1,342 passengers, mostly members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, to a church picnic at Locust Grove on Long Island. The passengers were primarily German Americans from the Little Germany locality of Manhattan, and included a large band of women and children. As the steamer embarked upon its journey on the East River, a devastating fire broke out in its Lamp room, which soon became uncontrollable and spread through the ship rapidly. The ship’s inadequate safety measures and poor infrastructure, such as rotten hose pipes, non-functional life jackets and life-boats, and the crew’s lack of knowledge about handling fires, coupled with the fact that most passengers at that time were non-swimmers, all contributed to the gruesome death of about 1,021 passengers on board the ship.

8. Toya Maru ferry, Japan, September 26, 1954 (1,153 deaths)

A severe typhoon, referred to as the ‘No. 15’ in Japan and 'Marie' in the Western world, claimed the lives of almost 1,153 passengers on board the commercial ferry Toya Maru on September 26, 1954. The event is rendered as the worst civilian shipwreck in the history of Japan. The ferry was plying between Hakodate on the Hokkaido Island and Aomori on the Honshu Island. An earlier scheduled departure for the ferry had been cancelled, in anticipation of the approach of the typhoon. However, the captain decided to get going in the evening, believing the worst part of the storm was over. This was a historically grave mistake, and soon after the ill-fated Toya Maru left the dock loaded with passengers it was struck by the strengthening typhoon. The ship was then dragged out of the harbor by powerful gusts of winds and strong currents. The crew lost complete control over the ship as water entered its interior, and it was tossed and turned in the choppy waters. Finally, it sank into the waters of the turbulent sea, killing around 1,153 of the passengers and crew members on board.

7. Taiping steamer, China, January 27, 1949 (~1,500 deaths)

Almost 1,500 passengers, mostly emigrants from China leaving for Keelung in Taiwan from Shanghai on board the Taiping Steamer in the search of a better life, lost their lives on the fateful day of January 27, 1949. The passengers were mostly among those fleeing the newly instated Communist Rule in mainland China at the closing of the Chinese Civil War. The ship sailed in a hushed manner with its lights switched off during a curfew in order to escape the threat of attack from the Communist forces. However, its precautionary measures happened to seal its bad luck. Being unable to detect the steamer in the dark waters of the Zhoushan Archipelago, a smaller boat, the Chienyuan Steamer, struck the Taiping steamer, causing enough damage to lead to its sinking and many resultant deaths.

6. Titanic superliner, UK/USA, April 15, 1912 (1,514 deaths)

The early 20th Century tragedy involving the superliner RMS Titanic has inspired writers and movie makers over the decades to create popular books and movies. The ship, one of the largest and most luxurious cruisers of its time, set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, USA, on April 10, 1912. Many believed that the Titanic, built using the best technology of its time, was unsinkable. However, nothing is guaranteed in the high seas and, on April 14, the ship struck an iceberg just off the coast of Newfoundland. The collision damaged its hull, creating a huge opening which let massive amounts of water into the ship. Soon after the crew realized that the ship was going to sink, distress signals were sent out to nearby ships, but none were found near enough to save many of the passengers of the Titanic on time. Lifeboats were ordered to be released from the ship, allowing women and children on them first. However, the number of lifeboats fell short of the total number of passengers on board, and a number of these boats were lowered into the waters before they were filled to their capacity. This stranded a large number of passengers and crew members, and these met their ill fortunes still onboard the ship. As water started gushing in and filling up the huge ship, it gradually began to sink, carrying 1,514 passengers into the mouth of death.

5. Sultana steamboat, USA, April 27, 1865 (~1,600 deaths)

Even though the disaster on the Titanic is more well-known, the exploding Sultana steamboat, killing almost 1,600 passengers, was perhaps the greatest maritime disaster in the history of the United States. The Sultana was carrying around 2,300 newly released Union prisoners of war down the Mississippi River that the steamboat had picked up from Vicksburg, as well as a few civilian passengers and crew members. The boat, with a capacity of only about 376 passengers, was carrying around 2,700 on that fateful day. Just a couple of hours past midnight on April 27, 1865, one of the three boilers of the Sultana exploded, creating massive damage and the sinking of the steamboat and a large proportion of its passengers.

4. Hai Chu steamer, China, November 8, 1945 (~1,800 deaths)

A massive death toll of around 1,800 people occurred when the Hai Chu steamer, bound for Hong Kong from Canton and carrying around 2,000 soldiers and 100 civilians and crew members, sunk near the Bocca Tigris at the mouth of the Canton River. The 1,078-ton steamer sank when it struck a mine, with only 300 survivors surviving the disaster.

3. Le Joola ferry, Senegal/Gambia, September 26, 2002 (1,863 deaths)

One of the worst shipwrecks in world history involved the Le Joola ferry. It was carrying over 2,000 passengers from Senegalese ports when it capsized 35 kilometers off the Gambian coast on September 26, 2002. With a capacity of only 550 passengers, the ferry was frightfully overloaded. It is believed that this overcrowding, along with the poor maintenance of the ferry, were responsible for its sinking, although the exact reasons for the disaster remain unknown. 1,863 souls lost their lives in this event.

2. Kiangya steamer, China, December 3, 1948 (~3,335 deaths)

The SS Kiangya, a Chinese passenger steamship, was destroyed on December 3, 1948 while travelling from Shanghai’s Shiliupu Dock towards Ningpo. This resulted from an explosion as the ship moved towards the mouth of the Huangpu River. The ship was carrying more than double its capacity of about 1,186 passengers, with most of these being refugees fleeing the expanding Communist regime taking over mainland China. A mine that had been implanted by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II was the most probable cause for the explosion that sank the SS Kiangya. Around 3,335 passengers died in the shipwreck, with only around 700 survivors who were rescued by other vessels living to tell about it.

1. Doña Paz ferry, Philippines, December 20, 1987 (4,386 deaths)

The deadliest civilian maritime disaster in the history of the world took place on December 20, 1987. This event involved a passenger ferry from the Philippines, the MV Doña Paz, which collided with the oil tanker MT Vector in the Tablas Strait, about 180 kilometers south of Manila. The ferry was overpacked with passengers eager to reach their destinations just before the Christmas holidays began. Though the seas were calm and the visibility was clear, a lack of competency of the crew on both of the ships is though to have led to this disaster. While the Vector was travelling without a lookout, the Doña Paz itself had a dearth of senior officers on its lookout bridge, and both ships also were lacking a functional radio. As soon as the ships collided, the 8,800 barrels of oil and gasoline carried by the Vector ignited, engulfing both the Vector and the MV Doña Paz in its killer flames and smoke. Almost no one survived on either of the ships, with the disaster claiming an estimated 4,386 innocent lives.

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