The Worst Maritime Disasters in Modern Time

The Costa Concordia, which would sink in 2012, seen here in 2009 in Spain. Editorial credit: Tupungato /
The Costa Concordia, which would sink in 2012, seen here in 2009 in Spain. Editorial credit: Tupungato /

Many people are still familiar with some of the most significant historical maritime accidents, such as the Titanic and the wartime sinking of the RMS Lusitania, even after the passing of some many years. Although the popularity of maritime travel has significantly decreased since then as air transportation has become more affordable and accessible, still today over 134 million people a year travel by cruise, passenger, ferry, and freight ships. Despite all the technological advancements and other means of transport available in this millennium, a surprising amount of disasters have taken place in recent times. Below we will examine the circumstances of these tragedies.

MV Spice Islander 1

On September 10th, 2011, the passenger ferry MV Spice Islander 1 capsized along the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania. The ferry was said to be travelling from Unguja, Tanzania to Pemba, Tanzania carrying a ship full of vacationers, most coming back from Ramadan holiday travels. The official capacity for the ship was normally 45 crew members and 645 passengers but, according to a report confirmed by the Tanzanian government, the ship was carrying around 3586 passengers at the time of the accident. Investigations of the ship accident confirmed that ship overloading was the culprit. Not only was the ship carrying too many passengers, but the situation was worsened by an additional load dry goods cargo including rice. The MV Spice Islander passenger’s manifesto showed that only 610 people were in the ship at the time of sinking, in addition to 97 tons of cargo. During the accident there were only about 100 life jackets, and survivors resorted to using mattresses to stay afloat until rescuers arrived. Only 620 passengers survived.

MV Le Joola

On September 26th­­, 2002, a Senegalese government-owned ferry, the MV Le Joola, capsized along the coast of Gambia in what was at the time the second-worst non-military maritime disaster on record. It caused at least 1863 deaths, 346 more than the famous sinking of the Titanic. The death toll may have been much larger due to the number of passengers unaccounted for. The capacity of the ship was normally 44 crew and 536 passengers, less than a third of the total recorded deaths. Investigations showed that the ship ran into rough water, and that it was designed only to travel in coastal waters, limits it had went well beyond. While the primary cause of the ship capsizing was overloading, there were also problems attributed to poor maintenance by its owners. In the end, only 64 passengers survived the ordeal due to belated rescue efforts. Aside from some fishing boats in the area, the government rescue effort did not get underway until the morning following the incident because radio operators were absent from their posts on the night it occurred.

MS Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98

On February 3rd, 2006, the Egyptian passenger ferry MS Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 sank in the Red Sea. The ship was said to be carrying 1,312 passengers and 96 crew members in addition to around 220 vehicles. Investigations into the sinking showed that there was build-up of seawater in the hull due to extinguishing a fire in one of the engine rooms before the event. The captain at the time wanted to return to port, but the vessel’s owner ordered that the voyage be continued and overruled him. The high winds common in the region not only contributed to the accident, but also severely complicated search and rescue efforts as well. A total of 382 passengers and crewmembers managed to survive the accident.

MS Estonia

Although it is less known, the tragedy of the MS Estonia is second only to the Titantic. The ship had been in use for fourteen years before sinking on September 28, 1994 in the Baltic Sea. 852 of the 989 passengers and crew did not survive. The tragic sinking was ultimately linked to harsh weather which produced monstrous waves, as well as uneven cargo loading. The quick flooding into frigid water, as well as the fact that the sinking occurred at night when many were in their bunk contributed to the high death toll. Today, due to the existence of the remains of the ship, scuba diving to the wreck is prohibited by law. The mystery surrounding the remains of ship have produced a number of conspiracy theories.

Maritime Accidents

Even after the year 2000, we are still witnessing tragic maritime accidents far too often. The Spice Islander 1, the MV Le Joola, and the MS Al-Salaam Boccaccio incidents were among the worst, with two of these accidents directly linked to overloading of ships. In the table below, we have compiled a list of the worst maritime accidents of the millennium. The table does not, however, include data on Mediterranean migrant shipwrecks, which are caused by overloaded fishing vessels and have caused over 1,000 deaths in total. This lack of reporting is due to passenger numbers not being well-documented, and the illicit trips being organized by human traffickers.

Worst Modern Day Maritime Disasters By Death Toll

RankShipping AccidentsFatalities
1Spice Islander I (Sept 2011)2,967
2Le Joola (Sep 2002)1,863
3Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 (Feb 2006)1,026
4MS Estonia (Sept 1994) 852
5Princess of the Stars (Jun 2008)800
6Nasrin 1 (Jul 2003)600
7Senopati Nusantara (Dec 2006)500
8Salahuddin 2 (May 2002)328
9Sewol (Apr 2014)290
10KM Teratai Prima 0 (Jan 2009)200
11Bulgaria (Jul 2011)129
12Samson (Mar 2004)121
13Kursk (Aug 2000)118
14Rabaul Queen (Feb 2012)115
15Thomas of Aquinas (Aug 2013)91
16Express Samina (Sep 2000)82
17Princess Ashika (Aug 2009)74
18Coco (Nov 2009)72
19U-Boot 361 (Apr 2003)70
20Lightning Sun (May 2004)61
21Kolskaya (Dec 2011)53
22Al Dana (Mar 2006)48
23Danny F II (Dec 2009)44
24Lamma IV (Oct 2012)37
25Costa Concordia (Jan 2012)31
26Dumai Express 10 (Nov 2009)29
27Christopher (Dec 2001)27
28Mezzanine (Nov 2007)26
29In Sung No. 1 (Dec 2010)22
30Vinalines Queen (Dec 2011)22

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