The Worst Shipwrecks in History

The dining room of the RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912.
The dining room of the RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912.

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. Every single one of these terrible wrecks resulted in over 1,000 deaths and happened as recently as 2011, proving that the horrors of sinking ships is not solely a thing of the past.

10. 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 an estimated 1,500 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.

9. RMS Lusitania, Japan, May 7,1915 (1,198 deaths)

While in existence, the RMS Lusitania spent some time as the world's largest passenger ship carrier. On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat. Not only did this result in the deaths of 1,198, but it also was one event in a list of things that would ultimately lead to the United States declaring way on Germany in World War I. The ship sunk to the bottom of the sea in only 18 minutes.

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

Almost 1,500 passengers 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.

7. RMS Titantic, North Atlantic Ocean, April 15, 1912 (1,514 deaths)

The RMS Titantic is arguably the most famous shipwreck of all time. 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 that 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. However, no other ships were 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 with it.

6. MV Spice Islander I, Zanzibar Channel, September 20, 2011 (1,573 deaths)

Prior to its tragic 2011 sinking, the MV Spicer Islander had encountered issues. Contaminated fuel had forced the ship's return from sea a few years earlier, in 2007. The ship was not carrying any passengers at the time and was able to make its return to the shore without injury. However, in September of 2011, while sailing along the Zanzibar Archipelagos in Tanzania the boat sank. It was later revealed that the ship was operating well over capacity. Unfortunately, the majority of those aboard the ship perished.

5. Tek Sing, South China Sea, February 6, 1822 (1,600 deaths)

The Tek Sing boat was sailing between China and Indonesia when it sunk on February 6, 1822. It took 1,600 passengers down with it. The ship ran aground when the captain attempted to take a shortcut through a shallow strait. The shipwreck was discovered in 1999.

4. Sultana steamboat, USA, April 27, 1865 (1,800 deaths)

Even though the disaster on the Titanic is more well-known, the exploding Sultana steamboat, killing almost 1,800 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.

3. MV Le Joola, 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. SS Kiangya, China, December 3, 1948 (3,920 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 3,920 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 (4,400 deaths)

The deadliest civilian maritime disaster in the history of the world took place on December 20, 1987. This tragic 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 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 4,400 lives.

Deadliest Civilian Shipwrecks In History

RankDisasterEstimated Death TollYearLocation
1MV Doña Paz 4,4001987Philippines
2SS Kiangya3,9201948China
3MV Le Joola1,8632002Senegal/Gambia
4Sultana1,8001865Mississippi River
5Tek Sing1,6001822South China Sea
6MV Spice Islander I1,5732011Zanzibar Channel
7RMS Titantic1,5141912North Atlantic Ocean
8Taiping1,5001949East China Sea
9RMS Lusitania1,1981915Ireland
10Tōya Maru 1,1531954Japan

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