Empress of Ireland

Empress of Ireland Expedition 2003

Empress of Ireland book coverKevin Mc Murray and I had become good friends during his authoring of Deep Descent a book about diving the Andre Doria. A few years later we began tossing around ideas for both book and video possibilities. Kevin had already been working on his latest book Dark Descent, which is about diving the Empress of Ireland, when he invited me to join his expedition to dive the I’ll fated liner and possibly shot video of the return of one of the first divers to have dived the wreck in the late sixties.

As a video project it’s only true interest would be by divers and except for the local news there’d be no network and or cable TV interest. During the expedition I shot video of the wreck and as much of everything else while working as a one man band. If nothing else it was great fun and I got to meet and befriend a few more dive buddies.

Return to the Empress

In August 2003 author Kevin Mc Murray lead an expedition to the cold waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway to dive the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. The purpose of the expedition was research for his most resent book “Dark Descent”. Prior to the expedition he came a cross a women’s name, Ronni Gilligan. His research showed she not just the first women to have dived the wreck, but one of the first divers regardless of gender to do so. During Kevin’s interview with Ronni the question of, would you consider going back to dive the wreck, came up. Ronni said, no. But as the weeks passed Ronni’s bravado said to her why not? This is the story of Ronni Gilligan’s Return to the Empress.

Ronni GilliganOn that fateful evening in May of 1914 the 14,500-ton Ocean Liner Empress of Ireland was on a routine crossing of the Atlantic, a crossing she had made 95 times before. Passengers aboard the Canadian Pacific steamship had long since retired for the evening after the long and arduous trips from the Canadian hinterlands to board the waiting ship in Quebec City.

After the pilot was dropped off at Pointe-au-Pere, or Father’s Point, the Empress began her fateful journey into the open waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With clear skies ahead Captain Henry Kendall ordered the engines full ahead on a course that would take him to the Cabot Straits, the Gateway to the Atlantic. As the screws of the steamer grabbed hold the ship was propelled through the water at 15 knots. A lookout spotted the faint glow of a ship’s running lights on the horizon 3-4 points off the starboard bow. Taking note of the stranger’s position and heading Captain Kendall of the Empress assumed an untraditional but safe passing of starboard to starboard.

The stranger, a 6,028-ton coal carrier Storstad could not help but take notice of the amply lit Empress as she gleamed in the distance like a floating city. Despite the prospects of clear sailing the thick fog began to swallow the two ships. Tomas Andersen, captain of the Storstad, saw the Empress turning slightly to starboard before disappearing into the mist, which would be the normal action for an outbound vessel at this point of the voyage. But the captain of the Storstad now assumed a traditional port-to-port passing would be executed.

Both vessels, now completely cloaked in the dense fog, performed maneuvers that continues to mystify maritime experts to this day. These maneuvers exacerbated a dangerous situation. The fate of hundreds of innocent souls was sealed.

As the fog dissipated aboard the Storstad, Captain Andersen stared into the green glow of Empresses’ starboard running light and the massive wall of steel that was drifting from left to right across the bow of his ship.

The officers on the Empress saw the Storstad loom from the mist but could do nothing but helplessly watch as the icebreaking bow of the Storstad punched into her starboard side. Like a huge can opener the Storstad pivoted with the current prying a tremendous gash in her hull, a mortal wound the Empress and over 1,000 of her passengers and crew would not recover from.

Even though more passengers died that night than did on Titanic just two years earlier, her unglamorous route, the paucity of aristocratic passengers, her many routine crossings of the Atlantic, the war brewing in Europe, and the fact that the Empress sank in just 14 minutes failed to meet the standard set by Titanic. The tragic loss of the Empress of Ireland was not a night to remember – but a night to forget.

Within a month divers, hired by the Canadian Pacific, made their dark descents down to the wreck of the Empress. Almost two hundred bodies were recovered as was the purser’s safe, the mail sacks, and some of the precious silver ingots aboard. These “hard hat divers” would be the last to see the Empress for over half a century.

In the 1960s Scuba diving began to grab the imagination of the public. Anyone with a spirit for adventure and who could afford the cumbersome gear began to explore anything and everything that was underwater. The cold, turbid waters of the St. Lawrence was no exception. During this innovative time Montreal diver Andre Menard mounted an expedition to find the lost Empress. Menard, and as he called them his “ship of fools,” managed to locate and dive the lost Empress. But going to the next level Menard knew he needed divers with far more experience that he or his buddies had. Menard enlisted Syracuse diver Peter Perrault, and Perrault in turn convinced his dive buddies Ronni Gilligan and Fred Zeller to join him.

Ronni would be the first woman ever to dive the wreck. But more important to Ronni Gilligan, she would also be a part of a Canadian-American dive team that would be the first sport dive team to penetrate deep into the holds of this sunken sarcophagus. Over the course of three years they would make over a hundred dives, many of them deep into the bowels of the ship. Menard, Gilligan and her fellow divers from the Syracuse Scuba. Society blazed a bold trail in deep cold water diving and in the process set an example that still awes the wreck diving community to this day.

Several months later with the small amount of video I captured along with old photos and news paper clipping I was able to compile a 24 minute video about the adventure. Enjoy!