When you think of disasters at sea, what are the first names that trip off your tongue?
I’m betting that, almost without exception, it is the same two ships; Titanic and Lusitania.
I would also guess that the names Dona Paz, Wilhelm Gustloff and even perhaps the Empress Of Ireland mean little to most.
And that is quite incredible; because the Dona Paz remains, quite simply, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever. The total loss of life was some 4,386 people. There were just 24 survivors.
So, why have so few people heard of this tragedy, with it’s death toll almost three times as great as that of the Titanic? A lot of it has to do with perceptions of how we view shipwrecks, and the stature of the ship itself.
The Dona Paz was a simple, working ferry that sailed around the islands of the Philippines. She was criminally overloaded by an appalling two thousand passengers when she was rammed by an oil tanker, the Vector, on December 20th, 1987.
Her passenger list consisted entirely of local working people, commuting to and from their daily jobs, or perhaps just intent on visiting family and friends.
It had none of the platinum chip drama of the floodlit Titanic, sagging helplessly into the starlit Atlantic as Wallace Hartley and his bandsmen sawed desperately away at dance music.
There were no millionaires, film stars or railroad owners lining the decks of the Dona Paz. In fact, the story- ghastly, horrifying and absolutely beyond belief- created hardly even a ripple in the international press. It was something that happened a long way away, in a strange land.
By contrast, when the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise had capsized and sank off Zeebrugge that same March, with the loss of 188 lives, the story made headlines right around the world. In media speak, some lives obviously have much more value than others.
As for the other ship mentioned, the Wilhelm Gustloff took perhaps as many as 9,000 people down with her in January, 1945. She was a commandeered German liner carrying civilians, wounded troops and Red Cross personnel away from the advancing Russian army, when a Soviet submarine slammed a trio of torpedoes into her on the night of January 30th.
Again, the ship was massively overloaded with terrified people. And yet, her destruction and horrific death toll has raised none of the righteous horror and indignation that the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a U boat did in May, 1915. 1,201 men. women and children went to the bottom with the famous Cunarder. That story garnered a tidal wave of horror and infamy so vast that it eventually played a huge part in bringing America into the Great War on the Allied side.
So why one, and not the other?
Perhaps part of it is down to the fact that the Wilhlem Gustloff was packed to the gills with wartime Germans, fleeing potential revenge for the string of unspeakable atrocities initiated in their name by Hitler and his SS. Even the most innocent of nurses and children were irredeemably tainted by association with such an evil regime. Besides which, the Gustloff was carrying wounded personnel from the German armed forces. In the Russian view, that made her a perfectly legitimate target. In that war, there were few real civilians- a view shared by both sides.
And what about the Empress Of Ireland? She capsized in the freezing Saint Lawrence on a foggy May evening in 1914 and sank in just fourteen minutes, leaving over 1,000 of her passengers and crew to expire within screaming distance of land. It caused horror and outrage that was as brief lived as the ship itself.
Again, the Empress Of Ireland was full of mostly ordinary, blue collar workers and their families, heading over to Europe and beyond. The ship, while comfortable, was a modest and unassuming liner, rather than a floating palace like the Titanic.
When the Titanic ship sank, she dragged half of the New York stock exchange down with her. Most of her famous first class passengers were names known the world over, and most of them went down with her. It triggered a media tsunami without equal perhaps to this day.
As for the Empress Of Ireland, she sank just three months before a global conflict of unimaginable horror erupted right across Europe and beyond. Soon, the daily death tolls coming in from the Western Front made the loss of a thousand souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in an icy Canadian waterway, seem almost quaint.
In received wisdom, the deliberate targeting of the Lusitania seems somehow more ghastly and unacceptable than that of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though each sinking was undeniably as carefully targeted and ruthlessly carried through as the other.
Awful beyond words, the Dona Paz disaster will never be immortalised in film. The story, like so many others, has been allowed to founder with indecent haste, and very scant recognition and remembrance.
Are some lives really perceived to be more or less valuable than others? Viewed through the skewed lens of our current historical prism, it certainly seems so. Nothing else explains the lurid acres of grisly coverage accorded to the Herald of Free Enterprise, while news of a ship that killed more than twenty times as many just nine moths later, created nary a ripple.
The ocean remains an equal opportunities killer; she will take her victims regardless of colour, age, wealth or any self assumed notions of social status. And, at the end of the day, every single soul lost across that infamous glut of maritime tragedies- passengers and crew alike- was a simple, terrified person. Most had families; all were loved, mourned and missed to a lesser or greater degree. No doubt they all prayed to the same idea of what we call ‘God’ for a salvation that, ultimately, never came.
I think that the least we can do is to acknowledge that sad fact.