Since the day humans first took to the seas, the tragedy of shipwrecks has captured the fascination of many. Here are five infamous shipwrecks and their harrowing histories, each with their own different tragic tale.
Arguably the most famous ship in history, the RMS Titanic was known for its glamour and lavishness and was believed to be “unsinkable.” On April 10, 1912, Titanic departed the English city of Southampton on its maiden voyage heading to New York City. Minutes before midnight on April 14, Titanic struck an iceberg, then, fatally, continued sailing for another 10 minutes. The water flooding into the damaged hull created tremendous pressure, forcing the ship to be stopped. Titanic sank at approximately 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, claiming the lives of 1,500 passengers.
After the sinking of Titanic, British shipping company White Star Line knew they had to make major improvements to their designs. The commercial vessel HMHS Britannic underwent many important modifications, most critically ensuring that the ship had the proper number of lifeboats to accommodate every passenger on board. In November 1916, while operating as a hospital ship during World War I, Britannic was en route to pick up wounded soldiers in Greece when an explosion occurred on the ship after it reportedly hit a mine. Britannic sank less than an hour after the explosion. The majority of the people safely made it off the ship; however 30 casualties occurred, primarily attributed to the premature launch of lifeboats. Today, Britannic is the largest vessel sitting on the ocean floor.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Launched in the presence of Adolf Hitler in 1937, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German ocean liner named after the leader of the Swiss Nazi Party. In 1945, toward the end of World War II , a mass naval evacuation from the region of East Prussia took place. German troops and civilians flocked to the ship desperate to escape the aftermath of the war, referring to the ship as “Noah’s Ark.” Tragically, one night in late January 1945, the ship was struck by three torpedoes from a nearby Soviet submarine. Of the estimated 10,000 people on board the Gustloff, only around 1,000 survived, making it the deadliest sinking in wartime maritime history.
The deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred on April 27, 1865 when the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank while traveling up the Mississippi River. The ship was designed to hold only 376 people; however, due to the end of the Civil War, more than 2,000 Union soldiers released from Confederate prisons crowded on board. The severe overcrowding and difficult river conditions overwhelmed the boilers, causing them to explode and destroy the center of the boat. An estimated 1,800 people were killed, but press attention was limited due to the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination, making Sultana a largely unknown tragedy.
MV Doña Paz
Known as “Asia’s Titanic,” the MV Doña Paz is the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history. The Philippine passenger ferry was severely overcrowded when it departed Tacloban on December 20, 1987. The official passenger list showed that there were 1,493 passengers on board; however, it’s estimated that more than 4,000 passengers were on the ship the night of the wreck. While packed-together passengers packed together tried to sleep, Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker carrying 8,800 pounds of gasoline and other petroleum products. The ferry was quickly engulfed in flames, creating an inferno at sea that took the lives of the majority of the passengers. Only two dozen of the more than 4,000 passengers on board were rescued from the devastating disaster.
Learn more about the sinking of the RMS Titanic in Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning the Titanic, premiering Wednesday, November 4 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/secrets and the PBS Video app. Join a team of investigators as they search for the identity of the “mystery ship” that turned away from the Titanic in its darkest hour, abandoning thousands of lives to the icy waters.