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World's Worst Passenger Ship Disasters


People around the world have long taken to the seas for transportation and, more so in recent days, for pleasure cruising. But no sea voyage is without risk. Here are the worst tragedies to befall passenger ships.

Doña Paz

CIA World Factbook
In the world's worst peacetime ferry disaster, the 24-year-old Philippine passenger ferry was traveling from Leyte island to the capital Manila in the Tablas Strait on Dec. 20, 1987. Late in the night, while most of the passengers were sleeping, the Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker carrying 8,800 barrels of gasoline and other petroleum products. The crash was followed by an explosion and fire that swept quickly through the ferry and the surrounding waters. Survivors had to jump off the ship into shark-infested waters. An estimated 4,340 were killed - an exact toll is impossible to ascertain as many were unregistered on the overcrowded ferry. Only one member of the crew was on the bridge at the time of the collision; officers and the captain were watching TV or drinking beer. The oil tanker was cleared of liability.

MV Le Joola

The 1990-built Senegalese ferry was carrying more than three times its capacity of 580 passengers and crew when it was traveling from southern Senegal to the capital Dakar on Sept. 26, 2002. At about 11 p.m., off the coast of Gambia, the ferry sailed into a rough storm. The ship capsized in the choppy water and winds, and many those who survived the initial disaster likely drowned awaiting official rescue crews, which did not arrive until daybreak. The death toll is estimated at 1,863, with just several dozen survivors, including only one woman out of the hundreds on board. Local fishermen tried to rescue as many as possible, but those trapped inside the ship for hours remained trapped when the Joola finally sank.


The RMS Titanic is legendary for being the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history. The luxury ship was hailed for its opulence and modern developments, but four days into its maiden voyage, from Southampton, England, to New York City, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. There were too few lifeboats aboard for all of the passengers, and in the less than three hours from the time of impact to the time of sinking the chaotic escape effort focused on saving women and children first. The death toll in the freezing waters was 1,517 out of 2,201 total passengers and crew aboard the ship; first-class passengers had a greater survival rate, and a greater percentage of Britons than Americans perished. The last survivor of the Titanic, English passenger Millvina Dean, died on May 31, 2009; she was only nine weeks old when on board the ship. The sinking was immortalized in an Oscar-winning film and in other pop-culture lore.

The Empress of Ireland

A Canadian Pacific steamship, the Empress of Ireland went into service in 1906. In early morning fog on May 29, 1914, on a journey from Quebec City to Liverpool and off the town of Rimouski, Quebec, the Empress collided with a Norwegian freighter, which did not sink. Smashed on the starboard side, though, the Empress sank in a mere 14 minutes, killing 1,012 people. There were only 465 survivors; out of the 138 children on board, only four survived. Of the deceased, 167 were members of the Salvation Army who were traveling to a conference.

SS Sultana

The explosion of this steamboat paddlewheeler on the Mississippi River is considered the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. On April 27, 1865, the ship left New Orleans bound for St. Louis, with stops along the way to pick up passengers and make repairs. Many of the passengers were Union soldiers who had been released from Confederate prisons and were trying to make their way home, resulting in a severely overcrowded ship. Three boilers exploded off Memphis, Tennessee, at about 2 a.m., turning the wooden ship into an inferno. Many died from burns, drowning or hypothermia. The death toll is estimated at up to 1,800.
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