11 of the worst shipwrecks of all time by death count
- Maritime disasters have occurred throughout history, claiming huge numbers of lives and causing immeasurable damage to the world's shipping industry.
- From shipwrecks to collisions, fires, and explosions, these tragedies can have far-reaching effects on society, including leading to improved maritime safety regulations and procedures.
- But which has claimed the most lives?
The vast majority of voyages at sea pass without incident. But, sometimes, things can go very wrong due to war, natural disasters, or human error. And when things go wrong, they can go very wrong, as you are about to find out. But, as the great explorer Ferdinand Magellan once said, "The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore."
So, of all the shipwrecks known to us, which were the most costly in lives? Let's get stuck in.
What shipwreck led to the most deaths?
And now, on to the main event. Of all the shipwrecks ever recorded, which led to the most loss of life? Let's find out, shall we?
Please note that we have limited the following list to those with recorded death counts of more than 800 or so. We have also only included the most well-known or well-documented examples. In most cases, death counts are also estimates.
1. The loss of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff might be the worst ever
Death count: circa 9,000
Designed and built as a cruise liner under the Third Reich's Kraft durch Freude ("Strength Through Joy") leisure program, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a vital propaganda tool for the regime. Before World War II, this ocean liner carried tourists through the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. The ship was first transformed into a medical ship in 1939 and then into a floating barracks. During the last months of the war, as Soviet armies advanced deep into East Prussia, the ship was part of Operation Hannibal. It was tasked with aiding in evacuating German military personnel and civilian refugees from the ports of East Prussia.
On January 30, 1945, the Gustloff, which was built to hold around 1,900 people, sailed out of port crammed with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people, although the exact numbers are unknown. That evening, at around 9:00 pm, a Soviet submarine launched three torpedoes that struck Gustloff's port side. Only 1,200 of the estimated 10,000 people on board were rescued due to the evacuation efforts being hampered by the ice, which rendered many of the ship's lifeboats useless. In less than an hour following the torpedo attack, the Gustloff submerged beneath the Baltic Sea's waves.
The estimated 6,000 to 9,000 lives lost during the sinking make it the deadliest shipwreck in history.
2. The loss of the MV Dona Paz is the second-worst shipwreck in history
Death count: circa 4,385
The MV Doña Paz was a passenger ferry built by Onomichi Zosen of Hiroshima, Japan, and registered in the Philippines. Originally launched on April 25, 1963, as the Himeyuri Maru with a passenger capacity of 608, the ship was purchased by Sulpicio Lines in October 1975 and renamed the Don Sulpicio. After a fire in June 1979, the ship was refurbished and renamed Doña Paz.
On December 20, 1987, the ship collided with the oil tanker Vector while traveling from Leyte Island to Manila, the Philippine capital. The vessel was severely overcrowded, and more than 2,000 passengers were not listed on the manifest. Allegations have been made that the ship did not have a radio and that the life jackets were locked away. However, official investigations concluded that the tanker Vector was at fault for being unseaworthy and operating without a license, a lookout, or a qualified master.
The collision caused the sinking of the Doña Paz, resulting in an estimated death toll of 4,385 people, with only 26 survivors. The tragedy is considered the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history.
3. RMS Lancastria was sunk during the Dunkirk evacuation
Death count: between 4,000 and 7,000
The RMS Lancastria was an ocean liner requisitioned by the U.K. government during World War II as part of "Operation Aerial." This was the continued evacuation of British nationals and troops from France two weeks after the main Dunkirk evacuation. On June 17, 1940, the Lancastria was sunk off the French port of St. Nazaire while attempting to carry out its emergency order to evacuate British nationals and troops from France.
The ship was loaded well beyond its capacity of 1,300 passengers, and estimates suggest that between 4,000 and 7,000 people lost their lives during the sinking. Those who survived were rescued by a small craft under continuous air attack. This made it the most significant single-ship loss of life in British maritime history.
4. SS Kiangya was the second-deadliest peacetime maritime disaster of all time
Death count: between 2,750 to 3,920
In 1948, the Chinese Civil War was in its final stages, and the Communist forces had gained the upper hand. As a result, tens of thousands of people fled from the Nationalist stronghold of Shanghai before the advancing People’s Liberation Army. The SS Kiangya was a Chinese passenger steamship tasked with carrying refugees. Still, on December 4, 1948, the ship had already taken on board several thousand more people than its official capacity of 2,150. The vessel was heavily overloaded and, therefore, vulnerable.
The ship exploded at the mouth of the Huangpu River, fifty miles south of Shanghai, most likely after striking a World War II-era mine. The explosion and subsequent sinking resulted in the deaths of, by some estimates, almost 4,000 people, with only around 1,000 passengers rescued. Amazingly, her wreck was cleared from the channel in 1956, and her hull was refurbished, re-entering service.
5. The MV Le Joola is known as" Africa's Titanic"
Death count: circa 1,863
The MV Le Joola was a roll-on/roll-off ferry owned by the Senegalese government that capsized off the coast of The Gambia on September 26, 2002, resulting in 1,863 deaths and only 64 survivors. This tragedy is considered to be the second-worst peacetime disaster in maritime history.
The ferry was traveling from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region to the Senegalese capital, Dakar when it encountered a severe storm. The ship was only licensed to sail in shallower waters, and the estimated 2,000 passengers aboard, around half of whom lacked tickets, was nearly four times the ship's design load. Many passengers were sleeping on the deck, which added further instability. The rescue operations did not begin for several hours.
A government inquiry found negligence to be the primary cause of the disaster, and accusations were directed at both the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade and prime minister Mame Madior Boye.
6. SS Sultana was the deadliest U.S. maritime disaster
Death count: circa 1,800
On April 27, 1865, the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred when the SS Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis, Tennessee. The American Civil War had ended just a few weeks earlier, and the ship was carrying a large number of Union prisoners of war who had been released from Confederate military prisons and were eager to return home.
To facilitate their journey, the federal government paid steamship operators generously for each soldier they transported. This allegedly led to rampant corruption and a disregard for basic safety measures. In the case of the Sultana, the ship's boiler was not appropriately maintained, and the vessel was overloaded with as many as 2,300 passengers, which was more than six times its rated capacity.
When the boiler ruptured due to the strain, hundreds of people were killed in the initial explosion, with many more trapped when the overloaded decks collapsed. Even though approximately 1,800 people died, the tragedy was overshadowed in the media by the ongoing coverage of the Lincoln assassination.
8. The Neptune sinking is the worst maritime disaster in Haitian history
Death count: circa 1,500
The Neptune was a passenger ferry en route from Port-au-Prince to Jeremie, Haiti, with approximately 2,000 people on board. The exact number of passengers is unclear, as many people were not listed on the official manifest. The Neptune was severely overloaded and had a capacity of around 400 people.
On February 17, 1993, the ferry encountered rough seas and began to take on water. The crew could not control the flooding, and the passengers rushed to the top deck, where the crush of people caused that deck to collapse onto the people below. The vessel eventually capsized and sank, with most of the passengers trapped below deck or spilled into the ocean. The rescue efforts were disorganized, and only a few hundred people were rescued — many were found clinging to debris. The remaining passengers and crew, estimated to be around 1,500 people, perished in the disaster. The sinking of Neptune is considered one of the worst maritime disasters in Haitian history. It has been attributed to many factors, including overloading, poor maintenance, and inadequate safety regulations.
9. The Taiping sinking was a tragedy
Death count: circa 1,500
On January 27, 1949, the Chinese steamer named Taiping sank following a collision with another vessel while on its way from mainland China to Taiwan. By some estimates, the ship was carrying more than 1,500 people, including many refugees escaping the Chinese Civil War. This exceeded its rated capacity of 580 passengers.
The Taiping was traveling at night without lights due to a curfew when it collided with the smaller cargo ship Chienyuan near the Zhoushan Archipelago. The accident caused the death of more than 1,500 passengers and crew members, while just 37 people were rescued.
10. RMS Titanic is one of the most famous maritime disasters
Death count: circa 1,517
The Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. The ship was considered unsinkable and carried more than 2,200 passengers and crew members. Unfortunately, due to inadequate emergency procedures and a disorganized and haphazard evacuation, which saw many lifeboats launched while only partly filled, more than 1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster.
The sinking of the Titanic was a global tragedy that sparked worldwide outrage and led to significant improvements in maritime safety regulations. It is considered one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history, and its story has been immortalized in books, movies, and other forms of popular culture.
11. SS Castillo de Olite is one of Spain's worst maritime disasters
Death count: circa 1,476
Initially launched in the Netherlands as Zaandijk in 1920, the cargo steamship was renamed Zwartewater, Postyshev, and Akademik Pavlov as ownership changed between Dutch and Soviet entities. In 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Nationalist Navy captured the ship and renamed it Castillo de Olite. Sadly, towards the end of the war, while serving as a troop ship for nationalist forces, Castillo de Olite was sunk, resulting in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in Spanish history.
Of the 2,112 individuals onboard, 1,476 died, while 342 were wounded and 294 were captured. Local fishermen Santiago Saavedra, the lighthouse keeper, and his wife Carmen Hevia were said to have played a significant role in the rescue efforts.
And that is your lot for today.
Some other honorable mentions that didn't quite make our top 11 include, but are not limited to: -
- SS Hitachi Maru: Approximately 1,368 fatalities.
- Kiche Maru: Approximately 1,200 deaths.
- RMS Lusitania: Approximately 1,198 fatalities.
- SS Toya Maru: Approximately 1,172 deaths.
- Hong Moh: Approximately 900 fatalities.
- USS Indianapolis: Approximately 880 deaths.
But, whatever the death toll, any loss of life at sea, whether in peacetime or war, is a genuine tragedy. May all their souls rest in peace.