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This is an undated file photo of the "Empress of Ireland". In May 29, 1914 The Canadian Pacific steamship, the Empress of Ireland, collided with a Norwegian freighter near Quebec, sinking in 14 minutes and killing 1,012 people. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
This is an undated file photo of the "Empress of Ireland". In May 29, 1914 The Canadian Pacific steamship, the Empress of Ireland, collided with a Norwegian freighter near Quebec, sinking in 14 minutes and killing 1,012 people. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Empress of Ireland, ‘Canada’s Titanic,’ finally getting its due after 100 years Add to ...

“I guess the thing that really affects me is that it’s a terribly tragic story, and yet my family would not be here if it weren’t for that,” said Parker, an Ancaster, Ont., resident who also plans to participate in memorial activities in Rimouski.

“It was our early history ... I just think those people shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Chris Klausen, who owns one of the biggest collections of Empress of Ireland artifacts, believes history has overlooked the ship because unlike the rich and glamorous who sailed on the Titanic, most of its passengers belonged to the middle class.

“Titanic was like dropping a bomb on the Academy Awards,” said Klausen, who started collecting Empress objects in 2000.

He said the commemorative events are signs that the Empress’s story has, at long last, started to attract attention.

“There’s finally some recognition, there’s finally some peace for these families,” he said.

To mark the anniversary, the Maritime Museum of BC in Victoria has an exhibit of Klausen’s items. It is just one of the several Empress-related events across Canada.

In Rimouski, the Pointe-au-Pere maritime museum, which has a pavilion dedicated to the Empress, will host a banquet and unveil a monument. Churches in Rimouski and nearby Ste-Luce plan to pay homage by ringing their bells in unison at 1:55 a.m., the time of the disaster.

The Salvation Army, which dispatched 170 of its members on the ship to a rally in England, will hold its annual Empress ceremony Sunday at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery as well as a reception May 31 in Rimouski. The organization lost 141 people, including Delamont, the Clarks and many of its Canadian leaders.

Many aboard the Empress anticipated the journey of a lifetime, but the overseas adventure ended before dawn on their second day.

The Norwegian-built Storstad rammed the Empress under a thick blanket of fog near Father Point, known today as Pointe-au-Pere.

The 167-metre-long Empress, which left Quebec City for Liverpool on May 28, 1914, had dropped off a river pilot and turned northeast toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Meanwhile, the Storstad, bound for Montreal, was cruising full speed toward shore to pick up a pilot.

After the collier smashed into its hull, the Empress listed and sank quickly amid the screams of terrified crew and passengers. Only a few lifeboats could be launched and most of the people travelling below deck in third class were thought to have drowned in their bunks.

A front-page story in the Toronto Sunday World on June 2, 1914, described the “butchery” of the mad scramble to escape the lower decks.

The headline read: Steerage Passengers Slain by Comrades in Scramble for Life; Wounds of Victims Tell Tale of Frenzied Struggle for Life in Empress’ Steerage Quarters; Knives and Dirks Were Apparently Plied by Crazed Passengers Battling Way Thru Crowded Mass in Fore-hold.

Boats from nearby villages rescued survivors in the darkness, but hundreds died in the water. Villagers clothed and sheltered people scooped from the river.

Only four of the 138 children aboard the Empress survived and the remains of hundreds of people are entombed in her wreck. For days, searchers recovered bodies from the river, though many of the dead could not be identified and were buried in Rimouski.

Loved ones from across Canada headed to Quebec to conduct the grim duty of trying to identify the dead.

Since the sinking, the Empress has continued to claim lives.

Over the years, about a half-dozen sport divers have died near the wreck site, which is nearly 50 metres below the surface.

Derek Grout, who wrote two books on the Empress of Ireland, said the area around the wreckage is known for its poor visibility, strong current and dangerous entanglements, such as electrical wires.

“It’s not the place for the faint of heart,” said Grout, who authored “Empress of Ireland: The Story of an Edwardian Liner” and “RMS Empress of Ireland: Pride of the Canadian Pacific’s Atlantic Fleet.”

Even with the hazards, Grout said the Empress was accessible to divers and became one of the most-pillaged shipwrecks in the world.

To protect the Empress from further scavenging, both the province and Ottawa have designated it a historical site.

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