Eighty-six years ago today, on November 12, 1928, the passenger liner SS Vestris sank about 200 miles off the coast of Virginia. A total of 111 people died in the disaster. Though in human cost the Vestris disaster doesn’t rank up with the most terrible ship losses of the 20th century, such as the Titanic, Lusitania or Empress of Ireland, in many ways what happened to this ship was even more shocking and sad than these other incidents. The loss of the Vestris was due to sheer negligence and was 100% preventable–in fact, a number of people aboard her knew the ship was doomed the moment she left port on that fateful last voyage.
Although she sailed in the age of floating palaces, Vestris was not superlative in anything–she wasn’t the largest, fastest or most luxurious liner afloat. She was a workhorse. Built in Ireland shortly before the First World War, Vestris was operated by the Lamport & Holt passenger company, usually sailing between New York and the South American ports on the River Plate (Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay). Vestris survived a torpedo attack while serving as a troopship during World War I and a fire shortly after it, but was still perfectly seaworthy. After the war she returned to her New York-South America duties. Unfortunately the Lamport & Holt company didn’t take very good care of the ship, and its crew and management was shoddy.
On November 10, 1928, Vestris left New York on a regularly-scheduled voyage to Buenos Aires. She was carrying 128 passengers and 196 crew members. However, as soon as the ship left port numerous men who worked in the engine room shoveling coal into the boilers–the “black gang”–realized there was a serious problem. One of the hatch doors through which coal was loaded in port was jammed partially open. This hatch was only 4 feet above the water line. Furthermore, the ship was severely overloaded with cargo, much of it badly stowed. This meant the ship was out of balance. Some in the crew tried to warn the captain, but for reasons not entirely clear these warnings were ignored.
This photo was taken on the deck of the Vestris shortly before she sank on November 12, 1928, showing how badly the ship was leaning.
The next day a gale began to blow in the Atlantic. Heavy seas slammed and rocked the Vestris, and each wave poured more water in through that open coal hatch. Almost all ships leak a little while at sea, but this was extraordinary; the pumps couldn’t keep up. All that day, Sunday, November 11, the men in the boiler rooms fought a losing battle to keep the ship afloat and the engines lit. Now they were demanding that the captain send an SOS because Vestris, listing heavily to one side, was clearly sinking. The captain ignored them until early Monday morning, by which time it was obvious the ship was going down and there was no way to stop it. Ironically the SOS signal that did go out badly misstated the ship’s position.
At about 11AM on November 12, with the gale still blowing, Captain William Carey finally gave the order to abandon ship. The poorly-trained crew bungled the job of getting the passengers off. Two of the first three lifeboats launched sank, ditching screaming women and children into the cold waters. Another lifeboat had severe leaks and was quickly swamped. Some of the boats that did get away were not fully loaded with passengers, stranding many still on the ship. Vestris herself sank beneath the waves at 2:00 PM. There were 215 survivors. Tragically, every one of the 13 children aboard the ship died. Captain Carey went down with the ship.
As soon as the rescue ships got back to shore with the waterlogged survivors, recriminations began flying. The negligence of the crew, captain and ship’s owners (who were British) made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Facing crushing lawsuits, Lamport & Holt quickly settled out of court for 100,000 GBP–thus preventing testimony about the negligent condition of the Vestris from appearing in open court. The coal stokers who warned about the open coal hatch told their story to newspapers. One passenger was quoted as calling the captain and crew murderers.
There are too many disasters–plane crashes, mine cave-ins and ship sinkings–that have been caused by negligence compounded by greed. In Vestris‘s case, however, it’s difficult to find malice. The ship seems to have been lost from simple carelessness. Small omissions do often have big consequences. Sometimes, as here, they can be tragic.