5 horrifying cruise disasters that changed travel


A barge sprays tons of water to douse the S.S. Morro Castle cruise ship after it caught fire in the early morning hours of September 8, 1934.

A coastal cruiser, the Morro Castle was sailing from New York City to Havana, Cuba, when it caught fire. The ship eventually made it to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where the vessel was beached.

In a scene eerily like the Costa Concordia accident, the Morro Castle “was a wreck in plain sight from shore,” Maxtone-Graham said.

The cause of the fire is unclear, but most experts agree that lax crew discipline was partly to blame.

“Some said she caught fire because of unhappy or vengeful crewmen,” Maxtone-Graham said. “There was a story—and I can’t say this was true—that there was a fire in a wastebasket and a crewman put it in a closet, shut the door, and went about his business.”

As a result of the Morro Castle disaster, cruise companies later placed a higher emphasis on crew discipline, he added.

In addition, the International Maritime Organization adopted standards encouraging noncombustible materials in ship construction.


The M/S Explorer became the first purpose-built cruise ship ever to sail the frigid waters of the Antarctic waters in 1969. The vessel was also the first to sink there—as pictured after hitting an iceberg in November 2007. (See “Special Report: The Sinking of the Explorer.”)

All of the Explorer’s 154 passengers and crew survived, but the accident caused several international shipping and cruise organizations to take a closer look at their rules and guidelines governing Antarctic voyages. (See video on the Antarctic Ocean.)

For example, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) accelerated discussions that are intended to lead to the development of a comprehensive “Polar Code” that would govern everything from the type of equipment ships can carry, the types of hulls they can have, the experience levels of the people on their bridges, and more.

“There are IMO guidelines for passenger ships in ice-covered waters currently in place, but they’re just that—guidelines,” said Steve Wellmeier, the executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

“Since the Explorer sinking, there’s been a greater urgency to beef up the Polar Code and to make parts of it mandatory.”

Corrected January 20: Previous version suggested that the Explorer accident had led to restrictions on passenger numbers and prohibitions on certain fuel types.



The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland sinks in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City, Canada, in 1914.

While sailing out of the port of Montreal on the foggy morning of May 29, 1914, the ocean liner was struck amidships by a Norwegian ship, the S.S. Storstad. The Empress sank very quickly and claimed 1,012 lives.

“The boat turned over on its port side and went to the bottom like a stone,” Maxtone-Graham said.

According to Maxtone-Graham, the Empress‘s primary weakness, and the reason it sank so fast, was bad compartmentalization. That is, the design of the ship’s rooms and compartments were not built with barriers to prevent widespread flooding in the case of a hull breach.

The Storstad “just happened to hit between two watertight compartments and admitted water to both sides,” Maxtone-Graham said.

In large part because of the Empress accident, engineers paid more attention to compartmentalization in the construction of later ships.

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