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The story below was taken
from The New Brunswick Reader March 21, 1998
A Saint John woman's account of
how she survived the sinking of the Empress of Ireland - Canada's greatest
The Empress of Ireland had its own cricket
pitch, five sumptuous decks and a Rudolph Valentino-like decor. "She was indeed
an Edwardian dowager empress," wrote Frank Rasky in his book Great Canadian
"Sedate in white
and grey, steel-corseted with her 10 watertight compartments, she imparted an
air of truly impregnable safey. Her unsinkability was serenely taken for
granted by her passengers."
It was May
29, 1914. The Canadian Pacific liner took on its passengers at Quebec City. The
floating palace with 1,477 souls on board never got out of the Gulf of St.
Lawrence. It was struck amidships by the Norwegian freighter Storstad and sank
and fourteen passengers and crew perished.
passengers were 1 50 Salvation Army delegates to a convention in England. The
ship also carried a million-dollar cargo of silver bars.
(The picture above is of
Nurse Harriet Hollies with her son Henry in 1918.)
Hollies was a nurse and a stewardess on the Empress of Ireland. She was the
only stewardess to survive the disaster. A native of England, she later settled
in Saint John.
McQuinn interviewed her for an Evening Times-Globe article in November,
1961. Harriet Hollies was 87 years old at the time and living at the Turnbull
home for seniors in Saint John.
"It was like
this. The ship sailed from Quebec and there were many Salvation Army bands from
the West going over to England for a convention. And as we sailed away from
Quebec, the bands on our ship played Home Sweet Home. The band on the
pier played God Be With You Till We Meet Again.
everything was closed down and everyone was in bed (except the officers and
night people, you know) my roommate and I went to bed, too. And all at once, we
heard the sirens going and whistles blowing and she said to me, 'Something's
happened.' And we jumped out of bed, very lightly clad you see - no shoes,
stockings, only just some very light things - and we went right up to the top
"And when we
got there, the deck was slanting and the other ship, the Storstadt, had rammed
her right amidships. And then, instead of staying in, she drew out and let all
the water into our ship. By the time we got to the deck, there was no light -
"We were on
the deck and then we were not on the deck. We were on the side of the ship. All
in only a few minutes. From the time she was struck until she went down would
be only about 10 minutes, I believe. There was no chance to launch a
people were in the water - and the ship took a plunge and down she went. I went
with her and lots of others. Before going down, there was panic, because it was
too quick. The only thing I heard was someone saying, 'God help me! God help
"Always I had
been told - 'If you are ever in deep water and go down keep your arms close to
your sides and your feet close together and your head back, and you will come
"And when I
did come up, there wasn't a sound. I couldn't see anyone - nothing but wreckage
- and I clung to something - a chair or half a lifeboat - I can't remember
"I was alone
all night. And when daylight came, the tide, the wreckage and dead bodies all
floated together. And then you could see strangers coming to rescue. "I yelled
when I saw them coming, and then I became unconscious. I was in the hospital
for days and I did not know my own name and no one knew who I was and my
relatives in England did not know I was alive until one of the officers came
along and said, 'My! My! Here is one of our ladies!'
10 stewardesses in the crew. I never saw my roommate again - I was the only one
Hollies was a widow. She had lost her husband some years before this and her
two little girls and son Henry lived in England. Later, they were to come to
Saint John to live.
month of the St. Lawrence disaster, Nurse Hollies was back at sea again,
serving on the Empress of Britain. She continued to cross the Atlantic
throughout the First World War, despite the regular sighting of German
submarines in those waters.
But she never
forgot. She says that for years she would wake up in the middle of the night,
startled at the least noise. She would go to investigate and some of the crew
would say: "The boat isn't sinking. Goback to bed."
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