HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN · INFO BOOTH · FUN STUFF · NEW BRUNSWICK

The story below was taken from The New Brunswick Reader March 21, 1998

Saint John, New Brunswick
LOCAL STORIES

Canada's Titanic
A Saint John woman's account of how she survived the sinking of the Empress of Ireland - Canada's greatest maritime disaster.

   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 Disasters.

   Canada's Titanic"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 of Rimouski.

   One thousand and fourteen passengers and crew perished.

    Among the 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.)

    Harriet 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.

    Bernice 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.

   "Then, after 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 deck.

   "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 - all darkness.

   "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 life-boat.

    "And then 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 me!'

   "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 up.'

   "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 what, now.

    "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!'

   "There were 10 stewardesses in the crew. I never saw my roommate again - I was the only one left."

    Helena 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.

    Within a 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."

BACK TO STORIES

HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN · INFO BOOTH · FUN STUFF · NEW BRUNSWICK