The Britannic And Celtic
By James Donahue
In the spring of 1887
two White Star Line passenger steamships, the Britannic and Celtic collided while passing in the midst of the fog-shrouded
Six passengers aboard the Britannic were crushed to death when the bow of the Celtic tore through the side of the hull, and
another 20 people were injured. Some reports said as many as 12 passengers died in the accident.
Both vessels were extensively
damaged, but they both remained afloat and managed to limp together into New York
harbor, escorted by two other vessels that came upon them, the Marengo and British Queen.
Both ships were almost
the same size, both had iron hulls and both were involved in carrying passengers and freight between Liverpool and New York. Consequently, they followed identical trade routes across
the North Atlantic. But with an ocean as vast as the Atlantic,
the possibility of them colliding while passing in mid-ocean was extremely slim. Yet it happened.
The Celtic was bound
for New York with about 870 passengers aboard, and the Britannic was steaming east, on her
second day out of New York, with 450 passengers. They collided
about 350 miles off Sandy Hook in thick fog and a calm sea at about 5:30 in the afternoon.
The Britannic, under
the command of Capt. Hamilton Perry, was steaming at full speed through the fog, although her fog bells had been kept ringing
all that afternoon. Crew members later said they heard the fog bell of another ship but that the Celtic was not seen until
it suddenly loomed, coming at them on an angle off the port bow.
The Celtic, commanded
by a Captain Irving, approached at an oblique angle and first struck a glancing blow, but then, a few feet farther aft, rammed
its prow through the railing, breaking into the cabin and cutting a hold in the Britannic below the water line. They said
the prow crushed its way for 10 feet into the hull where steerage passengers were gathered.
The Britannic was still
moving and as she drew off from the Celtic, the Celtic shunted to one side, but then rammed the Britannic a third time, a
few feet farther back along the hull, this time ripping another hole in the side for a distance of 20 feet.
When the two ships came
to a stop the Celtic was standing about 80 rods off the Britannic’s port side.
With two large holes
punched in her side, the crew and passengers aboard the Britannic thought at first that the ship would sink. Captain Perry
ordered the lifeboats lowered and there was a mad scramble for seats on the boats. They said Perry had to draw his pistol
and threaten the crew members so that women and children could board. They were transferred to the Celtic, which was deemed
damaged, but not in a sinking condition.
By the time the boats
returned to the Britannic, it was learned that the ship was in no immediate danger. The pumps were keeping up with the incoming
water and crew members were able to cover the holes with mattresses and canvass to slow the rush of the incoming water.
The captains of the two
steamers talked as their vessels stood motionless for about five hours. After the fog cleared, they agreed to remain close
by one another and slowly steam their way to New York harbor.
Before the sun rose the
next morning, a service for the burial of the dead at sea was read and the six dead passengers were dropped overboard.
Later that day the steamships
Marengo of the Wilson Line, and the British Queen, both bound for New York, overtook the two crippled ships and accompanied
them into port.
The Britannic measured
455 feet in length. She was launched in 1874 and remained in service for the White Star Line until 1899, when converted as
a transport during the Boer War. She was scrapped in 1903.
The Celtic was slightly
smaller with a length of 437 feet. She was launched in 1874 and was operated by the White Star line until 1891. That year
it was sold to the Thingvalla Line of Copenhagen and renamed
Amerika. Under that name it continued making transatlantic trips until 1897. She was scrapped in 1898.
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