High Tragedy at Sea
By Roger Weston
The Italian merchant steamer, SS Sirio, departed from Genoa on August 2, 1904, starting on a voyage that the Italian immigrants onboard believed would be a restful and peaceful ride to begin their new lives in Argentina. After picking up additional passengers in Barcelona, Spain, the ship, with almost 800 souls on board, set out for South America on August 4. However, she did not get far at all. In fact, she was only 2 ½ miles east of Cape Palos near Cartagena, Spain when she ran aground at full-speed on a reef off Hormigas Island.
Fishermen had taken notice of the SS Sirio, which was cruising close by in tricky waters. They heard a tremendous crashing noise when the ship hit a reef. They saw passengers knocked off their feet from the impact, falling hard onto the SS Sirio’s steel decks. For the fishermen, it was a grim moment to see the brutal crash. However, in the next four minutes, that moment of shock melted into a surreal experience as they watched the ship’s stern rapidly sink below the rippling, pulsating surface of the shiny blue waters. Fortunately, these fishermen were not passive men. They knew the sea as well as they knew their own mothers, maybe better. They were also highly competent on the waters. Realizing that a disaster was unfolding, they flew into action. They needed little urging; however, they got some anyway. The stern of the SS Sirio sank so quickly that within just four minutes, it was underwater, and the fishermen could hear the screams of the drowning. The bow was still above the surface, like a dolphin sticking its nose out of the water.
While the fishermen began their rescue efforts, a truly tragic, life-and-death drama was playing out on board ship. By one account, the captain was not on the bridge when the ship struck the reef; rather, he’d turned over the helm to an inexperienced third mate. If so, this was one of a series of misjudgments, which is surprising. After all, the captain had 46 years experience and a flawless record. This was his final voyage before retirement. Perhaps he let his guard down and decided to relax a little on this last trip. Forty-six years experience. Flawless record. Hundreds of thousands of sea captains never achieved such an impressive record. Captain Giuseppe Piccone could sail a ship from Spain to Argentina in his sleep if he had to. Not, however, on this particular day, this most tragic day.
The fishermen and the passengers on the SS Sirio weren’t the only players in this epic tragedy. There was a full cast, and all the actors were on hand. There were other ships in the area. One of those vessels was the French steamer Marie Louise. Her captain saw the whole disaster unfold. He saw the SS Sirio on a risky course through a dangerous area when she crashed into a submerged obstacle. The bow of the doomed ship rose up out of the water like a breaching whale. The boiler exploded. It erupted like Mount Vesuvius, a tremendous explosion. Screams were heard. Bodies were suddenly floating past the Marie Louise.
“I want a boat in the water now,” the captain of the Marie Louise ordered. “Save anyone you can.”
Over on the SS Sirio, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had a different perspective because it was his ship that was sinking. One thing Piccone lacked, thankfully for his forty-six years of passengers, was experience in dealing with shipwrecks and calamity. For forty-six years, he had avoided trouble. Conflicting accounts emerged in the press as to what happened on this fateful day. Some said the captain froze; others testified that panic broke out and he tried to contain it, but couldn’t. The captain himself later confessed that his actions were imprudent.
Why would a captain with 46 years experience take imprudent actions? Why would he take a course that was obviously dangerous according to the captain of the Marie Louise? The SS Sirio was not just any ship. Her entire career had been devoted to delivering immigrants from Italy and Spain to South America. She had safely helped over 170,000 immigrants begin new lives in Argentina. Thousands and thousands of people had fond memories of this ship. It is reported, however, that these were not all legal immigrants.
The SS Sirio was known to frequently make unofficial stops along the coast of Spain where illegal immigrants were taken aboard for a steep price. These illegal immigrants made the trans-Atlantic journeys more profitable. Easy profits were enough to sway owners and captains to take extra risks.
In life, it is said that the toughest trees are those that must survive in the wind because they must grow the stoutest roots in order to withstand the harsh elements. As stated, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had enjoyed a smooth career. According to the press, when the tragedy sprung upon him, he froze, he choked, he couldn’t function. He was among the first to abandon ship.
Seeing the captain flee naturally distressed the hundreds of passengers. Chaos broke out on deck. As the stern quickly sank, passengers scrambled for the bow. They fought to get there first. They fought for real estate because prices were rising quickly.
They fought viciously. Fear rode on their backs. Pandemonium reigned. Primitive instincts ruled. Passengers who hours earlier treated each other as new friends now trampled over each other to save themselves. While attempts were made to deploy lifeboats, fights broke out—knife fights. This was truly survival of the fittest. It didn’t occur over millions of years; it played out in a matter of a few desperate minutes. Even fights to the death. Passengers were spared drowning because they were murdered in bloody brawls. The knowledge of economics proved less valuable than the knowledge of brute violence. Awful sounds carried across the waters—shouts of men, screams of women, and cries of children. The pretenses of civilized man were stripped away, revealing raw, savage survival instincts.
While some behaved badly under pressure, others responded differently. The Bishop of Sao Pablo was onboard and blessed drowning passengers as the ship went down. That is how he died. A monk died while kneeling on deck in prayer. The Austrian Consul to Rio de Janeiro leapt overboard in a life belt, but when he came across a mother and child about to give up to the sea, he gave them his life saving device. He then tried to fight the currents and swim for land without it. When a boat pulled him from the water, they said he was exhausted. Had they not saved him, he might well have perished.
A young mother clinging to her baby was told, “Dump the child, you fool! Save yourself!”
“Never,” she cried. “We’ll die together!” As it turned out, they were among the survivors.
There were many survivors because various ships and trawlers in the area steamed to their rescue. One of these was the trawler Joven Miguel. The crew of the Joven Miguel, however, panicked and considered breaking away from the rescue because they feared they would be overloaded and sink. Facing a mutiny, the captain drew his pistol and shouted, “As long as it’s possible to take on another passenger, we will not move.” Fearing the captain more than the sea, they returned to the rescue.
As they took on more swimmers, the captain realized that they were becoming top heavy and might very well capsize. He ordered the survivors below decks, but they were gripped with fear and refused. The captain brought out his pistol again. He waved it around in the air. “Get below now or I’ll shoot you and throw you back into water.” The passengers, having just been rescued, now realized that they were at the mercy of a gun-wielding madman. They hurried below, which steadied the boat and kept her safe from capsizing. The madman saved 300 lives.
Another trawler, the Vicenta Llicano hauled out 200 people. An old man in a dinghy saved twelve more.
More fishermen along the coast sent out boats to rescue passengers. Some of those big-hearted mariners overloaded their boats with people. As a result, their boats overturned, dooming the fishermen along with those they had tried to save.
When all the survivors were brought ashore, a whole new tragic drama began. Parents who’d been separated from their children wept bitterly upon learning that their children were missing. One woman couldn’t take the agony and heartbreak. Her mental faculties fragmented. She literally went insane over her lost child. Many rescued children realized that their parents had died, leaving them as orphans. As they looked out to sea, they saw their parents’ graves. As they looked around on land, they saw their own scary, lonely futures.
In some cases, spirits were broken by adversity. Some of the survivors gave up their dreams of immigrating to Argentina. They resolved to return—by land—to their homeland—for good.
All told, 300 people died in the shipwreck of the SS Sirio. A year later, it was reported that Captain Giuseppe Piccone died of grief.
Author's note: After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy could also have been prevented if the captain of that ship had considered his situation a little more closely and made better decisions. To learn more about this shipwreck read FATAL RETURN.
You can purchase it here: FATAL RETURN
Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page