Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shipwreck of Tears: The SS Norge

By Roger Weston

In 1903, a 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie was on the most exciting trip of her life—a trans-Atlantic crossing on the passenger liner SS Norge. Along with her six children, she was sailing to America to join her husband and begin a new life in a country with more opportunity than anyplace else in the world. A fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld was also on board the ship. He was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children.

On June 22, 1903, the SS Norge embarked from Copenhagen, Denmark under the experienced hand of Captain Gundel, who had sailed the ship since 1901. Onboard were 405 passengers from Denmark and a crew of 67. In Oslo, Norway, 232 passengers, including 70 children, came onboard for the journey across the Atlantic. All told, hundreds of people who were eager to start a new life in America were now passengers and closer by the hour to seeing their dreams come true.

There was no mystery as to why these people were going to the United States. It was a land of dreams, a place where people could start with nothing and achieve success. It didn’t matter if they were born poor. Unlike Europe, anybody could improve their situation in America. It didn’t matter what their status was. With hard work and ingenuity, anything was possible. To sail to America was like sailing on the clouds.
By the third day at sea, the excitement began to sink in.  The sky was blue. The sea glittered. Passengers began to mingle and tell their hard-luck stories of entrenched poverty in Europe and share their dreams for the future. Some of them danced on deck.

That night, some had a hard time sleeping due to their excitement, others because of the rough waters that had kicked up after dark. The boat was tossed around like a cork. Those who slept were jolted awake early in the morning, but not by the waves. A horrific crash shook the boat. The terrifying noise unleashed fear and dread in the hearts of the men, women, and children. Rudely awakened, they soon heard water sloshing around.  Panic ensued as hundreds of half-dressed people ran for the upper decks. The decks were crowded. The mass of panic-stricken people cried out in different languages when they realized they were on a sinking ship and the sea around them was actually their graveyard—and was presently whispering their name. 

A woman grabbed a crewman by the arm. “What’s happening?” she begged.

“Nothing to worry about, ma'am. Calm down. We hit a rock. The captain knows what to do.”

As people scrambled for life belts, the captain backed the ship off the rocks. No sooner had the ship regained headway when it was discovered that water was flooding the hold. This was called out in Scandinavian. A realization of imminent death stuck the hearts of the people. Fear swept over them and filled their souls with misery.

The sobs of old ladies filled the air. Screams added to the sense of panic. Women and children clung to each other. 240 Russians got down on their knees and prayed. Men wrung their hands. Little children cried.

The ship sunk lower into the sea as luggage and debris began floating on the decks.

Several quick-thinking men worked to free the life boats.

Women and children first!" The captain’s voice was barely heard over all the noise on deck, but some heard him. “Women and children first!"

Plenty of men ignored the captain if they heard him at all. They forced their way into the boats, leaving women and children behind on deck. One man who secured a spot was Fourth Mate Ankersen.

People continued to fight their way through the throng to get up front and secure a place. Many piled into overloaded boats. As a result, when the leaders tried to lower the boats into the water, the rusty equipment failed, dumping them all into the sea, rendering the boats worthless, dooming many souls.

Several of the life boats were properly deployed without exceeding their maximum loads. They now floated through a sea of drowning people—men, women, children, the suffering, and those unprepared to die, who certainly hadn’t expected to die. People treaded water and begged for salvation. They realized that death had stolen upon them like a thief in the night. Their final minutes were ticking off as their light dimmed in the early morning. They called out for help, but nobody who could help heard them. There weren’t nearly enough life boats, and the ones in sight were filled to capacity. Oars dipped in the water as the fortunate ones on board rowed to distance themselves and save themselves. One overloaded lifeboat sank beneath the waves.

In other boats, people watched in horror as the SS Norge was also going down. The front end went under first. Then the stern sank, carrying hundreds of people into the frigid depths. The captain was one of those who went down with the ship. However, by some miracle, the sea spit him back up and he was picked up by one of the lifeboats.

People in the boats sobbed. They wept bitterly because of what they had just seen—and because members of their own families had been on the ship. Nobody could hear their cries, though, due to the fierce wind. The wind was especially fierce in the moments when the lifeboats crested on the huge, black ocean swells. Yesterday they had dreamed of America. Now they dreamed of land—any land. The only opportunity that mattered now was the opportunity to survive another day.

Survival—it had all come down to that. Just to survive and to live another day was a precious gift beyond imagination. Poverty? Hardship? These were minor concerns. Lack of opportunity? Nonsense. There was opportunity where a body could find land—opportunity to wrap oneself in a dry blanket, to drink fresh water, to nibble on a slice of bread. That was opportunity of the most sublime type. Water, food  and solid ground—nothing else mattered. All of the things they’d worried about now seemed totally irrelevant. They could not imagine that they’d worried over such petty cares as they had. It was all rubbish now—totally irrelevant.

On one of the lifeboats, Fourth Mate Ankersen took off his boots. “Use them to bail water,” he said. He then jumped into the water. The others on the boat had just watched a man sacrifice himself so that they would have a better chance of survival. Or was it because of the guilt he felt?

On another boat, a brave young woman took the most dangerous spot as the craft rose and fell in the massive waves. She was constantly doused with freezing water. Thinly dressed, she ignored the cold. To her, suffering was irrelevant. Danger was nothing. She bailed frantically and all the while shouted words of encouragement to the others.

As the days passed, ships were spotted in the far distance. When sightings took place, an amazing thing happened on the boats. People that were previously demoralized and weak suddenly, as if by magic, regained their strength. Hope fueled them on the moment. Depression vanished into thin air to be replaced with excitement and adrenaline. But the people on the ships could not see the tiny life boats. The ships soon disappeared over the horizon.  Now the same hungry, thirsty people became even more despondent than before. 

The half-dressed survivors suffered through cold, wet nights. Fresh water was scarce, and thirst was a cruel tormentor. Some made the mistake of drinking salt water. Others cut themselves just to wet their miserable tongues and throats with their own blood. As the days passed, several of the children passed away. One who died was a Russian boy. His mother hid his body under her dress. She did this because she feared that the others would bury the child at sea. And this she would not allow. She steeled herself and held her boy close, protecting him from the pitiless ocean, determined to take him home. 

The various boats drifted apart. Then, over the next week, five of them were rescued by different ships on different days over the next week. One was picked up after twenty-four hours. Others drifted for five, six, and seven days. Three fully-loaded life boats were never seen again. They drifted into eternity.

What became of the 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie, who along with her six children was traveling to America to join her husband in Minnesota?

The husband who anxiously awaited his young family never saw them again. Instead of a joyous reunion, of taking his wife in his arms and laughing with his children, he received the crushing news that his family had perished with the SS Norge two miles off the coast of Scotland.  They were gone. They were only memories now. The cold Minnesota winters would be even colder for this man. 

What about the fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld who was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children? Their dreams all ended at sea. The entire family died.  The last tears of the children fell into the salty sea.

Many families either lost several members or were wiped out completely. As of 1903, the SS Norge was the worst civilian maritime disaster in the history of the Atlantic Ocean. This was eight years before the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

Author's Note:  The investigation following the accident revealed that several factors led to the SS Norge disaster, including captain error. For instance, the captain  chose to sail almost straight into the uninhabited remote granite islet in the North Atlantic Ocean called Rockall. He did this to show it to the passengers, reminding one of the more recent Costa Concordia disaster. 

The captain overlooked the effects of the full moon on the current and tide. As a result, the ship was north of where the captain thought. The effect of the full moon was ignored and this proved to be a fatal oversight.  Not only that. but the SS Norge did not have enough lifeboats, had not drilled in emergency procedures, and its life belts were mostly rotted. All these factors resulted in the tragic loss of life on the SS Norge.

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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 hereFATAL 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 

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