The Atlantic catastrophe overlooked by history

Comedian and ship enthusiast Susan Morrison has rekindled the Norge story
Comedian and ship enthusiast Susan Morrison has rekindled the Norge story
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At 2.15pm, on July 7, 1904, a small group of Scandinavians arrived at Leith Central Station. They were met by staff from shipping agent George V Turnbull in Commercial Street, who helped the group down to the docks for passage home.

People in Leith knew who they were, but they maintained a respectful distance. Men were seen taking their hats off and bowing their heads.

The Stornoway memorial to the Norge's victims

The Stornoway memorial to the Norge's victims

The little group were amongst the survivors of what was then the most catastrophic civilian disaster in maritime history.

The story of the Danish ship SS Norge is almost forgotten today, but it’s a horribly modern tale of corporate greed, irresponsibility and lessons ignored with disastrous consequences.

The Norge was built in 1881 in Glasgow as a cattle boat, and seems to have had a fairly humdrum life to begin with. Around the turn of the century, however, she was given a makeover to cash in on the massive transatlantic emigrant trade. Everyone and his dog wanted to get to the United States, from Scandinavians rushing to new farm land to Jewish families fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia.

The Scandinavian shipping companies didn’t have big transatlantic liners, so they pressed every little tramp steamer into service.

In June 1904, the Norge cleared Copenhagen with passengers from all over Scandinavia. Entire Jewish families were aboard. There were women travelling to join their husbands in the US and they had their children with them. Katherine Bramstedt, for example, had four; Eline Vik had six.

In total, the Norge was carrying nearly 800 people – her passenger manifest included 240 children under the age of 12 – but, crucially, she had room in her lifeboats for only 200.

And, like many other ships of the time, she had no wireless.

The Norge sailed through the Pentland Firth and headed for the Atlantic. On the evening of June 23, the weather was fine as the passengers put their children to bed. The captain had set the course and retired for the night.

At 7.45am, however, the SS Norge hit Helen’s Reef, just off Rockall. Captain Gundel, convinced there were no rocks in his path, assumed he had hit a submerged wreck and threw his ship into reverse.

The breached hull split and water poured into the big, open cargo decks. The passengers, many still in nightclothes, panicked. There had never been a lifeboat drill on the ship and, in any case, there were only eight. The first lifeboat lowered into the water was heavily laden, but was still caught by a swell and smashed to pieces against the hull. Then the ship began to rear up and lowering the rest of the lifeboats became complete pandemonium.

Dora Putzansky was just nine years old. She was travelling to the US with her mother, Sara, sister Rivke, eight-year-old brother Max and her uncle.

Dora woke up when the water rushed past her bed. She ran to the stairs, but they were choked with struggling passengers, so she ran up the bannisters to the deck to see her mother, sister and brother already in a boat being rowed away.

Her uncle lifted little Dora and flung her into the lifeboat, then he turned to help another woman. Dora never saw him again.

At 8.05am, the SS Norge, with some 638 people still aboard, including 190 children, sank.

The Norge had no way of communicating with shore before she went down. No-one knew what had happened and her remaining lifeboats had no supplies aboard. The lifeboats drifted, out to the Atlantic, up to the Faroe Islands. They had no compasses, so the sailors had no idea where they were.

Take a look at a map. There’s a whole lot of nothing round Rockall.

Dora and her family were in lifeboat 8, with 30 other survivors. The children were in serious difficulties. Rivke secretly drank salt water while Max was declining fast.

On July 3, lifeboat 8 spotted a steamer heading west. It was the Cervona, out of Leith heading for Canada. Captain Stooke, described as a “gentle and gallant man”, immediately headed for the boat and pulled the survivors in.

Little Max Pruzansky was brought up to the deck. He had died only a few hours before they were rescued.

Stooke raced to Stornoway with his survivors. They were, he said, in a “most pitiful state”. Other ships from Leith were alerted and some began to hunt for the remaining lifeboats. A German tanker picked up boat 1 and also headed for Stornoway.

On Lewis, the survivors were taken to the hospital and the poorhouse – the only place in Stornoway with enough beds to treat the 100-plus people they had to deal with. They buried little Max, along with Rivke, who died shortly after they made landfall. In all, eight children of the Norge were buried in Stornoway and a tombstone was paid for to mark their grave. The other 191 children only have Rockall to mark where they lie.

Mr Turnbull of Leith was possibly one of the first people on the mainland to find out about the disaster. He turned into a dynamo, sorting out tickets and funds, bringing survivors from Lewis, arranging lodgings in the Seaman’s Mission and laying on passage on to the US.

The Cunard line offered the survivors cabins on the ship Carpathia. Eight years later, she would rescue the survivors of the Titanic.

There was an inquiry, of course, and they said that the captain – who survived – had been at fault and that more care should have been taken. No-one suggested that lifeboat space for every fare-paying passenger was a good thing, or that the ship should have had a wireless.

In fact, officialdom doesn’t seem to have been all that concerned with the fate of Norge’s passengers, perhaps because they were just poor folk trying to get to a better life. Millions of passengers were still belting across the Atlantic in rusty cattle boats, and no-one wanted to stifle the lucrative trade by insisting on fripperies like lifeboats and communications.

Only when they started to fish dead millionaires out of the water in 1912 did they change the laws.

Until the sinking of the Titanic, the Norge was the biggest civilian disaster in the Atlantic. Now she is virtually forgotten, overshadowed.

Not long after the disaster a telegram arrived at the offices of the Norge’s owners, expressing deepest sympathy for the loss of the steamer, but not the loss of life.

It was signed J Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line. In a few years, he would commission his three great liners, Britannic, Olympic and Titanic. On April 15, 1912, he would gain infamy when he jumped into a lifeboat before women and children on the Titanic’s only voyage.

In 1904, however, he doesn’t seem to have noticed the lifeboat situation at all.

LIGHTS PUT OUT ON SIGNAL PLAN

THE passengers rescued by the Cervona spoke a dozen languages, but among the survivors of lifeboat 8, one of them not only spoke English but with a Scots accent.

Isidor Bass was a shoemaker who had been on his way to start new life in the United States. He had been travelling with his 22-year-old brother-in-law, Josef Estermann. Josef and Isidor had both lived in Dundee.

Isidor was taken to Stornoway after the impact and made his way through Edinburgh to Liverpool and on to the US. Josef didn’t make it.

Isidor’s testimony was among the first obtained by Edmund Berry, the Danish Consul General in Leith, who sent it to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses in Edinburgh. Engineer DA Stevenson was told that a lighthouse on Rockall was impractical and expensive, running to something like £180,000.

The commissioners suggested it should be an international project with other affected maritime nations such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but the whole plan was quietly shelved.