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Nicholas Kinsey on “Shipwrecked Lives”

Colourized photo of RMS Empress of Ireland

“It was a dark and stormy night “in Ottawa on October 16 and we were a little concerned that we would not get a good turnout to hear author and filmmaker Nicholas Kinsey, who had driven all the way from his home in Quebec City to be our Distinguished Speaker and to launch his latest novel, “Shipwrecked Lives.” Not to worry, our sturdy Nordic members were not deterred by the weather and we had an excellent turnout. In fact, the damp weather seemed to create just the right atmosphere for Nicholas Kinsey’s story, which began with his vivid description of the key ingredient in this maritime disaster, fog.

The Empress of Ireland ocean liner, which was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) conglomerate, was en route to Liverpool from Quebec City when it sank in the early morning hours of May 29, 1914. Of the 1,477 people on board, 1,012 lost their lives. Clear conditions had turned to thick fog when the ship collided with the Norwegian steam cargo ship Storstad, which was carrying coal from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Montreal. The Storstad hit the Empress of Ireland on its starboard side, leaving a large hole which flooded so quickly that the ship sank within about 14 minutes. Some passengers and crew were able to escape in lifeboats, but those who were asleep in their cabins had almost no chance as they rapidly flooded.

A Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy started in less than three weeks, on June 16, 1914, and lasted only 11 days. It was clear that one of the ships had changed course in the fog, resulting in the collision. The question was which one? A total of 61 witnesses were called, and two very different versions of events emerged, one putting the blame for the accident on Captain Kendall of the Empress of Ireland and the other on Chief Officer Toftenes of the Storstad. The Inquiry concluded that Toftenes was at fault.

Nicholas Kinsey has combed through the 200 pages of documents archived from the Inquiry and is far from convinced that Toftenes was responsible for the collision. His novel, “Shipwrecked Lives,” is based on his research, including the touching stories of some of the survivors. The unsavoury side of human nature also surfaces as people looked to gain financially from the tragedy. “Shipwrecked Lives” received a very favourable review in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. (Please see: The book can be purchased online from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Following his presentation, Nicholas Kinsey was presented with the “coveted” CNS mug. Thank you to Astrid Ahlgren for the photo above, and for the two below where members are seen enjoying the talk.

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