Flashback in maritime history: SS Utopia collision with HMS Anson and sinking on 17 March 1891 - 562 fatalities

The sinking of SS Utopia (March 17, 1891, the Bay of Gibraltar) by Ms. Georgina Smith.

(www.MaritimeCyprus.com) SS Utopia – Collided with HMS Anson while trying to enter the Bay of Gibraltar on 17 March 1891. She sank in minutes, killing 562 passengers and crew. Two rescuers from HMS Immortalité also drowned; 318 survivors were rescued.

On 25 February 1891 Utopia sailed out from Trieste to New York City with stopovers at Naples, Genoa and Gibraltar. She carried a total of 880 people: 59 crewmembers (most of them stewards), 3 first-class passengers, 815 third-class passengers, and 3 stowaways. There were 85 women and 67 children. According to captain John McKeague's signed statement, Utopia normally carried seven lifeboats that could accommodate up to "460 people in moderate weather" but on the night of the catastrophe one of these boats was missing.

HMS Anson [1897]

Utopia reached Gibraltar in the afternoon of 17 March. Captain John McKeague steered Utopia to her usual anchorage in the inner harbour, but then realized that it was occupied by two battleships, HMS Anson and HMS Rodney. McKeague later recalled that he had been temporarily dazzled by Anson's searchlight. When McKeague's eyesight recovered he "suddenly discovered that the inside anchorage was full of ships". McKeague, according to his statement, thought that Anson was "further off than she really was" and attempted to steer Utopia ahead of Anson's bow. Suddenly, a "strong gale combined with current swept the vessel across the bows of the Anson, and in a moment her hull was pierced and cut by the ram of the ironclad". According to third mate Francis Wadsworth, the impact occurred at 6:36 p.m. Anson's ram tore a hole 5 metres (16 ft) wide below Utopia's waterline, and her holds quickly flooded.

McKeague at first considered beaching the ship, but Utopia almost instantly lost engine power: The engineers had shut down the engines to prevent a steam explosion. McKeague ordered the lowering of the lifeboats and to abandon ship, but Utopia suddenly listed 70 degrees, crushing and sinking the boats. The survivors clung to the starboard of Utopia while hundreds were trapped inside steerage holds. Twenty minutes after the impact Utopiasank to the depth of 17 metres. The masts, protruding above the waves, became the last refuge for the survivors.

Anson, the Swedish corvette Freja, and other nearby ships immediately sent rescue teams to the site, but rough weather and a strong current made it difficult for them to approach the wreck: "rescuers, blinded by the wind and rain, saw nothing but a confused, struggling mass of human beings entangled with wreckage." Two sailors from HMS Immortalité, James Croton and George Hales, drowned attempting to rescue survivors when their boat drifted on the rocks. Search and rescue continued until 11 p.m.  Out of 880 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia, there were 318 survivors: 290 steerage passengers, 2 first class passengers, 3 Italian interpreters, and 23 crewmembers. The remaining 562 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia were dead or missing.

Click here to view ‘Wreck Report for ‘Utopia’ and ‘Anson (HMS)’, 1891′.




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