The Unforgettable Maritime Accident of SS Sultana

American history books chart it down as one of the hugest maritime accidents to have occurred in their country. But fact remains that while the fate of the SS Sultana ship is bemoaned today, at the time of the accident, the tragedy was obscured by several other equally disastrous calamities that prevented it from gaining its due precedence.

SS Sultana

Built at the metropolis of Cincinnati in the state of Ohio in the year 1863, the SS Sultana was a steamer vessel. The vessel was constructed to be principally used as a cargo vessel to transport cotton between two very important metropolises of New Orleans and St. Louis. However at times of naval need, the vessel was also used to transport naval soldiers to the necessitated locations.

SS Sultana
Image for representation purpose only

In terms of its technical details, the vessel had a gross tonnage of over 1,700 tonnes with a capacitance to accommodate about 85 crewing personnel. In terms of voyager carrying capacitance, the vessel was built to accommodate slightly fewer than 400 voyagers.

SS Sultana Accident

In the year 1865, following the culmination of the civil war, steamer vessels of the ilk of the Sultana were utilised to ferry the captured Northern army men to dock facilities in the Northern provinces. But rampant corruption by the officials manning these vessels caused various unwanted problems, most important of which was congesting. Since the norm was to provide the captured army men with a certain amount as recompense, greediness amongst the vessels’ operators and the commanding officials led to over-populating the vessels with more than the prescribed number of people.

Accident of SS Sultana

The condition of the SS Sultana was no different as nearly 3,000 Northern army men were boarded in the vessel, a principle violation from the originally intended numbers of around 400 people. This aspect of greed was coupled with severe disregard for voyagers’ safety and security causing the fatal detonation in the vessel and led to the massive destruction of life of people, huddled in the Sultana in the early morning hours on the 27th April 1865, awaiting their much-deserved freedom.

Out of the four boilers equipped to provide the necessary steam propulsion to the vessel, one boiler had developed an outflow which was not adequately mended by the vessel’s skipper, J. Mason. In order for the vessel to be operated effectively on the river, the engineering system required that the water levels be always high so as to avoid any unnecessary complications. However, since one boiler had developed an outflow and since each of the quartet of boilers were inter-linked, the water level constantly reduced from the prescribed levels in the boiler systems. The reduction of the water level was further aggravated by the constant heeling of the vessel to suit the threading course of the River Mississippi, which created flickers and intensely unwanted heat which finally resulted in the vessel’s blow-up near the province of Memphis in the state of Tennessee.

Repercussions of the Accident: Aftermaths, Then and Now

Although tallies about the exact number of dead people vary, it’s estimated that over seventeen-hundred people lost their lives in the ill-fated accident, which could have very been prevented. Though this number is a stark evaluation of the gross ineptitude that occurred over 150-years ago, at the time of the accident, the nation was already in the midst of a completely different catastrophe to be burdened with another.

The death of the nation’s leader without whose guidance the American Civil War would have torn apart a nation that had only a century ago gained hard-fought colonial freedom lessened the newsworthiness of the SS Sultana accident.

Survivors who were rescued by rescue ships, the first of which was the Bostonia, were taken to medical facilities in the province of Memphis. Ironically though Memphis was initially a pro-southern region, the people overwhelmingly came to the aid of the Sultana survivors in whatever way they could.

This aspect of people not caring for previously set regional boundaries was one of the most promising highlights in the aftermath of the SS Sultana accident, exemplifying unity at its richest.

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