'Empress of Ireland' dive crew reunites

John Christensen
Some of the divers who explored the wreckage over a period of 10 years gathered at Showboat Motel recently (from left) Seated: Veronica Gilligan and Bud Sims. Standing: Fred Zeller, Dick Battaglia, Reese Davis, Ron Stopani, John Socha, and Ed Minardo.

In the St. Lawrence River during the foggy, early morning hours of May 29, 1914, the Empress of Ireland, a 550-foot-long ocean liner owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co., sank in less than 15 minutes after being rammed amidships by the Storstad, a Norwegian coal carrier. The fog and confusion in navigating the channel brought the reinforced steel bow of the Storstad straight at the side of the Empress, and it slipped between her reinforcing ribs like a knife.

Despite being just a few miles off shore, 1,012 of the 1,477 people on board died the icy waters, including 134 children among 840 passengers, more than had died in the sinking of the Titanic just two years before. It remains the greatest single maritime disaster in Canadian history during peacetime.

John Socha, owner of the Showboat Motel, has brought some of that history to Seneca Lake. John was part of a dive team that explored the wreck over hundreds of dives during the 1960s and 70s, bringing back numerous artifacts, with the blessing of Canadian Pacific, while being careful not to disturb the remains of those who rest there forever. For the centennial of the Empress’ sinking, Socha decided to reassemble as many of his old dive pals as could make it, including Fred “Captain Frog” Zeller, the leader of the expeditions.

“This was a tough get together – really our first and last since we all stopped diving together,” says Socha. But the stories and good spirits flowed over the days the friends spent at The Showboat.

After Fred and Veronica Gilligan had their two-month-long excursions in 1968 and 69, the team began to plan their Julys around The Empress, with schedules of 10 days to two weeks, sometimes making multiple dives per day down to the 165 foot depth where the Empress sleeps.

After the original salvage operations retrieved the mail and silver ingots the Empress was carrying, the wreck was lost and forgotten for half a century until a friend of Fred’s happened to guess what it was on his mapping expedition. “The monument is even in the wrong place on the shore!” says Socha. “We were so lucky to have been the first. We were five miles offshore and we worked feverishly that first day to line up those roads that we knew about and start dragging for the wreck. (There was ) no such thing as GPS. We would then attach a buoy and return for our first dive the next day. It was still early in the equipment stage and ours was at best rudimentary, including our dive boats that were our usual 16 to 18-foot runabouts, no big expensive surface support boats.”

Dive conditions were challenging with a water temperature that was always 37 degrees, even in July. “The current was normally wicked and usually you could not out-swim it so you always had hold of some sort of line,” says Socha. “Tide was either racing in or out. Some lucky days we were at mid tide, but the river current was always there. Dives were usually one a day for a 25 minute maximum duration and a quick decompress. Fred was usually the only one penetrating the wreck deeply.”

“Our excursions ended about 1978 as the Canadian Government and the locals were deciding what to do about the ownership of the wreck, but (Veronica) Gilligan got a guided tour of the wreck by the Canadian group as a present for her 65th birthday, just like George Bush skydiving!” says Socha.

“Our experiences and stories are many, but mostly we had fun and realized how privileged we were to have had the first permission and opportunity.”

There was Charlie the sea lion who lived on a nearby wreck and often followed the divers. A herd of nine whales met them one day, dolphins who visited, and, “One perfect day, when everything was smooth and surreal, and we could see the outline of the ship which was rippled on the surface from the upwelling of the tidal waters that were hitting it. That upwelling was situated exactly as only we knew she was lying on the bottom,” recalls Socha. “We never saw that before or after. Just a perfect set of conditions.”

Their team was the first to see the bridge and view the warning light rotary switches,“and of course, retrieve a couple,” says Socha as he displays his that has been wired to light on the Empress’ deck lights on a wall of the Showboat. “Sadly, we never took the time to see which one was activated for history’s sake.”

Every year when the team left, they visited the local cemetery and church by the dry dock in St. Luce, “And our eyes were wet from sadness and a sense of history,” says Socha.