Unlike the situation aboard, say, a lost plane, the death rate on a sinking ferry varies considerably from disaster to disaster.

On some occasions there are no deaths at all. That has never prevented the press from covering it anyway, almost with an air of disappointment, as in one article from the October 22, 1897 edition of the Boston Globe:

The drop of the Winnismet ferry sank while a large number of people were upon it, causing almost a panic for a few moments. No one was injured.

The article continues to restate these observations for a good 500 words.

I have been hiding in old articles about ferries lately because the capsized Korean ferry has been consuming public attention. The articles have the benefit of keeping me away from the videos, for example, of teenagers inside their cabins wondering just what is going to happen to them. They also keep me from feeling the frustration I usually do at the way facts are always shifting when you report the early days of a disaster, about how many are dead and who is responsible and what anyone is doing to fix this so that it never, ever, ever happens again.

I like avoiding that last subject particularly because it probably will happen again. Pretty much everyone, including ferry companies themselves, agree that ferries are excessively dangerous. People crammed together on cheap boats, meant to provide cheap transportation: It's a recipe for this sort of disaster.

Now it is fashionable to say that this is mostly true of the developing world, but there were major ferry accidents in the United States as late as 1976. The sinking of the MV George Prince happened right on the Mississippi River near Luling, Louisiana. Seventy-eight people would die in the disaster, some of them still huddled in their cars, perhaps dozing off on the way to work. Others, rescuers found, fled into the ship for some reason. The Chicago Tribune quoted a frustrated local sheriff:

They're finding them in the engine room. Those poor guys — dammit to hell — they were so panic-stricken they probably didn't know where they were going. Maybe they had gone in there to warm up.

In ferry disaster stories, everywhere, you find officials striking this anguished tone. If there had been a better warning, that tone suggests, if people had been more informed on what to do when a ferry crashed into another boat or got caught in a hurricane or even, as so often seems to have happened, lurched when its passengers all rushed to one side of the ship, sometimes to avoid a crashing wave.

But then often enough many of the people on these boats are schoolchildren. Schoolchildren, you see, are often in need of cheap modes of travel for school trips; boats have often provided that. Some 300 of them were aboard a Japanese ferry called the Shiun Maru when it collided with a car ferry in a thick fog in May 1955, for example. The boat sank in five minutes. It took about 100 students with it. A writer for the Chicago Daily Tribune reported of these children that,

some of them had rushed back to the cabins after their belongings and gifts. Other children died, too, their teacher said, because life jackets were on a shelf too high for them to reach.

If that seems like a gruesome observation to you, keep in mind that another common element of these stories is telling of dead mothers pulled from the water still clutching their dead children.

The particular interest these stories have in the fate of children will not surprise anyone much. The first thing you learn, as a kid, reading shipwreck stories, is that the women and children are supposed to go first. But what you learn reading these stories as an adult is that when a disaster is happening, the concept of honor, and even just the rote command, can fly straight out the window.

Sometimes human error actually is to blame. On the Japanese Kitagawa Maru, which sank in 1957, the captain was reported to have left his post to a 16-year-old. The boat hit a rock, and at least 113 people died. A skipper of a Thai ferry was charged with having piloted his ferry drunk when it capsized in the Gulf of Thailand in 1976 and killed 27 people.

But just as often the only kind of thing in the story that gives a sense of comfort and order are the people who, in spite of all the bad conditions, stay behind to recover the bodies and give someone some closure. In 1930, there were seven prisoners involved in the recovery of a family who drowned on a ferry crossing the Connecticut River. While obviously they were there to help under some duress, they did a lot of the diving, it seems, and:

A keeper came from the House of Correction with the prisoners, but at the riverside he allowed them full liberty and they became the hardest workers of the 100 or more men who had gathered from Westmoreland and vicinity.

"They have given me their word that they will not try to escape," the keeper said late tonight, "and they will be ready when I go back to the prison."

And evidently, as no escape reports follow this account, they were.

[Image by Jim Cooke.]