Sultana Boat Tragedy at Mississippi

This is a true story that took place at River Mississippi on the 27th of April in the year 1865 when standard operating procedure was still not a big thing. The paddle steamer by the name “Sultana” was to transport the captured Union soldiers after the 4-year civil war that had torn the nations from North and South of America. This steamer was to transport the weakened and exhausted Union soldiers captured in Confederacy prisons and take them to a reunion with their family post the war. The steamer set sail on the 24th of April 1865 from the port of Vicksburg located on river Mississippi in Tennessee, USA.

This steamer was built to basically transport cotton and was a veteran liner having plied this river many a times in the past as a troop carrier at times of war. In fact the liner had embarked from New Orleans only three days back with the regular cabin crew cargo of sugar and livestock. At the time of boarding at Vicksburg the crew did not have the in house security to limit the passenger count as a result of which the liner left the port with 2,300 passengers with about six times its acceptable capacity. As a result of this over boarding right from the start the spring flood waters were at their peak and Sultana’s movement was inhibited.

When the liner docked at Memphis couple of days later for an issue, boiler leaks were spotted and repairs undertaken. After having satisfactory repairs the steamer set sail once again. This happened shortly soon after resumption of journey when the boiler gave way under severe strains of excess passengers on-board beyond its acceptable capacity. The result of this was a huge explosion that lit up the night sky leading to the vessel being blown apart and blazing in fire. Due to fatigue and no knowledge of swimming the returning prisoners were forced to decide between the blazing fire and ice-cold river to die. As this incident overlapped with the end of civil war very little attention was given to this incident by the press or was any analysis done to understand the real cause of this accident.

What standard operating procedures manual could have indicated?

The cause of this indicated can be attributed to two major factors here:
• The absence of a mechanism not to allow on board more passengers than they actually can accommodate as permissible numbers &
• The second is the absence of the life jackets or boats to have been mandatorily available in the steamer when it set sail.

Both these could have been taken care of if the standard operating procedure had been in place with the appropriate personnel to check for its adherence if the standard operating procedures manual had the numbers indicating the actual capacity to have been there for that steamer. If the above emphasis had been laid then this accident could have been averted and saved about 1500 to 1900 lives in total.