April 30, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Worst Cruise Ship Disasters in History


Cruises Gone Wrong

Around 24 million people board cruise ships each year to vacation at sea. And while the majority of those cruises provide luxurious experiences without incident, it doesn’t mean that the unthinkable doesn't happen.

From tipping over while docked, to on-board fires and sewage backups, these are 10 of the worst cruise ship disasters in history, often resulting in a disturbing number of fatalities.

Cruise ship wreckages split image

Costa Concordia

The Costa Concordia was a huge cruise ship with 3,229 passengers on board when it ran aground on a reef off the coast of Italy in 2012.

Costa Concordia - 2009Cezary Piwowarski, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Costa Concordia: Casualties

The Costa Concordia actually tipped over after it took on water. There were a reported 32 fatalities, 64 injured and one person missing and never found.

The shipwreck that is the Coasta Concordia that lays in the bay of the small Island of GiglioJohn Ferguson, Flickr

Costa Concordia: Cost

Not only was this accident tragic, it was costly too. It took over a year and a half to bring the ship upright, where it was then taken to port and dismantled. All in all, its recover cost upwards of $1.5 billion.

But that’s not all.

Remains of the tragic sinking of Costa Concordia on September 26, 2013View Apart, Shutterstock

Costa Concordia: Cause

The accident was a result of the ship’s captain purposely sailing too close to shore to impress tourists. The navigation system was disarmed at the time.

And then the captain committed the ultimate maritime sin…

Costa Concordia near shore - 2007Robert Lender, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Costa Concordia: Captain

The captain abandoned ship in the middle of the disaster, leaving more than 300 passengers on board. He was charged and convicted for the fatalities.

Costa Concordia - turned on the side - 2012Rvongher, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

RMS Titanic

Likely the most famous cruise ship disaster of all time, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was said to be “unsinkable.”

Then on its maiden voyage, it struck and iceberg and down it went.

RMS TitanicFrancis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart, Wikimedia Commons

RMS Titanic: Casualties

This massive cruise ship was ill equipped and only had enough life boats for 30% of the passengers. That, along with an isolated position in frigid waters, resulted in over 1,500 fatalities. 

Lifeboat 6 under capacityNational Archives and Records Administration,  Wikimedia Commons

RMS Titanic: Recovery

Unfortunately, the Titanic was never recovered. A recovery of that magnitude would be extremely complex and even more costly than anyone could imagine.

Even still, some extremely valuable artifacts (ie. artwork worth millions) will remain forever on the sea floor.

bow of the RMS TitanicNOAA/Institute for Exploration., Wikimedia Commons

S.S. Eastland

Three short years after the Titanic’s tragedy, in 1915, the S.S. Eastland rolled over on its side while still docked in the Chicago River.

SHIP SS EASTLAND RETRIEVING THE DEAD - 1915Don...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison, Flickr

S.S. Eastland: Casualties

At the time of the accident the cruise ship was filled with Western Electric employees celebrating an event. The tragic rollover resulted in 844 fatalities.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/upnorthmemories/15672382525/in/photostream/Don...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison, Flickr

S.S. Eastland: Significance

The accident is known as the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes. Even though it was docked, people became trapped inside, and some were crushed by furniture.

SHIP SS EASTLAND - WORKING TO RAISE THE SHIP STEAMSHIP DISASTER - 1915SHIP SS EASTLAND - WORKING TO RAISE THE SHIP STEAMSHIP DISASTER - 1915

S.S. Eastland: Cause

There are speculations that the ship was top heavy after adding more lifeboats after the Titanic tragedy. As well, the new owners had replaced hardwood floors with concrete, making the upper texts even heavier.

The captain, along with the owners of the ship were held responsible for the fatalities.

SHIP SS EASTLAND on Lake Michigan BEFORE THE 1915 STEAMSHIP DISASTER - circa 1905.SHIP SS EASTLAND - WORKING TO RAISE THE SHIP STEAMSHIP DISASTER - 1915

Seabourn Spirit

In 2005, the Seaborne Spirit, a luxury cruise ship, was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Two pirated boats neared the ship and open fired with heavy artillery and rocket propelled grenades.

Seabourn Spirit on the sea - 1989Ivan T., CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Seaborn Spirit: Casualties

The cruise ship was carrying 115 passengers at the time, none of whom were injured in the attack. However, the ship’s master-at-arms was hit by shrapnel while he attempted to fight back.

Seabourn Spirit on dock - 2014Piergiuliano Chesi, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Seaborn Spirit: Defense

The master-at-arms used a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) while repelled the pirates by basting a powerful sound wave, and successfully stopped the attack.

The Seabourn Spirit in Pula, Croatia - 2007Orlovic, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Seaborn Spirit: Heroes

The master-at-arms, along with the security officer on the ship, were both awarded for their bravery by Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Majesty The Queen marks milestone as Monarch and re-opens Borders Railway - 2015Scottish Government, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Seaborn Spirit: Recovery

The ship altered its course and docked elsewhere for repairs and then continued on with their scheduled route. It was later renamed, Star Breeze.

Star Breeze Luxury Cruise Ship - 2016Windstar cruises, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

MS Royal Pacific

In 1992, the MS Royal Pacific was struck by a Taiwanese fishing trawler in the Straits of Malacca off southern Malaysia.

Empress Of Australia On Sydney Harbour - 1968John Ward, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

MS Royal Pacific: Casualties

There were 530 passengers on board at the time, of which 30 lost their lives and 70 were severely injured. Most passengers were asleep at the time of the collision.

Empress of Australia. Ballast Point in background 19 February 1972John Ward, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

MS Royal Pacific: Further Problems

At the time of the accident, the ship’s PA system wasn’t functioning, and apparently the crew worried more about their own safety than that of the passengers—resulting in the numerous causalities.

titanic lifeboatsParamount , Titanic (1997)

MS Royal Pacific: Witness Accounts

Survivors recall the grueling experience, tossing small children into the frigid waters, swimming and drifting for hours before even reaching the rubber dinghies, and waiting for lifeboats to arrive.

All while the crew abandoned them on the only available rubber dinghies.

Marshall Everett, Story of the Wreck of the Titanic people getting into lifeboatsUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

MS Royal Pacific: Sinking

The collision caused a six-foot hole beneath the water line of the hill. The ship remained above water for about 2 hours after the collision before sinking around 3 a.m.

193 people were rescued by other ships.

Titanic sinkingHenry Reuterdahl, Wikimedia Commons

Star Princess

In March of 2006, the Star Princess, a massive cruise ship carrying 3,100 passengers was sailing from Fort Lauderdale toward Jamaica when a fire broke out on one of its decks at 3 a.m.

Star Princess ,Cruise ship - 2006Charvosi, Wikimedia Commons

Star Princess: Casualties

The fire, which broke out in one of the guest suites, took the life of one passenger, and injured 13 others.

Star Princess in Victoria - 2017Blake Handley, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Star Princess: Cause

The cause of the fire was a smoke that was left unattended and left burning, which had become hot enough to melt the plastic polycarbonate balcony divides.

The fire caused scorching damage in up to 150 cabins, and smoke damage in at least 100 more.

Star Princess Cruise Ship full with people - 2019Mark H, Flickr

Carnival Triumph

The Carnival Triumph “poop cruise”, as it’s called, occurred in 2013 when a fire broke out in the engine room of the 2,700-passenger cruise ship.

Photo of the Carnival Triumph at Half Moon Cay - 2008Scott Lucht, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Carnival Triumph: Incident

The fire was put out without any harm to passengers or crew, but the damage left the ship without power or propulsion for four days.

Carnival Triumph Cruise ship in southern Caribbean created 01.16.22Dennis MacDonald, Shutterstock

Carnival Triumph: Consequences

This resulted in no air conditioning or working toilets—so they piled the human waste in bags on the decks.

People on Carnival Triumph cruise ship.lynn Dombrowski, Flickr

Carnival Triumph: Blame

After investigation, documents showed that the cruise line was aware that the engine fire was likely but continued to operate the ship anyway.

Disabled Carnival Triumph Cruise Ship - 2013U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Wikimedia Commons

Carnival Triumph: Witness Accounts

Passengers described disgusting scenes of carpets soaked in more than two inches of raw sewage—which lasted for four days as the ship was towed to safety.

Carnival Triumph docked in Progreso Mexico - 2013Whiskey5jda, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity Mercury

Owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the Celebrity Mercury experienced a sudden illness in 2010 that affected 413 passengers.

Celebrity Mercury cruise ship - 2009Moosealope, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity Mercury: Illness

Nearly one out of every four passengers fell ill with the Norovirus—which is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping.

Photo of cruise ship Mercury off Cabo San Lucas - 2005Stan Shebs, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity Mercury: Outbreaks

A Norovirus outbreak is common on cruise ships, but this was one of the worst cases at the time. The incident made headlines as this was not this particular ship’s first (or recent) outbreak.

The following scheduled cruise was delayed so the ship could receive extra sanitizing.

Celebrity Mercury tied up Juneau wharf - Southeast Alaska - 2010Gillfoto, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas

In January of 2014, the Explorer of the cruise also experienced a sudden illness on board, causing them to actually return to port with a staggering number of violently ill passengers.

Explorer of the Seas Cruise Ship in Split port - 2023MariaMaslova, Shutterstock

Explorer of the Seas: Passengers

According to the CDC, it was the largest known number of people sick on a cruise, with 630 passengers and 54 crew extremely ill.

It is estimated that numbers were actually much higher but passengers did not report it in fear of being confined to their cabins.

Explorer of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, docked - 2019Rob Crandall, Shutterstock

S.S. Morro Castle

In 1934, the S.S. Morro Castle, carrying 549 passengers and crew, was returning from Cuba to New York when numerous things started to go wrong.

The Ss Morro Castle Of The Ward Line At Sea, 1901Antonio Jacobsen, Wikimedia Commons

S.S. Morro Castle: The Captain

First, the captain went to his cabin with an upset stomach and ended up passing from a heart attack.

And then only a few hours later tragedy struck again.

SS Morro Castle, 1934Richard, Flickr

S.S. Morro Castle: The Fire

A few hours later, in the middle of the night, a fire started in one of the storage lockers. The crew failed to properly distinguish the blaze, which began to consume the vessel.

SS Morro Castle burning at sea - 1934International News Photos, Inc., Wikimedia Commons

S.S. Morro Castle: Abandon Ship

Just like in other similar cases, the crew abandoned ship without addressing the passengers, leaving them to be awoken by smoke, dazed and confused, which resulted in some of them leaping to their demise from the blazing ship.

SS Morro Castle burning at sea - 1934International News Photos, Inc., Wikimedia Commons

S.S. Morro Castle: Casualties

An estimated 86 passengers and 49 crew lost their lives. Many passengers made it onto lifeboats which were managed by other Good Samaritan passengers, and some were rescued from the water by other boats.

The burned out hulk of the TEL Morro Castle - 1934Unknown Author, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons


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