This Day in History: China's Deadliest Maritime Disaster

By Ned Kelly, December 3, 2021

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On December 4, 1948, the SS Kiangya sank, the world’s worst maritime disaster unrelated to military action at the time.

The passenger steamship blew up in the mouth of the Huangpu River, 80 kilometers north of Shanghai. The suspected cause of the explosion was the ship hitting a mine left behind by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, destroying her stern.

The Kiangya had a displacement of 2,100 tons and was packed with refugees from the Chinese Civil War. The exact death toll is unknown; her official capacity was 1,186, but 2,150 passengers were listed on the manifest (and she was almost certainly carrying many stowaways).

Rescuers were also unaware of the catastrophe for some hours, and it is estimated that between 2,750 and 3,920 perished, over twice as many as when the Titanic went down in 1912.

It wasn’t until some four decades later that the world was to witness worse. On December 20, 1987 the passenger ferry Doña Paz collided with oil tanker Vector off the Philippines, the resulting fire and sinking leaving an estimated 4,341 dead.


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