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The forgotten tragedy of the SS Norge

Several hundreds Norwegians died when the immigrant ship the SS Norge sank off the west coast of Scotland 100 years ago. The forgotten victims of one of the world's worst maritime disasters lie in a communal grave in a quiet corner of a Stornoway churchyard.

23/08/2004 ::

More than 600 people died when the Danish immigration ship the SS Norge sank in just 20 minutes. Until the sinking of the Titanic eight years later, the SS Norge disaster was the worst to happen on the hectic north Atlantic shipping run.

Most of the bodies were never recovered from the liner. But 10 of the victims, most of them children, were returned to land and buried together in Sandwick cemetery. Now their descendants have come to Lewis from Scandinavia, Russia and the US to pay their respects to those who died and salute the people of Stornoway for the kindness they showed the survivors, writes The Press and Journal.

If the lessons of the SS Norge had been learned, far fewer of the passengers on board the Titanic would have died. But until the publication of the book, Titanic's Predecessor, by Norwegian author Per Kristian Sebak, earlier this year and a diving mission to locate the wreck in 2003, it had been largely forgotten.

Mr Sebak, one of the organisers of the 100th anniversary events, was shocked that a disaster which claimed the lives of hundreds of fellow Norwegians had been ignored until now.

"I wrote a book a few years ago about the Norwegians who were on the Titanic and after that people contacted me, asking why their relatives, who had been on the SS Norge, weren't mentioned.

"That was the first time I had ever heard of it.

"It was the talk of the Norwegian newspapers for a few days and then . . . nothing.

"This was the biggest shipwreck of its time but it has been completely overshadowed by the Titanic."

Around 300 of the 790 passengers on the SS Norge were Norwegians, who had boarded at Oslo and Stavanger, seeking a new life in New York.

They were part of a massive exodus to the new world around the turn of the 20th century - only Ireland, then in the grip of potato famine, sent more immigrants to America.

It is estimated that around 800,000 Norwegians, tired of overcrowding and poverty, set sail for America around that time - this from a country whose population numbered just 2million in 1910.

Navigating the shallow waters past Rockall on June 28, 1904, the SS Norge hit an obstacle - most probably a reef, although the captain maintained it was the remains of an earlier wreck.

She went down in minutes, taking 630 people with her.

The 160 survivors scrambled for the few available spaces in the lifeboats and were to drift helplessly on the ocean for several days before being rescued.

One lifeboat for 48 people had 72 crammed on board with no food or fresh water.

Despite carrying nearly 800 passengers, the SS Norge had space in lifeboats for just 250.

That same policy sealed the fate of hundreds more people on the Titanic in 1912.

It was five days after the SS Norge sank when the first survivors were brought ashore that news of the tragedy reached the wider world. They had been picked up by a trawler the day after the sinking but instead of taking them to the nearest port she had sailed to Grimsby.

Two lifeboats were also spotted by passing boats and their passengers taken to Stornoway. A trawler took those on a fourth lifeboat to Aberdeen, where they arrived on July 5.

The last lifeboat, captained by the Norge's second officer, set sail for what he thought was Scotland but instead set a course due north and landed on the Faroe Islands on July 6.

In one of the lifeboats bound for Stornoway was a Russian woman and her four children - one of whom didn't survive. The mother hid her dead son under her skirts in case the other passengers forced her to bury him at sea. The boy's sister also died soon after they disembarked at Stornoway and the pair are buried together in the grave in Sandwick cemetery.

Their brother, who survived the disaster, is among those who have travelled to Stornoway for the 100th anniversary commemorations today.

Other pilgrims include Frode Hauge, who is travelling from Norway with his mother Edit Hauge and aunt Klara Meland.

His grandfather, Lasse Oppheim, was 17 and on his way to Canada when the Norge sank.

Lasse escaped to a lifeboat and stayed alive by drinking salt water before being picked up by an Aberdeen fishing boat. He travelled on to Canada before returning to his homeland 17 years later and marrying Mr Hauge's grandmother.

But he never forgot those who died - in particular a boy who refused a place on one of the lifeboats because his sister was too afraid to jump.

"My mother and aunt have many thoughts about the 100th anniversary of the sinking," Mr Hauge told the Press and Journal. "They are thankful that their father miraculously survived by help from the Scottish fishermen and, at the same time, my mother and aunt understand so well the great loss and sorrow for so many that lost their family members."

A group of 37 descendants will take part in a memorial service at the Butt of Lewis on the site of the former Lloyds signal station, which received the SS Norge's last signal.

They will also attend the unveiling of a memorial plaque, a gift from the shipping company DFDS, which owned the SS Norge, and visit the site of the hospital and poorhouse where many of the survivors stayed until they were able to sail on to America. A local minister and a Jewish rabbi will also conduct a service by the graveside.

Around 120 survivors were stranded in Stornoway 100 years ago. Some locals put them up in their own homes and the community rallied round to provide them with warm, dry clothing.

Years later, the people of Stornoway erected a headstone on the grave of the 10 victims.

Jessie Murray, of Stornoway Historical Society, said the sinking would have had a massive impact on the town at the time, but it was so overshadowed by the Titanic disaster that many modern day residents had no idea it had even taken place.

"One of the children who came ashore on the boats came back to Stornoway as an elderly man in 1975 to see where his brother was buried," she said.

"With the help of some local people he found the grave and that's when local people really started taking an interest in the story again.

"The people of Stornoway showed these poor people a lot of kindness. Everyone is very much looking forward to welcoming their relatives."

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Dramatic moments as the SS Norge sinks.Photo: Illustration coutesy of Per Kristian Sebak

The SS Norge wa an immigrant ship taking Scandinavians to the USAPhoto courtesy of Per Kristian Sebak