The sinking of SS Kiangya, which is also spelled “Jiangya,” is one of the worst ship disasters to occur during the 20th century. It occurred on December 4, 1948. Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is believed that the SS Kiangya shipwreck (or Jiangya shipwreck, as some sources have it) claimed the lives of between 2,750 and 3,920 people, making it the second deadliest peacetime ship disaster, regardless of the precise number of deaths. (The deadliest peacetime ship disaster is the sinking of MV Doña Paz.) Information about the sinking of Kiangya is not nearly as readily available as it for other major ship disasters, like the Titanic wreck, so below we’ve compiled some basic facts about the Kiangya disaster (or Jiangya disaster).
[NOTE: Why is there this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship, on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]
Although the passenger capacity of the ship was officially only 1,186, the ship registered 2,150 passengers on its manifest. However, it is believed that many more passengers were on board as stowaways. Approximately 400 of these unregistered passengers were disbanded Kuomintang soldiers, although the ship also picked up many additional passengers who didn’t have tickets. According to some sources, 2607 passengers had tickets, so evidently the ship’s official manifest didn’t even accurately record the number of people who paid for tickets, and there were also 191 crew members on board. This is why the casualty estimates very so widely: it is simply not clear how many people were on the ship. As a corollary, it is also not known how many people survived, although it is believed that between 700 and 1,000 people managed to be rescued. (As a side note, it is not unusual that these figures are unknown. The casualty and survivor figures of many old shipwrecks are similarly ambiguous because ships’ manifests, by definition, do not record unregistered passengers.)
Kiangya was filled with refugees from the Chinese Civil War, a conflict between Kuomintang (translated as “Chinese Nationalist Party”) and the Communist Party of China, the latter of which currently controls the People’s Republic of China (i.e., mainland China). Many of the people on board were refugees of the Kuomintang faction, who were fleeing the Communist army when the stern of Kiangya blew up, most likely after hitting a mine that was planted during World War II (potentially by the Japanese Imperial Army). Following the explosion, the ship quickly sank. It was in the mouth of the Huangpu River, about 50 miles from Shanghai. It was several hours after the explosion when rescuers finally learned of the wreck, a delay that likely caused more deaths.
The sinking of Kiangya is not as well known as some other shipwrecks, but its relative obscurity of course does not detract from its tragic nature. Thousands of lives were lost when Kiangya exploded, and while this is painful to consider, it is worth remembering all the same.