Today marks the 97th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which took place December 6, 1917. It is a day which is seared into our collective provincial memory, despite the length of time which has passed. This is partly due to the annual search for- and delivery of- the Boston Christmas tree as a thank-you to that city for the invaluable aid it provided at that time. It is also because, if you walk around Halifax, there are still reminders around the city, and for many of us as well, there are family stories passed down from that time.
For those who don't have that background, the explosion occurred following a collision of two ships in Halifax Harbour. Our harbour is one of the deepest ice-free ones in the world, so at the time, with WWI raging, it was very busy. A lot of the Canadian troops headed overseas left from Halifax, and convoys of merchant ships from all over North America would gather here to take supplies to the Forces. The ships which collided were two of these: the Imo was a Norwegian vessel headed to New York to pick up supplies, and the Mont- Blanc was a French munition ship, loaded with tonnes of explosives- benzole, picric acid, TNT, and gun cotton. Normally ships with dangerous cargoes like this weren't allowed in the Harbour, but rules had been relaxed due to German U-boat attacks. Early on the morning of the 6th, the Imo was leaving the Harbour and the Mont-Blanc was entering it. There is some dispute as to why the collision occurred, though it does appear that the Imo was in the wrong lane. However it happened, the shock of the collision caused the barrels of benzole, which were stored on the deck, to tip over and spill, pouring down into the hold where the rest of the explosives were. And then a spark from the collision set it alight. When they realized that the vessel was going to blow, the Mont-Blanc's crew abandoned ship, rowing furiously away. They tried to shout warnings to other boats, but even when they could be heard over all the noise, none of them spoke English, so were not understood. The Mont-Blanc, adrift, ran aground near Pier 6.
Meanwhile, it was just a regular day in downtown Halifax. The collision occurred at about 8:45 am when a lot of people were on their way to work and, sadly, to school. Since no one knew that the Mont-Blanc was essentially a floating bomb, many gathered on the waterfront to watch the burning vessels. At 9:04, the Mont-Blanc exploded.
The ship was completely blown apart, the remains of its hull flying 1000 ft into the air. Burning hot shards of metal rained down on Halifax and Dartmouth... part of the Mont-Blanc's anchor, weighing half a ton, was later found in Armdale, some two miles away, while the barrel of her 90 mm gun ended up 3.5 miles away in Dartmouth. According to experts, the blast was the equivalent of 2989 tons of TNT exploding. Until Hiroshima in 1945, it was the largest man-made explosion in the world. Ever. Objects were knocked off shelves 100 miles away in Truro. And the blast was heard and felt in Cape Breton, some 360 km away, as well as on Prince Edward Island.
Every building in a 2 km radius was completely destroyed, and over 1,500 people were immediately killed in the blast. Hundreds more were to yet to die, however. The explosion, which is estimated to have reached temperatures of 5,000 degrees celsius, vapourized the water in the harbour, momentarily exposing the ocean floor... to give you an idea of the magnitude of this, the harbour reaches depths of 71 m (233 ft) in some places. Water rushing into the Basin to fill this void caused a tsunami, which rose 18 m (59 ft) above the harbour's high water mark. Some people who survived the initial blast were swept out into the harbour and drowned.
Still more were killed or injured- many blinded- by flying glass. Many people had been looking out their windows at the ships, or did so when they heard the explosion, only to have the window glass shatter in on them when the shock wave hit. Then, as most homes were heated with wood stoves and fireplaces, and used oil lamps, a lot of the flattened and damaged homes caught fire, burning those who were trapped in the rubble. To make matters worse, the city's fire squads had been dispatched to the waterfront when the Mont-Blanc was on fire. Many of the firemen were dead, the others incapacitated, and the engines destroyed.
Fortunately, Halifax being a military town, the uninjured soldiers quickly responded, forming teams to fight the fires and search for survivors. Able-bodied civilians quickly joined in, all working together to save lives. Wounded survivors, many with horrific injuries, were taken to the local hospitals, which were quickly overwhelmed with patients. Dalhousie Medical School sent its students over to help- even the newbies- and the medical staffs worked around the clock, nonstop until medical personnel started arriving from other provinces.
Out of a city of 50,000 people, 2000 were dead, 9,000 injured, 6,000 completely homeless, and 25,000 more were without "adequate housing". Tents were set up on the Halifax Commons to provide shelter for those who needed it. Then, just as it looked like it couldn't get any worse, a blizzard hit, one of the worst ever recorded in Nova Scotia. It lasted six days. It hampered rescue efforts, made conditions dangerously bad for those housed in tents, and trains with medical supplies and rescue teams from other provinces- and states- were delayed, as the train tracks were blocked with snow. The only good thing about this was that the snow helped put out some of the fires.
Of course, even among these horrors, there were bright spots: stories of miraculous survivals, of people who risked their lives- and sometimes gave them- to save others. And there was also the kindness of strangers. Several British and American ships, seeing the explosion though out at sea, headed back into Halifax and came ashore to help with the rescue efforts. As well, other provinces sent much needed medical supplies, doctors, as well as food, clothes, and other essentials for the survivors. Standing out in their generosity were the people of Boston. An American banker up here wired a friend of his in Boston who was a doctor, describing the desperate condition of the city. His friend- and the people of Boston- immediately responded, sending doctors, nurses, surgeons, supplies, and even building materials for new homes. Rest assured, this generosity is not forgotten; every schoolchild learns of it, and every year the province is scoured to find the biggest and best Christmas tree possible to send to Boston as a thank-you and a token of remembrance.
There are few survivors of the Halifax Explosion left alive. My grandmother, who has now passed on, was only four at the time, but the day was burned into her memory. Her family was one of the more fortunate ones: their house was on the other side of Citadel Hill, which deflected the blast somewhat. Their home was damaged, and all their windows blown in- her aunt, who had been looking out of one, was badly cut- but that was the worst of it. In one of those little miracles of the day, just that morning, my grandmother's mother had decided to move the baby's (little Albert, named after his uncle who had been killed in the war) highchair to a different corner of the kitchen. When they were able to return to their house that night, they found a large shard of glass buried in the wall, right where the highchair containing baby Albert would have been, on any day previous to that one. Of course, they only realized this later. At the time, afraid that the house would collapse, they rushed out... my grandmother remembered her mother carrying out Albert, heavy wooden highchair and all, not willing to take the time to get him out of it. They ended up with many other people in a nearby open field, where they didn't have to worry about anything falling on them. Fortunately, their house was still structurally sound; though damaged, windowless, and cold, they still had a roof over their heads.
My grandmother's father of course went to help with the rescue efforts, and ended up as part of a team charged with carrying bodies to Chebucto school (my grandmother's and much later, my mother's school), one of many public buildings being used as a makeshift morgue. People would go there to try to find missing loved ones. Of course, with so many dead, there had to be mass funerals and burials.
It was a pretty horrendous time, and you'd think that Halifax would be due some good fortune after all of this, but no. The following year, with the war ending, many if not most of the Canadian soldiers were returning through Halifax, bringing with them the Spanish Influenza. This made Halifax, just getting back on its feet, ground zero for Canada's 'flu epidemic. The Haligonians of that time, however, were a tough lot, and they survived. Halifax today is a beautiful city, and aside from various landmarks and memorials, you'd never know the explosion occurred. Later this morning, crowds will gather at the Fort Needham Memorial, where the bells will toll at the time which the Mont-Blanc exploded, remembering those who died, as well as those who survived and rebuilt our city.
** There are, of course, many books both fiction and non-fiction that deal with the Halifax Explosion. The most well known fiction is probably 'Barometer Rising' by Hugh MacLennan, which I'll probably review at a later date. There's also a made-for-TV miniseries called 'Shattered City', which I don't recommend: it seems to only have a nodding acquaintance with the facts. ** Great UncleAl is still with us, feisty as ever.