Halifax Explosion: A Tragic Disaster In 1917

The Great Halifax explosion was a disaster that killed almost 2000 people and injured over 9000, on December 6, 1917, in the Halifax regional municipality of Nova Scotia in Canada. SS Mont-Blanc, A French cargo ship, collided with SS Imo, a Norwegian vessel.

The French ship was loaded with high explosives. This happened way before the atomic bombs; the Halifax explosion occurred in an ordinary working-class neighbourhood of Richmond.

The Harbour of Halifax Explosion

It was the time when World War I started to take a toll on soldiers. Halifax, at the time, was a neutral port and was extremely busy due to wartime activities. The port was always swarming with troops, Naval officials, and the typical working class, from bookkeepers to mechanics.

As per the Canadian encyclopedia, Halifax harbour had one of the finest ice-free harbours in North America.

The natural landscape of a wide inner basin with a narrow passage entry made Halifax harbour a safe place to dock at least 100 ships at a time. The fleets had an easy sail through Halifax harbour into or from the Atlantic Ocean, and the ships were anchored in the Bedford Basin.

The port was a hotspot for repairing and resupplying ships and transporting food, ammunition, Armour, and medical supplies for the first world war to Europe.

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The dreaded first world war has boosted the economy in Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia. Migrants from central Canada settled in Nova Scotia for jobs in the harbour.

This city in Nova scotia was a perfect place for a job and to raise a family. The population at Halifax harbours port city was at its peak at the time of the explosion.

Halifax Explosion—How It Happened

The Narrows in the straight to Bedford basin had two lanes, one west, and the other east, for the incoming and outgoing ships. Mont Blanc sailing from New York to France arrived a day early.

On the evening of the 5th of December, the ship docked at the entrance of Halifax harbour, awaiting the signal to enter the port. Imo was already in the Halifax harbour, delayed a day awaiting refuelling supplies, leased by the Belgian relief commission, and was on its way to load relief supplies for war from New York.

Onboard Mont Blanc was loaded with highly volatile ammunition for war, around 3000 tons of explosives, 250 tons of TNT, 2300 tons of picric acid, 60 tons of gun cotton, and more than 200 tons of high octave fuel Benzol; the barrels stacked on the deck.

Ships with such a large quantity of dangerous cargo on board were not allowed in Halifax harbour before and were supposed to fly a warning flag as a precaution.

Mont Blanc
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But the war suspicion and the German submarines forced the officials to keep the ship’s contents confidential, and the regulations bent.

The Navigation and maneuvering of large vessels on such small and narrow straights required skills. So in the morning, Captain Aimé Le Médec of Mont Blanc handed over piloting duties to Harbour pilot Captain Francis Mackey.

Both ships started moving by 7: 30 am on December 6, both significantly in a hurry. Imo was trying to make up for the lost time refuelling, and the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc held up with world war ammunition since last evening, trying to get the ammo to war.

Mont Blanc made their way into the port sticking to the correct east lane. At the same time, the Norwegian vessel was pulling out of Halifax Harbour.

Upon reaching the exit of Bedford basin, Imo saw an American steamer SS Clara approaching from the west lane; this forced Imo to veer into the east side, the route meant for incoming ships.

Both the captains of Imo and Clara decided to be cordial and pass through. Imo decided to steer to the Westside correctly as soon as steamer Clara had moved away.

By the time steamer Clara had sailed on, Imo was in the narrowest part of the passage, only about a kilometre wide; the captain of Imo tried again to correct the ship’s lane.

Coming from the opposite side was a tugboat, Stella Maris; the Norwegian ship being in a hurry was overspeeding through the narrow passage and on the wrong side. Stella Maris seeing the Imo speed straight to them on the wrong lane immediately steered the ship to the western side.

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And Pilot William Hayes of Imo moved further east to avoid a collision; Imo had lost its chance to correct its path. One or two kilometres away was Mont Blanc; pilot Francis Mackey of Mont Blanc noticed the Imo headed towards them and signalled for Imo to return to its correct lane. Imo responded with two hoots indicating they would be retaining their current position and route.

The distance between ships was rapidly decreasing; Mont Blanc steered hard to the west; at the same time, Imo cut the engine and reversed the boat. But it was too late; the momentum carried Imo forward; the speed of the two ships now was very slow, approximately 1.9km/h. As Mont Blanc steered to the west, Imo scraped the side of Mont Blanc, and the ships collided.

The collision was trivial, a 9 feet scratch that did no harm. But the jolt of the ship scraping caused the Benzene barrels to topple over, and Mont Blanc’s deck was flooded with highly flammable oil.

The Imo, who had shifted gear at the last moment, started to pull back; parallelly, Mont Blanc shut its engines, the friction between the two ships started giving out sparks, Benzene vapour caught it instantly, and fire broke.

The last-minute steering of Mont Blanc to the west to avoid collision had altered the ship’s course; the tug from Imo going on reverse pushed Mont Blanc further west, the burning ship now headed towards Halifax city’s north end and Richmond.

The Halifax Explosion

The captain of Mont Blanc immediately ordered the crew to evacuate the ship; he got out as soon as possible. Many at the harbour turned their heads at the sound of collision; some simply ignored it thinking the noisy port was being noisy as always.

The residents and businesses in Halifax noticed the cloud of black smoke. Curious, they perched through the windows to glimpse what was happening. Almost all buildings in this hilly terrain had a window pointing to the pier for a remarkable view. People at the port city moved closer to the dock to watch the fire, unaware of the explosive cargo.

The telegraph operator for the Canadian Government Railways, Vincent Coleman, watched the collision unfold. He was aware of the munitions of ships’ cargo, and he had the responsibility to control rail traffic in and out of Halifax.

While his co-workers fled, Vincent tapped out a warning message to Rockingham Station in Nova Scotia, five miles away, the munitions ship on fire, and to hold the trains. He made sure the incoming train filled with people was not a part of the disaster.

The French munitions ship drifted slowly towards pier 6 of Halifax for 20 minutes. The highly trained and responsive members of the Halifax fire department positioned their engines to the nearest hydrant, ready to douse the fire on the burning ship. At 9:04 am, Mont-Blanc exploded, and the cargo detonated all at once.

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The thundering sound of the explosion made some snap around, and a few crouched, and in a second or two, a pressure wave flattened the entire area up to 800 meters, which is half a mile radius. Mont Blanc was completely destroyed, its parts flung miles away.

The massive explosion reduced the trees, houses, factories, and iron rails in rumbles. Prominent buildings in the Richmond neighbourhood like the sugar refinery, the schools, Richmond railway yards, the Nova Scotia cotton mill, and the foundry were levelled down and wiped away. Buildings two miles away were damaged, and a fire broke out in a building 3 miles away.

The rumblings and tremors of the blast were felt 250 miles away. The sea bed was exposed entirely due to the shock waves. Of the innocent spectators, some died instantly; some were severely injured and started screaming and crying for help. Members of the Halifax fire department perished on duty.

A mushroom cloud of smoke at least 11000 feet high rose from Mont Blanc, and the slick liquid benzene residue and white-hot shards of debris rained upon the wounded in Halifax and Dartmouth. The heat from the blast wave and the residue lit everything in sight on fire.

The rumbles burned, and the injured became charred black. The aftereffect of the shockwave was a Tsunami. Waves of 35 to 40 feet above the high-water mark rose and washed away most of the debris, the injured, and the survivors. The sight and smell of burnt bodies were horrifying. As the Tsunami receded, the fire broke out again, and the heat from the explosion was still active.

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In the East, Dartmouth side, the Tsunami, and the massive explosion completely wiped away the whole tribe of indigenous American natives named Mi’kmaq, who settled for generations at Turtle Grove.

The crew of Mont Blanc miraculously survived along with both captains, except for one crew member injured by a metallic flying object. Imo, though damaged, lost its captain and six crew members.

Halifax Explosion—Rescue and Aftermath

Coleman’s message served its purpose. The incoming trains were stopped, saving more than 300 passengers. More importantly, his last telegram helped to spread the news of the tragedy very fast among communities in Nova Scotia and other states across Canada.

Rescue and relief efforts started to pour in, starting with the people around, residents and peers, surviving police officers, firefighters, and soldiers joined with any working vehicles and wagons. The Wounded began to stream into hospitals.

On December 6, roughly 1,400 casualties were admitted to Camp Hill, a new military hospital. Several military ships near Halifax, sailing in the Atlantic Ocean, came to investigate and later transformed into makeshift hospitals.

Royal Navy cruisers
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The initially coordinated rescue parties were sent ashore by Royal Navy cruisers in port. The armed merchant cruisers HMS Changuinola, HMS Calgarian, and HMS Knight Templar dispersed boats to shore with rescue personnel and medical assistance, and the wounded were immediately taken aboard. A rescue party was also sent ashore by the US Coast Guard cutter USRC Morrill.

The armed defence merchant cruiser USS Von Steuben (originally SS Kronprinz Wilhelm) and the American cruiser USS Tacoma were sailing through Halifax on their way to the United States. The bomb wave shook Tacoma so badly that her crew moved to general chambers. Tacoma changed route after seeing the massive and rising cloud of smoke and arrived at 2 p.m. to help with the rescue.

Firefighters from as far as Amherst, Nova Scotia (120 miles) and Moncton, New Brunswick (160 miles) joined the rescue effort via relief trains.

The flying glass was the cause of injury to most of the wounded, and the shattered windows caused serious and fatal eye injuries to those who watched the fire from their windows. The prompt dispatch of doctors, surgeons and red cross nurses with complete first aid equipment inspired the local relief committee, and they felt the medical relief heartwarming.

By 10 pm on December 6, the word had spread beyond borders, and others in America prepared for the relief effort. But the very next day, on December 7, a blizzard occurred, stalling all the vehicles, trains and the telegraph wires that were hastily repaired, came down.

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The relief effort from central Canada and other parts of America was delayed. There were men and women trapped in the collapsed building; some perished while awaiting rescue, and others pulled out and were injured and in extreme pain. The blizzard, though, helped put out the fire.

A second blizzard delayed the support trains and rescue mission three days later. Even then, the community in Halifax never stopped looking for survivors, moving forward with immense strength and courage.

Fighting the blizzard and the delay caused by it, help arrived in the form of blankets, food, clothes, trucks, vehicles and other relief supplies from Massachusetts, the State of Maine, and New York City. The bodies of unidentified victims were taken into a makeshift morgue in the basement of Chebucto road school. It took years to completely clear debris, the last body being recovered in 1919.

Halifax Explosion—Enquiry

After the initial shock, the Halifax explosion survivors were filled with grief and anger. The immediate blame was on the Germans, as in the chaos, everyone thought the city was under attack. As the news of the collision and explosion was revealed, the accusation was cast away though rumours persisted.

Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry was a judiciary inquiry formed to investigate the causes of the explosion. The blame was quickly focused on Mont-Blanc’s captain, Le Médec, the harbour pilot on Mont-Blanc, Francis Mackey, and F. Evan Wyatt, the chief examining officer in the authority of the harbour.

Halifax explosion
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Later it was recognized as tactics of the lawyer hired to represent Imo and the wrath of people in general for the Mont Blanc crew abandoning ship and surviving themselves.

On February 4, 1918, Mont Blanc was blamed alone. Due to a lack of evidence in further investigation, charges were dropped against Mac Donald and Le Médec on April 17, 1918. The investigation findings were submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1919, which found Mont-Blanc and Norwegian Imo equally responsible.

The ruling and verdict were passed on by the highest court of appeal in Canada in that period, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) based in London. Three separate inquiries were conducted, but no one could be pointed out as the cause of the explosion, so none was prosecuted.

Halifax Now

The Halifax explosion has caused millions of dollars of property damage. Almost all explosion victims were homeless.

The explosion survivors found it difficult to talk about; almost everyone had post-traumatic behaviour. The women especially found it difficult to adjust to everyday life. Halifax was a high-income city in Canada; the economy crumbled after the explosion, and a Recession ensued.

The immense support received during the tragic Halifax explosion disaster is still appreciated and remembered by Halifax. A Christmas tree is still presented to Boston to mark the deep gratitude among the people of Nova Scotia.

Halifax A Christmas tree
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In the 1950s, Fort Needham park was established in memory of the deceased in the Halifax explosion. The annual memorial service is held on December 6 at Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower.

The bell still strikes every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The park located at the highest point has a spectacular view of the port city and harbour. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a Naval museum, exhibits the wreckage parts like the Mont Blanc’s hull, some collected by officials on-site, some donated by victims.

Final Thought

The Halifax explosion was the world’s largest artificial pre-atomic bomb explosion.; the first atomic bombs were detonated much later in 1945 in Japan. The city was rebuilt over the years, but Turtle Grove was never revamped.

The grim event taught everyone something. The medical advancement was huge, especially in Ophthalmology and pediatrics, with better social welfare and public health. The Halifax explosion prompted Canada, the United States, and other countries to enact more substantial cargo safety standards and harbour regulations.


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