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|Location||Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada|
|Date||December 6, 1917|
|Deaths||2,000 (approximate) (1,950 known)|
|Injured (non-fatal)||9,000 (approximate)|
|Location||Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada|
|Date||December 6, 1917|
|Deaths||2,000 (approximate) (1,950 known)|
|Injured (non-fatal)||9,000 (approximate)|
|Part of a series on the|
|History of Halifax, Nova Scotia|
|History of Canada portal|
The Halifax Explosion occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of December 6, 1917. SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship fully loaded with wartime explosives, was involved in a collision with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. Approximately twenty minutes later, a fire on board the French ship ignited her explosive cargo, causing a cataclysmic explosion that devastated the Richmond District of Halifax. Approximately 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, and collapsed buildings, and it is estimated that nearly 9,000 others were injured. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, with an equivalent force of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT. In a meeting of the Royal Society of Canada in May 1918, Dalhousie University's Professor Howard L. Bronson estimated the blast at some 2400 metric tons of high explosive.
Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry her highly explosive cargo overseas to Bordeaux, France. At roughly 8:45 am, she collided at slow speed (one to one and a half miles per hour) with the 'in-ballast' (without cargo) Imo, chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of relief supplies in New York. The resultant fire aboard the French ship quickly grew out of control. Without adequate and accessible firefighting equipment, the captain, pilot, officers and men were forced to abandon her within a few minutes following the accident. Approximately 20 minutes later (at 9:04:35 am), Mont-Blanc exploded with tremendous force. Nearly all structures within a half-mile (800 m) radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were completely obliterated. A pressure wave of air snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Hardly a window in the city proper survived the concussion. Across the harbour, in Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the physical community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people that had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations. There were a number of casualties including five children who drowned when the tsunami came ashore at Nevin's Cove.
Halifax Harbour is one of the deepest ice-free natural harbours in the world. The community of Dartmouth lies on the north shore of the harbour, while Halifax is on the south shore. Halifax and Dartmouth thrived during times of war. The harbour was one of the Royal Navy's most important bases in North America, a centre for wartime trade and a home to privateers that harried the British Empire's enemies during the American Revolution, Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The termination of the Reciprocity Treaty following the American Civil War resulted in new tariffs on American goods and plunged Halifax into economic decline. After the British garrison left the city in 1905, the Canadian Militia, long a significant presence in Halifax, assumed full responsibility for the port. With the British sailors and soldiers gone, the Canadian Department of Militia and Defence received tons of equipment, empty barracks, parade grounds and a lifeless dockyard as its legacy. The city itself fell into an economic decline. After 1906, the Canadian Government took over the Halifax Dockyard from the British Royal Navy. It was renamed Her Majesty's Canadian (HMC) Dockyard and later became the command centre of the Royal Canadian Navy upon its founding in 1910.
However, just before the First World War, the Canadian Government belatedly realized the city's importance as more than a mere transit point and began to make a determined, costly effort to develop the harbour and waterfront facilities. The outbreak of the war brought Halifax back to prominence. As the just-created Royal Canadian Navy had virtually no seaworthy ships of its own, it was left to the Royal Navy to keep the Atlantic sea lanes open by using Halifax as its North American base. In 1915, management of the harbour fell under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy under the supervision of Captain-in-Charge of the Halifax Dockyard and Senior Naval Officer, Captain Superintendent Edward Harrington Martin, a retired Royal Navy officer and co-commandant of the Royal Naval College of Canada (RNCC).
By 1917, the population of Halifax/Dartmouth had grown to 65,000 people. Convoys carried soldiers, men, animals and supplies to the European theatre. By 1917, the two main points of departure were on the East Coast at Sydney (HMCS Landsdowne) in Cape Breton and Halifax. As well, hospital ships returned the wounded.
It was the success of German U-boat attacks on ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean that led the Allies to institute a convoy system to reduce losses transporting goods and soldiers to Europe. Merchant ships gathered at Bedford Basin on the northwestern end of the Harbour, which was protected by two sets of anti-submarine nets and guarded by patrol ships of the Royal Canadian Navy. The convoys departed under the protection of British Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers. A large army garrison protected the city with forts, gun batteries, and anti-submarine nets. These factors drove a major military, industrial and residential expansion of the city. while the weight of goods passing through the harbour increased nearly ninefold. All neutral ships such as SS Imo, bound for ports in North America, were required to report to Halifax for inspection.
The Norwegian ship, SS Imo, had sailed from Rotterdam, Netherlands en route to New York to take on relief supplies for Belgium. She arrived in Halifax on 3 December for neutral inspection and spent two days in Bedford Basin awaiting refuelling supplies. Though given clearance to leave the port on 5 December, Imo's departure was delayed as her 50 tons of coal did not arrive until late that afternoon. The loading of fuel was not completed until after the anti-submarine nets had been raised for the night. Therefore, the vessel could not weigh anchor until the next morning. The French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc arrived from New York late on 5 December. According to her freight manifest, the vessel was fully loaded with the explosives TNT and picric acid, the high-octane fuel benzole, and guncotton. She intended to join a slow convoy gathering in Bedford Basin readying to depart for Europe, but was likewise too late to venture up the harbour before the nets were raised. Ships carrying dangerous cargo were not allowed into the harbour before the war, but the risks posed by German submarines had resulted in a relaxing of regulations.
Navigating from the inner harbour into Bedford Basin required passage through a strait called the Narrows. Article 18 of the "International Rules of the Road, Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea" (1910) dictated that ships were expected to keep to the starboard (right) side of the channel as they passed oncoming traffic. In other words, vessels were required to pass port to port. Imo was granted clearance to leave the basin by signals from the guard ship HMCS Acadia at approximately 7:30 am on the morning of December 6, with Pilot William Hayes aboard. Imo entered the Narrows well above the speed limit of seven knots set by the Admiralty in the harbour's Public Traffic Regulations which had been promulgated by Captain Superintendent E. H. Martin. Imo met an American tramp steamer, SS Clara, being piloted up the wrong (western) side of the harbour by Edward Renner. However, the pilots knew each other well and agreed by megaphone to pass starboard to starboard. Soon afterwards, though, Imo was forced to head even further towards the Dartmouth shore after she passed the tugboat, Stella Maris, which was travelling up the harbour to Bedford Basin near mid-channel. Horatio Brannen, the captain of the Stella Maris saw Imo coming at excessive speed and ordered his ship closer to the western shore to avoid an accident.
The evening before, 45-year-old Francis Mackey, an experienced harbour pilot of 24 years' experience, boarded Mont-Blanc. However, the anti-submarine nets had already gone up and although the ship had been given clearance, it was still necessary to wait until dawn before proceeding up the harbour. So, Mackey spent the night on board as a guest of the captain. At first light, the ship made her way past George's Island and then headed up towards Bedford Basin. As he went, Mackey kept his eye on the ferry traffic between Halifax and Dartmouth and other small boats in the area. He first spotted Imo as she rounded the bend above Pier 9 but became concerned as her path appeared to be heading towards his ship's starboard side, as if to cut him off his own course. Mackey gave a short blast of his ship's signal whistle to indicate that his vessel had the right of way, but was met with two short blasts from the Imo, indicating that the approaching vessel would not yield its position. Captain Le Médec and Pilot Mackey could see no discernible reason why Imo remained on the wrong side of the channel. The captain ordered Mont-Blanc to halt its engines and angle slightly to starboard, and closer to the Dartmouth side of the Narrows. He let out another single blast of his whistle, hoping the other vessel would likewise move to starboard, but was again met with a double-blast in negation.
Sailors on nearby ships heard the series of signals between the two and, realizing that a collision was imminent, gathered to watch as the Imo bore down on the Mont-Blanc. Though both ships had cut their engines by this point, their momentum carried them right on top of each other at slow speed. Unable to ground his ship for fear of a shock that would set off his explosive cargo, Mackey ordered the Mont-Blanc to steer hard to port (starboard helm) and crossed the Norwegian ship's bows in a last-second bid to avoid a collision. The two ships were almost parallel to each other, when Imo suddenly sent out three signal blasts, indicating they were reversing their engines. The combination of being in ballast and the transverse thrust of her right-hand propellor caused the ship's head to swing into Mont-Blanc. Imo's prow pushed nearly nine feet (2.5 m) into the French vessel's No. 1 hold on her starboard side.
The collision occurred at 8:45 am. As Imo's engines kicked in, she quickly disengaged; an action which created sparks inside the Mont-Blanc's hull. These ignited the vapours from the picric acid. A fire started at the water line and travelled quickly up the side of the ship as the benzol spewed out from crushed drums on Mont-Blanc's decks. The fire quickly became uncontrollable. Consumed by thick black smoke, and fearing she would explode almost immediately, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. A growing number of Halifax citizens gathered on the street or stood at the windows of their homes or businesses to watch the spectacular fire. The frantic crew of the Mont-Blanc shouted from their two lifeboats to some of the other vessels that Mont-Blanc was about to explode, but they could not be heard above the noise and confusion. The personnel aboard Mont-Blanc left the burning ship when it was only 40 yards (35 m) from the Halifax shore. As the lifeboats made their way across the harbour to the Dartmouth shore, the abandoned ship continued to drift on the slack tide and beached herself at Pier 6 near the foot of Richmond street.
At 9:04:35 am, the out-of-control fire aboard Mont-Blanc finally set off her highly explosive cargo. The ship was completely blown apart, and the remains of her hull were launched nearly 1,000 feet (about 300 m) into the air. The blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. Temperatures of 5 000 °C and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion. White-hot shards of iron rained down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. The barrel of one of Mont-Blanc's guns landed approximately 5.6 kilometres (3.5 mi) north of the explosion site near Albro Lake in Dartmouth, while part of her anchor landed 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) south at Armdale.
A resulting cloud of white smoke rose to over 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). The shock wave from the blast travelled through the earth at nearly 23 times the speed of sound and was felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. An area over 160 hectares (400 acres) was completely destroyed by the explosion, while the harbour floor was momentarily exposed by the volume of water that vaporized. A tsunami was formed by water surging in to fill the void, which rose up as high as 18 metres (60 ft) above the harbour's high-water mark on the Halifax side. Imo was carried onto the shore at Dartmouth by the tsunami.
Over 1,600 people were killed instantly while 9,000 were injured. Every building within a 2.6 kilometres (1.6 mi) radius, over 12,000 total, was destroyed or badly damaged. Hundreds of people who had been watching the fire from their homes were blinded when the blast wave shattered the windows in front of them. Stoves and lamps overturned by the force of the blast sparked fires throughout Halifax, particularly in the North End where entire city blocks were caught up in the inferno, trapping residents inside their houses. Firefighter Billy Wells, who was thrown away from the explosion and had his clothes torn from his body, described the devastation survivors faced: "The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires." He was the only member of the eight-man crew of the fire engine "Patricia" to survive.
Large brick and stone factories near Pier 6, such as the Acadia Sugar Refinery and the Hillis & Sons Foundry, disappeared into unrecognizable heaps of rubble, killing most of their workers. The Nova Scotia cotton mill located 1.5 km (0.93 mile) from the blast was destroyed by fire and the collapse of its concrete floors.
The disaster had damaged buildings and shattered windows as far away as Sackville and Windsor Junction, about 16 kilometres (10 mi) away. Buildings shook and items fell from shelves as far away as Truro and New Glasgow, both over 100 kilometres (62 mi) away. The explosion was felt and heard in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, roughly 215 kilometres (130 mi) north, and as far away as North Cape Breton, 360 kilometres (220 mi) east. Robert Borden, Canada's prime minister at the time, was in Charlottetown at the time of explosion and he also heard it along with many of his officials. He arrived and toured Halifax two days later to oversee and organize the recovery and rescue efforts.
The Halifax Explosion was one of a series of massive ammunition explosions which followed the large-scale manufacture, transport and use of high explosives in the 20th century and resulted in large, artificial, non-nuclear explosions. An extensive comparison of 130 major explosions by Halifax historian Jay White in 1994 concluded that, "Halifax Harbour remains unchallenged in overall magnitude as long as five criteria are considered together: number of casualties, force of blast, radius of devastation, quantity of explosive material, and total value of property destroyed."
First rescue efforts came from surviving neighbours and co-workers who pulled and dug out victims from buildings. The initial informal response was soon joined by surviving policemen, firefighters and military personnel who began to arrive, as did anyone with a working vehicle. Cars, trucks and delivery wagons of all kinds were enlisted to collect wounded.  A flood of victims soon began to arrive at the city's hospitals and soon grew to overwhelming numbers.
British Royal Navy cruisers in port sent some of the first organized rescue parties ashore. The cruiser HMS Highflyer and the armed merchant cruisers HMS Changuinola, HMS Knight Templar and HMS Calgarian sent boats ashore with rescue parties and medical personnel and soon began to take wounded aboard. An American coast guard cutter, USCG Morrill, in port for coal, also sent a rescue party ashore. Out at sea, the American cruiser USS Tacoma and armed merchant cruiser USS Von Steuben (formerly SS Kronprinz Wilhelm) were passing Halifax over 80 kilometres (50 mi) away, en route to the United States. Tacoma was rocked by the blast wave severely enough that her crew went to general quarters. Spotting the large and rising column of smoke, Tacoma altered course and arrived to assist rescue at 2 pm. Von Steuben arrived a half hour later. The American steamship Old Colony, docked in Halifax for repairs, suffered little damage and was quickly converted to serve as a hospital ship, staffed by doctors and orderlies from the British and American navy vessels in the harbour.
Dazed survivors immediately feared that the explosion was the result of a bomb dropped from a German plane. Troops at gun batteries and barracks immediately turned out in case the city was under attack but within an hour switched from defence to rescue roles as the cause and location of the explosion were determined. All available troops were called in from harbour fortifications and barracks to the north end to rescue survivors and provide transport to the city's hospitals, including the two army hospitals in the city.
Surviving railway workers in the railyards at the heart of the disaster carried out rescue work pulling people from the harbour and from under debris. The overnight train from Saint John, New Brunswick was just approaching the city when hit by the blast but was only slightly damaged. It continued into Richmond until the track was blocked by wreckage. Passengers and soldiers aboard used the emergency tools from the train to dig people out of houses and bandaged them with sheets from the sleeping cars. The train was loaded with injured and left the city at 1:30 with a doctor aboard, to evacuate the wounded to Truro.
Adding to the chaos were fears that a second explosion was imminent. The rumour developed when a cloud of steam shot out of ventilators at the ammunition magazine at Wellington Barracks as naval and personnel extinguished a fire by the magazine. The fire was quickly put out, but the cloud of steam, seen from blocks away, quickly led to rumours of a second explosion. Uniformed officers ordered everyone away from the area. As the rumour spread across the city, many families fled their homes. The confusion delayed efforts by over two hours until fears were dispelled by about noon. However, many rescuers ignored the order and naval rescue parties continued working uninterrupted from the harbour.
Led by Lieutenant Governor MacCallum Grant, leading citizens formed the Halifax Relief Committee, around noon. The committee organized members in charge of organizing medical relief for both Halifax and Dartmouth, transportation, supplying food and shelter, amongst other tasks.
Rescue trains were dispatched from across Atlantic Canada, as well as the northeastern United States. The first left Truro around 10 am carrying medical personnel and supplies, arrived in Halifax by noon and returned to Truro with wounded and homeless by 3 pm. The track had become impassable at Rockingham, on the western edge of Bedford Basin. To reach the wounded, rescue personnel had to walk through parts of the devastated city until they reached a point where the military had begun to clear the streets. By nightfall, a dozen trains had reached Halifax from the Nova Scotian towns of Truro, Kentville, Amherst and Stellarton and from the New Brunswick towns of Sackville, Moncton and Saint John.
Relief efforts were hampered the following day by a blizzard that blanketed Halifax with 16 inches (41 cm) of heavy snow. Trains en route from other parts of Canada and from the United States were stalled in snowdrifts, while telegraph lines that had been hastily repaired following the explosion were again knocked down. Halifax was isolated by the storm, and rescue committees were forced to suspend the search for survivors, though the storm aided efforts to put out fires throughout the city.
While the exact number killed by the disaster is unknown, a common estimate is 2,000. The Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, an official database compiled in 2002 by the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management identified 1,950 victims. As many as 1,600 people died immediately in the blast, the tsunami, and collapse of buildings. The last body, a caretaker killed at the Exhibition Grounds, was not recovered until the summer of 1919. An additional 9,000 were injured, 6,000 of them seriously; 1,630 homes were destroyed in the explosion and fires, with 12,000 more houses damaged. This disaster left roughly 6,000 people homeless and without shelter and 25,000 without adequate housing. The city's industrial sector was in large part gone, with many workers among the casualties and the dockyard heavily damaged.
The explosion was responsible for the vast majority of Canada's World War I-related civilian deaths and injuries, and killed more Nova Scotian residents than were killed in combat. Detailed estimates showed that among those killed, 600 were under the age of 15, 166 were labourers, 134 were soldiers and sailors, 125 were craftsmen, and 39 were workers for the railway.
Many of the wounds inflicted by the blast were permanently debilitating, with many people partially blinded by flying glass or by the flash of the explosion. Thousands of people had stopped to watch the ship burning in the harbour, with many people watching from inside buildings, leaving them directly in the path of flying glass from shattered windows. Roughly 600 people suffered eye injuries, and 38 of those lost their sight permanently. The large number of eye injuries led to better understanding on the part of physicians, and with the recently formed Canadian National Institute for the Blind, they managed to greatly improve the treatment of damaged eyes. The significant advances in eye care as a result of this disaster are often compared to the huge increase in burn care knowledge after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston. Halifax became internationally known as a centre for care for the blind, accounting for a large proportion of patients.
According to estimates, roughly $35 million Canadian dollars in damages resulted (in 1917 dollars; adjusted for inflation, this is about $545 million Canadian dollars today).
While the city of Halifax's North End neighbourhood of Richmond suffered the most damage from the explosion, several neighbouring communities and settlements were also affected by the blast.
The Dartmouth side of the harbour was not as densely populated as Halifax and was separated from the blast by the width of the harbour, but still suffered heavy damage. Estimates are that almost 100 people died on the Dartmouth side. Windows were shattered and many buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the Oland Brewery and parts of the Starr Manufacturing Company. Nova Scotia Hospital was the only hospital on the Dartmouth side of the harbour and many of the victims were treated there.
There were small enclaves of Mi'kmaq in and around the coves of Bedford Basin (Elsipuktuk, "the big cove") on the Dartmouth (Punamuekati, "tomcod ground") shore. Directly opposite to Pier 9 on the Halifax (Ekjipuktuk, "the great bay") side, sat a community in Tuft's Cove (Maskawiekati, "birchbark place") also known as Turtle Grove. The settlement, known to have dated back to the 18th century, was slated to be relocated on 6 November as reservations were established through Indian reserve status lobbying. Fewer than 20 families resided in this community and the move had not yet occurred before the time of the collision. The fire aboard Mont-Blanc drew the attention of many onlookers on both sides of the harbour. The settlement was completely obliterated by the tsunami. There is little information on the effects of the disaster on these Mi'kmaw First Nations people with the exception of the stories preserved within the Oral Tradition. A few of the casualties are listed in the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. Records show that 9 bodies were recovered, and the settlement was abandoned in the wake of the disaster.
The black community of Africville, on the southern shores of the Bedford Basin, adjacent to the Halifax Peninsula, was spared the direct force of the blast by the shadow effect of the raised ground to the south. However Africville's small and frail homes were heavily damaged by the explosion and were described by a relief doctor as ruined but still standing. Families recorded the deaths of five residents. Although one person is known to have been compensated for the destruction of his home, Africville received little of the $21,000,000 in donated relief funds and none of the progressive reconstruction invested into other parts of the city after the explosion.
Many individuals, groups and organizations contributed to the rescue and relief in the days, months, and years following the disaster. Specific acts of heroism and bravery by individuals are detailed below.
The death toll could have been worse if not for the self-sacrifice of an Intercolonial Railway dispatcher, Patrick Vincent (Vince) Coleman, operating at the Richmond Railway Yards about a quarter-mile away from Pier 6 where the explosion occurred. He and his co-worker, William Lovett, learned of the dangerous cargo aboard the burning Mont-Blanc from a sailor and began to flee. Coleman remembered, however, that an incoming passenger train from Saint John, New Brunswick was due to arrive at the rail yard within minutes. Coleman sent his Morse code message and left with Lovett. For unknown reasons, he returned to his post alone and continued to send out urgent telegraph messages to stop the train. Several variations of the message have been reported, among them this from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic:
Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.
Coleman's message may well have been responsible for bringing all incoming trains around Halifax to a halt. It was heard by other stations all along the Intercolonial Railway, helping railway officials to respond immediately. Passenger Train No. 10, the overnight train from Saint John, New Brunswick, is believed to have heeded the warning and stopped a safe distance from the blast at Rockingham, saving the lives of about 300 railway passengers. The rescued train was later used to carry injured and homeless survivors to Truro, Nova Scotia. Coleman was killed at his post as the explosion ripped through the city. He is honoured as a hero and fixture in Canadian history, notably being featured in a well-intentioned but historically inaccurate "Heritage Minute" one-minute movie and a display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
Towing two scows at the time of the collision, the tug Stella Maris responded immediately to the fire, anchoring the barges and steaming back towards Pier 6. The tug's captain, Horatio H. Brannen, and his crew realized they were not equipped to fight the fire with their one small hose and quickly backed off from the burning Mont Blanc. They were then approached by a whaler from HMS Highflyer. Acting Commander Tom Triggs asked for a tow part-way over to Imo in order to ascertain the stricken ship's status. Captain Horatio Brannen obliged. After this was accomplished, Stella Maris was approximately 200 yards (about 180 m) away from and facing Mont Blanc. At this juncture, they were hailed by a steam pinnace belonging to HMCS Niobe that emerged from the vicinity of Pier 6 with eight volunteers aboard. Warrant Boatswain Albert Mattison requested a hawser to secure a line to the French ship's stern so as to pull it away from the pier to prevent setting it on fire. The five-inch (127-millimetre) hawser initially produced was deemed too small and orders for a ten-inch (254-millimetre) hawser came down. It was in the midst of retrieving the larger rope that the explosion occurred. The blast killed all save one aboard the whaler, everyone aboard the pinnace and 19 of the 24 men aboard Stella Maris. She ended up on the Richmond shore, severely damaged. The captain's son, First Mate Walter Brannen, who had been thrown into the hold by the blast, the second mate, William Nickerson and three others survived.
Firefighters were among the first to respond to the disaster, rushing to Mont-Blanc to attempt to extinguish the blaze before the explosion even occurred. They also played an instrumental role in regaining control of the devastated city after the blast, with members arriving to assist from across Halifax, and by the end of the day from as far away as Springhill (180 kilometres or 110 miles), Amherst, Nova Scotia (200 kilometres or 120 miles), and Moncton, New Brunswick (260 kilometres or 160 miles), on relief trains.
Halifax's Fire Department at the time comprised 8 fire stations, 122 members (36 of whom were fully employed), 13 apparatus (1 of which was motorized), and roughly 30 horses. West Street's Station 2 was the first to arrive at pier 6 with the crew of the American LaFrance-built Patricia, the first motorized fire engine in Canada.
They were responding to Box 83, the dockyard alarm at the corner of Roome Street and Campbell Road (now Barrington Street), as Mont-Blanc drifted toward its resting place at Pier 6. Although the dockyard alarms were routine for the department, today was different, as North End general storekeeper Constant Upham could see the serious nature of the fire from his home and called surrounding fire stations to advise them. Upham's store was on Campbell Road, directly in view of the burning ship, and as one of the few buildings at the time with a telephone, he placed his call sometime after 8:45 that morning. Despite this warning, none of the firemen knew that the ship carried munitions. It was believed however, that the vessel's crew was still on board, as West Street's Station 2, Brunswick Street's Station 1, Göttingen Street, and Quinpool Road's Station 5 responded to Upham's call.
Fire Chief Edward P. Condon and Deputy Chief William P. Brunt were next on the scene, arriving from Brunswick Street in the department's 1911 McLaughlin Roadster. The heat was so overwhelming, no one could look at the inferno. Chief Condon pulled the Box 83 alarm again. In the final moments before the explosion, hoses were being unrolled as the fire spread to the docks. Retired Hoseman John Spruin Sr. was on his way from Brunswick Street in a horse-drawn pumper, and Hoseman John H. E. Duggan was travelling from Isleville Street's Station 7 with another horse-drawn firefighting wagon.
None of the firemen knew the danger that they faced as 9:04 arrived and brought the explosion that obliterated the dockyard fire site. Fire Chief Edward Condon and Deputy Chief William Brunt were killed immediately along with the Patricia's crew members: Captain William T. Broderick, Captain G. Michael Maltus, Hoseman Walter Hennessey, and Hoseman Frank Killeen. Teamsters John Spruin and John Duggan were both struck and killed by shrapnel en route to the fire. Their horses were also killed instantly in the blast. Patricia hoseman Frank D. Leahy died on December 31, 1917, from his injuries. Nine members of the Halifax Fire Department lost their lives performing their duty that day.
The only surviving member at the scene was Patricia driver Billy (William) Wells, who was opening a hydrant at the time of the blast. He recounts the event for the Mail Star, October 6, 1967,
That's when it happened … The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine … The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm…
It is explained that Billy was standing again as the tsunami came over him. He managed to remain on land.
…After the wave had receded I didn't see anything of the other firemen so made my way to the old magazine on Campbell Road … The sight was awful … with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires … I was taken to Camp Hill Hospital and lay on the floor for two days waiting for a bed. The doctors and nurses certainly gave me great service
Notably, firefighter Albert Brunt also survived the blast, by chance, as he slipped while attempting to jump onto the Patricia as it rounded a corner on its way to the docks.
Efforts to subdue the blazes were hampered when firefighters arriving from nearby communities had difficulty connecting their hoses to the differently sized connections of Halifax's hydrants, a problem which inspired standardized hose fittings after the war. A new pumper was purchased by the city and arrived just a few days after the explosion. The Patricia was later restored by the American LaFrance company for $6,000, who donated $1,500 to a fund for the families of the firemen. The families of firemen killed in the blast received $1,000 from the city (close to $15,000 in 2007 dollars), with the exception of one, who received $500.
On the 75th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1992, the Halifax Fire Department erected a monument at the current Station 4, at the corner of Lady Hammond Road and Robie Street, in honour of the fallen members who died fighting the fire on Mont-Blanc.
Eric Davidson was two and a half at the time of the explosion. He was playing with his toy train on the sill of the living room window, when he, his mother and sister saw the smoke of the fire in the harbour. When the blast occurred, the window shattered in front of Eric's face, blinding him completely. Despite his disability from an early age, Davidson went on to be a mechanic for the City of Halifax until his retirement in 1980.
Anne M. Welsh (née Liggins) was 23 months old at the time of the explosion. Her house on north Barrington Street was ripped apart by the force of the blast, killing her mother Anne, brother Edwin and her father. Annie was blown under the stove by the explosion, landing in the container of ash underneath the appliance. The still-warm ashes kept Annie protected against exposure to the December weather amidst the destruction, until she was discovered 26 hours later by a soldier named Private Henneberry. Her grandmother and aunt retrieved her from the Pine Hill Convalescent Hospital, where she had been cared for after being recovered from the wreckage.
Bill Owen was born May 16, 1917. He was six months old during the explosion and continues to live in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He says he may be the last survivor of the explosion.
A mortuary committee was quickly formed at Halifax City Hall on the morning of the disaster chaired by Alderman R. B. Coldwell. The Chebucto Road School in West End, Halifax was chosen as a central morgue because it was a large building with only slight damage on the edge of the devastated area. A company of the Royal Canadian Engineers repaired and converted the basement of the school to serve as a morgue and classrooms to serve as offices for the Halifax coroner. Trucks and wagons soon began to arrive with bodies. The coroner Arthur S. Barnstead took over from Coldwell as the morgue went into operation and implemented a system to carefully number and describe bodies, which was based on the system developed by his father John Henry Barnstead to identify Titanic victims in 1912.
Many people in Halifax at first believed the explosion to be a German attack. Even later, during rescue efforts, that fear still existed. Blackout laws were rigidly applied, hampering some efforts.
The newspaper Halifax Herald was noteworthy in continuing to propagate this belief for some time, for example reporting that Germans had mocked victims of the Explosion. While John Johansen, the Norwegian helmsman of the Imo, was being treated for serious injuries sustained during the explosion, it was reported to the military police that he had been behaving suspiciously. Johansen was arrested on suspicions of being a German spy  when a search turned up a letter on his person, supposedly written in German. Later it turned out that the letter was actually written in Norwegian. Major General Thomas Benson, the commander of MD6, in a letter to Charles J. Burchell, "Imo" counsel, stated that Johansen had been mistaken for another man and was hereby exonerated (Imo vs. Mont Blanc, Appeal Book, Vol. II, p. 5). Immediately following the explosion, most of the German survivors in Halifax had been rounded up and imprisoned. Eventually the fear dissipated as the real cause of the explosion became known, although the suspicion that Johansen had something to do with the explosion persisted for some time.
The decision of the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry placed blame for the collision between the two ships (and thus the explosion) squarely on the shoulders of Captain Aimé Le Médec and Pilot Francis Mackey of the French vessel as well as the port's CXO, Acting Commander F. Evan Wyatt (see "Investigation" section). However, the scapegoating of these three individuals can be viewed from an historical perspective as a convenient political manoeuvre to assuage public anger and fear. The actual objective of the government was to take over the Halifax Pilotage, which it eventually did by invoking the War Measures Act in March 1918. It is also important to remember that Jurisdiction issues prevented an accounting from British authorities in New York for sending the ship to Halifax with full knowledge of her cargo. Because of the continued sinking of ships by German U-Boats, the desperate French government had been forced to use older, inadequately maintained ships to carry highly explosive cargoes. Therefore, as no witnesses from the Royal Navy, the British Admiralty or owners of the French vessel could be called to the inquiry as witnesses, the facts surrounding the contributions by countless unnamed persons to the sequence of events leading up to the Halifax disaster remain obfuscated to this day.
A judicial inquiry known as the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry was formed to investigate the causes of the collision. Proceedings began at the Halifax Court House on 13 December 1917. The inquiry's report of 4 February 1918 blamed Mont-Blanc's captain, Aimé Le Médec, the ship's pilot, Francis Mackey, and Commander F. Evan Wyatt, the Royal Canadian Navy's chief examining officer in charge of the harbour, gates and anti-submarine defences, for causing the collision. Soon after the fifteen-minute decision had been read, the pilot and captain were arrested. Wyatt was arrested the following morning. All three men were charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence at a preliminary hearing heard by Stipendiary Magistrate, Richard A. McLeod and bound over for trial. However, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Russell found there was no evidence to support these charges. Mackey was discharged on a writ of habeas corpus and the charges dropped (15 March 1918). As the captain and pilot had been arrested on the same warrant, the charges against Le Médec were also dismissed. This left only Wyatt to face a grand jury hearing. On 17 April 1918, a jury acquitted him in a trial that lasted less than a day.
Justice Arthur Drysdale, the judge at the inquiry, oversaw the first civil litigation trial. His decision (27 April 1918) found Mont-Blanc entirely at fault. Subsequent appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada (19 May 1919), and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England (22 March 1920), determined Mont-Blanc and Imo were equally to blame for navigational errors which led to the collision.
Captain Le Médec returned to France to resume his career with the French Lines. Commander Wyatt, his reputation and career ruined, left Halifax for the Boston area with his wife, Dorothy and continued for several more years working as a merchant mariner. Francis Mackey, on the other hand, remained in Halifax. Although he had voluntarily turned in his pilot's licence after being arrested, its return was denied by C. C. Ballantyne, the minister of marine and fisheries, even after the charges were dropped. Mackey spent his life savings and four years fighting for reinstatement. His licence was finally returned by the newly elected minister, The Hon. Ernest LaPointe on Valentine's Day, 1922. Francis Mackey and his family were forced to endure the stigma of his being the pilot of Mont-Blanc even after his death on 31 December 1961.
The North End Halifax neighbourhood of Richmond bore the brunt of the explosion. In 1917, Richmond was considered a working-class neighbourhood and had few paved roads and irregular garbage pick-up. After the explosion, the Halifax Relief Commission approached the reconstruction of Richmond as an opportunity to improve and modernize the city’s North End. English town planner, Thomas Adams, and Montreal architect, George Ross were recruited to design a new housing plan for Richmond. Adams, inspired by the Victorian Garden City Movement, aimed to provide public access to green spaces and to create a low-rise, low-density and multifunctional urban neighbourhood. The planners designed 324 large homes that each faced a tree-lined, paved boulevard. Ross and Adams specified that the homes be built with a new and innovative fireproof material, blocks of compressed cement called Hydro-stone. The two planners designed the construction of over 300 new homes using Hydro-stone for the hundreds of North End residents who had been rendered homeless after the explosion.
Once finished, the Hydrostone neighbourhood consisted of homes, businesses and parks, which helped create a new sense of community in the North End of Halifax. Adams and Ross were revolutionary in their enlightened approach to the reconstruction of the working-class, poor neighbourhood. The construction of this new and cutting-edge urban neighbourhood was criticized by many upper-class Haligonians who thought the Hydrostone was too extravagant for its working-class residents. Nevertheless, the Hydrostone remains a unique neighbourhood and continues to serve as a valuable example of a modern urban-planning concept.
For many years afterward, the Halifax Explosion was the standard by which all large blasts were measured. For instance, in its report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Time wrote that the explosive power of the Little Boy bomb was seven times that of the Halifax Explosion.
The Halifax North Memorial Library was built in 1966 to commemorate the victims of the explosion. The library entrance featured the first monument built to mark the explosion, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Sculpture, created by artist Jordi Bonet. However, the sculpture was dismantled by the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2004 and some parts have been scattered and lost. The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells were built in 1985, relocating memorial carillon bells from a nearby church to a large concrete sculpture on Fort Needham Hill, facing the "ground zero" area of the explosion, to serve as a memorial to the lives lost or changed forever by the Halifax Explosion. The Bell Tower is the location of an annual civic ceremony at 9:00 am every December 6. A memorial at the Halifax Fire Station on Lady Hammond Road honours the firefighters killed in their response to the explosion. Fragments of Mont-Blanc have been mounted as neighbourhood monuments to the explosion at Albro Lake Drive in Dartmouth, Regatta Point in Armdale, and the Convoy Place Park in the North End of Halifax. Simple monuments mark the mass graves of explosion victims at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the Bayers Road Cemetery. A Memorial Book listing the names of all the known victims was created in 2001. Copies of the book are displayed at the Halifax North Memorial Library and at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has a large permanent exhibit about the Halifax Explosion.
The canonical novel Barometer Rising (1941) by the Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan is set in Halifax at the time of the explosion and includes a carefully researched description of its impact on the city. Following in MacLennan's footsteps, journalist Robert MacNeil penned Burden of Desire (1992) and used the explosion as a metaphor for the societal and cultural changes of the day. MacLennan and MacNeil exploit the romance genre to fictionalize the explosion, similar to the first attempt by Lieutenant-Colonel Frank McKelvey Bell, a medical officer who penned a short novella on the Halifax explosion shortly after the catastrophic event. His romance was A Romance of the Halifax Disaster (1918), a melodramatic piece that follows the love affair of a young woman and an injured soldier. There is also a young adult fictional story in the Dear Canada series, named No Safe Harbour, whose narrator tries to find the other members of her family after the blast.
More recently, the novel Black Snow (2009) by Halifax journalist Jon Tattrie followed an explosion victim's search for his wife in the ruined city, and A Wedding in December (2005) by Anita Shreve has a story-within-the-story set in Halifax at the time of the explosion. The explosion is also referred to in some detail in John Irving's novel Until I Find You (2005) as well as Ami McKay's The Birth House (2006) in which protagonist Dora Rare travels to Halifax to offer her midwifery skills to mothers who go into labour after the explosion. In the 2009 novel, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, the shadowy schooner Golden Fang is revealed as a reoutfitted Preserved, a vessel said to have survived the explosion. In 2011, Halifax writer Jennie Marsland published her historical romance Shattered, which is set before the explosion and in its aftermath. An award-winning play entitled "Shatter" by Trina Davies is set in the explosion and explores the racial profiling of German-speaking citizens after the event.
Keith Ross Leckie scripted a miniseries entitled Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion (2003), which took the title but has no relationship to Janet Kitz's acclaimed non-fiction book Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery (1989). The miniseries follows soldier Charlie Collins through a romantic affair and his recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder. The movie exploited computer technology in order to achieve impressive special effects on a budget. However, the film was panned by critics and criticized by historians for distortions and inaccuracies. Aspects criticized were the representation of German spies in the city and countless other distortions of historical fact. Jim Lotz's The Sixth of December (1981) also toys with the fictional idea that Halifax was home to a network of enemy spies during the war.
In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks and remembrance for the help that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided immediately after the disaster. That gift was revived in 1971 by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, who began an annual donation of a large tree to promote Christmas tree exports as well as acknowledge Boston's support after the explosion. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia Government to continue the goodwill gesture as well as to promote trade and tourism. The tree is Boston's official Christmas tree and is lit on Boston Common throughout the holiday season. Knowing its symbolic importance to both cities, the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources has specific guidelines for selecting the tree.
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