The Halifax Explosion – Our Story


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We are posting the first story, an important element of Halifax history. The Halifax Explosion has shaped what the city is today.

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Halifax has thrived during times of war and the First World War was no exception.

Halifax Nova Scotia - World War I

By December 1917, the population of Halifax was approx. 50,000 citizens. Canada had been at war for three years, with the United States entering the war eight months earlier.

 

Halifax Harbour was extremely busy and in early December a convoy of ships was gathering, preparing to head overseas. There were between 80-100 ships in the harbour, the naval yards were busy building and repairing other vessels.

 

The “Mont Blanc” was a French ship, which was actually decommissioned before the start of the First World War, but due to heavy allied losses was re-commissioned and sent to New York where it was converted into a munitions ship.

 

The hull was gutted and lined with wood held together by copper nails so as not to cause sparks and then loaded up with 2300 tons of picric acid(used to make bombs), 225 tons of TNT, 35 tons of benzol (aviation fuel), 10 tons of gun cotton and 300 rounds of ammunition.

 

It was scheduled to leave New York for Europe with a smaller convoy but it was determined that the ship was now heavier and authorities were worried that the Mont Blanc would slow down the convoy. The decision was made to send the Mont Blanc to Halifax where it would cross with the larger convoy.

 

On December 1st, the ship left New York for Halifax, alone and due to secrecy, not flying a red flag indicating it was a munitions ship.

 

The Captain, Aiméé Le Medec, knowing he was in charge of a floating bomb, took many precautions, including not allowing his crew to even carry matches.

 

The “Mont Blanc” arrived at the mouth of the Halifax Harbour on December 5th at 4:30pm and was met by Lieutenant Freeman, the ships inspector and Francis Mackie, the shipping pilot who would guide them through the harbour. Time was of the essence because of an anti-submarine net at the mouth of the harbour was about to close.

 

After checking the manifest and finding the cargo was explosives, Lieutenant Freeman made the decision not to rush the ship into the harbor and ordered that she drop anchor just east of McNabs Island to wait out the night.

 

Another vessel, the neutral Norwegian-registered ship “Imo” was having problems of its own.

 

It was on its way to New York to pick up relief supplies destined for Belgium when it stopped in Halifax to refuel and then was delayed a number of times before it was ready to leave.

 

The “Imo” was ready and scheduled to leave on December 5th but due to refueling delays the ship missed departure with the closing of the anti-submarine net. It had to sit in the Bedford Basin of the Halifax Harbour one more night.

 

On the morning of December 6th all reports had the weather as excellent. The air was crisp but sunny and clear.

 

The city was alive with activity, thousands working in the shipyards and docks, much more heading to the downtown core to work and hundreds of children on their way to school.

 

At approximately 7:30am, the anti-submarine net was opened.

 

A number of ships were waiting to enter the harbour. A tramp tanker made its way into the harbour followed by the “Mont Blanc”.

 

In the Bedford Basin, the Captain of the “Imo” was having his crew prepare for their departure.  He was not going to wait for official permission to leave, but on a normal day, it probably would not have made that much of a difference.

 

This was not to be a normal day.

 

The “Mont Blanc” was making its way along the east side of the harbour as it entered the narrows.

 

At the same time, the “Imo” was planning to sail along the west side of the Bedford Basin.  As it entered the narrows, it came across a naval tug, the Stella Maris, which was towing two barges. The rules of the sea state the one ship passing another ship must do so on the starboard (right) side.  As there was no room on the starboard side, the captain of the “Imo” decided to pass on the port (left) side. With this action, the”Imo” was on the east side of the harbour and on a direct collision course with the “Mont Blanc”.

 

The “Mont Blanc” signaled to the “Imo” that she was in the wrong channel.

 

The “Imo” signaled back that she was going to move further to port (to the left), further into the “Mont Blanc’s” channel. The “Mont Blanc” signaled that she still intended to pass to the starboard (right) as she was very close to the east side of the harbour and travelling very slow.

 

The “Imo” did not vary its course at all and the “Mont Blanc’s” captain took the only course of action he thought he had. To swing his ship port (to the left), towards Halifax.

 

This action might have worked if nothing else had changed, but unfortunately, that was not the case.  The captain of the “Imo” ordered the ship full speed astern (reverse).  So did the captain of the “Mont Blanc”, but it was too late. The reversed engines caused the “Imo” to swing right and it struck the bow of the “Mont Blanc”.

 

The collision took place at approximately 8:45 am.

Halifax Harbour Explosion Map

Halifax Nova Scotia Map

According to witnesses, the initial collision did not cause the fire but it did put a hole in the Mont Blanc causing the benzol to tip over and spill. As the ships passed their hulls made contact and caused sparks to start flying which ignited the benzol.

 

The crew of the Mont Blanc made an attempt to put out the fire but realized immediately that this attempt would be futile. The captain ordered his crew to abandon ship.

 

Now, as you can imagine, if today you were down by the harbour and you saw two ships collide and one start to burn, you would probably stop to watch. This is what happened the morning of December 6th.

 

Within no time the banks of the harbour were lined with people watching the excitement.

 

The captain and crew of the “Mont Blanc” abandoned their ship and rowed to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. They hoped to make it over the hill of the bank before the ship blew up.

 

When the crew reached the bank, residents who were watching the two ships met them. The crew tried to explain the danger but were unable to get their point across.

 

The crew of the “Mont Blanc” only spoke French.

 

Getting frustrated a member of the crew grabbed a child from its mother’s arms and ran into the woods. The residents, not understand what was happening and chased the crew. The crew did not stop running, the residents kept chasing and they all made it over the hill before the explosion.

 

This act saved all their lives.

 

The “Mont Blanc” drifted across the harbour until it brushed against Pier 6 on the Halifax waterfront. It started to burn.

 

At that time Halifax had only one fire truck and it made its way to Pier 6 to try to put out the fire.

 

There was a floating bridge that crossed the harbour and Lieutenant Freeman, the ship’s inspector from the day before, was crossing it to go to work.

 

He saw the ship burning recognized it, remembered its cargo. He ran through the shipyard to warn as many people as he could that the burning ship was a munitions ship and it was going to blow.

 

One of those he told was a telegraph operator, Vince Coleman, from the Halifax train station. Vince Coleman knew there was a train on its way around the basin and would be passing by Pier 6 in a very short period of time. So, he ran back to the terminal and sent out the following message:

 

“MUNITION SHIP ON FIRE IN THE HARBOUR,

MAKING FOR PIER 6,

GOING TO EXPLODE,

GOOD-BYE”.

 

The train received the message at 9:04am.

 

At 9:05am the “Mont Blanc” blew up and found a place in history as the largest man-made explosion before the development of the atomic bomb.

 

The ship shattered, instantly killing over a 1600 people.

Halifax Explosion Blast

The water around the “Mont Blanc” disappeared, some of it vaporizing but much of it rushing out to the ocean causing a tidal wave to wash through the downtown core taking with it many more victims.

 

Almost every window in Halifax was blown out. Most windows in Truro, Nova Scotia 100 kilometres (60 miles) away, were blown out. The blast was felt on Prince Edward Island, 325 kilometres (200 miles) away and in Sydney, 440 kilometres (270 miles) away.

 

There were two American Destroyers, 84 kilometres (52 miles) out of Halifax, making their way to join the convoy. The shock wave from the explosion was so severe that a Captain of one of the ships thought they had hit a mine. When he had determined they had not hit a mine and there was no damage to his ship, he looked and saw a column of smoke rising from the Halifax Harbour, at an estimated height of over 3.6 kilometers (12,000 feet).

 

The explosion destroyed ships, factories, churches, schools, and homes. Many more homes burned due to wood stoves spilling over from the blast.

 

The hospitals were immediately overwhelmed, so the military set up tents on the Halifax Common to handle the overflow.

 

When Vince Coleman sent out the message to stop the train, the message did not stop there. It continued down the line and eventually reaching Boston. Within a couple hours of confirming the disaster, trains were pulling out of Boston North Train Station with doctors, nurses, social workers and medical supplies heading to Halifax.

 

That evening, the enormity of the situation started to set in. That evening, the snow started.

The Halifax Herald - Halifax Explosion Headline

By morning a severe blizzard was in full force and lasted three days. Many explosion survivors froze to death on the Commons.

 

Due to the storm, the trains from Boston took 18 hours to reach Halifax instead of its normal 12 hours.

 

Within the next few days help started pouring in from all over Canada and many parts of the world including Europe. Halifax played a major role in the war effort and Canada’s allies knew the importance of the Halifax Harbour.

 

Although an actual total will probably never be known , it is estimated that between 1600-2000 people were killed, 9000 injured, over 6000 left homeless and one-third of the city was totally destroyed.

1917 Halifax Explosion Video

An official inquiry opened just days after the explosion and in April of 1918, the “Mont Blanc” was declared solely to blame for the disaster. The following year, on appeal, both ships were judged equally at fault.

 

No one person has ever been blamed for the largest man-made explosion before the atomic age.

 

One thing that is clear that the Halifax Explosion aided nuclear scientists to estimate the range of air blast effects and likely tsunami created by a detonation in a populated harbour city.

 

The studying the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, scientists decide to detonate bombs in mid-air at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to create a greater range of destruction.

 

On January 22nd, 1918, the Halifax Relief Commission was formed and it handled pensions, claims for all losses, re-housing and the rehabilitation of explosion victims.  This commission was disbanded in June of 1976 and now the Department of Veterans Affairs pays all pensions.

 

The unforgettable generosity of the people of Massachusetts after the Halifax Explosion was important to the care and rebuilding of Halifax and would be impossible to repay.  As a token of its gratitude, every year Halifax sends the residents of Boston a giant Christmas tree, as a way of thanking them for their friendship and support in the city’s time of need.

 

Every Christmas you will find the tree proudly displayed in the Boston Common.

 

 

Through resilience and perseverance of its citizens, Halifax has bounced back to become one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is a must of places to visit and we would like to hear what you think …

 

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