News Local

Halifax explosion remembered

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

One hundred years ago, Canada went through one of its worst disasters in modern history.

On Dec, 6, 1917, Halifax was devastated by a massive explosion, the largest man-made blast in recorded history until the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Some 2,000 men, women and children were killed, 9,000 injured and left the north end of the city a pile of rubble.

Historian and former journalist Ken Cuthbertson has studied the disaster and wrote a book The Halifax Explosion detailing the people and events surrounding the disaster. It also shows how the residents of the Nova Scotia port were able to rebound from the tragedy, getting the port up and running two days later, and carrying on while rebuilding and mourning their dead.

Speaking as part of Algonquin College's speaker's series, which focused on Canadian history in recognition of Canada's 150th year of Confederation, Cuthbertson said the Halifax explosion has become somewhat overlooked over the years, having never gained the notoriety or fame of such disasters as the sinking of the Titanic.

“There was no sex appeal to it,” he said. Those who died were mostly working class people, and not big name celebrities or members of famous families. Halifax at the time was also isolated from the rest of Canada, and there was a war on; this was the third year of the First World War, and while the death toll was huge for the city to bear, this number was overshadowed when compared to the more than 2,000 people a day dying on the front lines.

In retrospect, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

The French-owned SS Mont-Blanc was a hardly used cargo ship ill suited to the task given to it in the harbour outside of New York City; it was packed bow to stern with 3,000 tons of high explosives, desperately needed by France for its war effort.

Cuthbertson said this was the first time its captain Aimé Le Médec commanded this ship, and he was understandably nervous about being in charge of what was essentially a floating bomb. Making matters more precarious was the French cargo agent felt there remained room on the ship to add a few hundred barrels of fuel on top.

It headed towards Halifax, hoping to find a convoy to hook up with for the hazardous trip across the North Atlantic, no small feat, as it was already a slow ship, too slow to keep up with most convoy vessels. Still, what else could he do?

Meanwhile, the SS Imo was in Halifax harbour, its captain Haakon anxious to get underway. The ship was empty, with orders to head to New York City to pick up relief supplies for Belgium. It was getting close to Christmas, and he and the crew wanted to finish what was likely their last run of the year.

Through a series of circumstances, including among other things the mismanagement of harbour traffic, the ships found themselves on a collision course, and at 8:45 a.m. the morning of Dec. 6, 2017, the Imo slammed into the side of the Mont-Blanc, both ships meeting in a place known as the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin.

At first, the collision didn't look too bad to either crew, the equivalent of a fender-bender in a parking lot. Then the Imo reversed engines, and as its bow withdrew from the Mont-Blanc, sparks flew which were generated by the rubbing of metal against itself. This ignited fumes wafting from several ruptured fuel barrels, and a fire broke out and spread quickly.

No one except the Mont-Blanc crew and a few officials knew what the ship contained. The fire had cut off the sailors from the fire fighting equipment stored in the stern of the ship, so their captain ordered then to abandon the vessel and row for their lives. Ominously, the ship drifted towards shore and Pier 6, where a large crowd was gathering to watch the spectacle.

A team of nine firefighters and their chief assembled on the dock ready to battle the blaze. All but one died instantly, like most of the casualties from that day, when at 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded.

“In a way, it was like 9-11,” Cuthbertson said, with firefighters putting themselves in harm's way without a second thought, and dying in the line of duty.

Another was Vincent Coleman, a railway dispatcher, who died at his post warning an incoming passenger train to stay away due to the impending danger. He was later called a hero for that action.

The blast had disintegrated the Mont-Blanc, flinging its anchor four kilometers away, and one of its deck guns nearly as far. It generated a fireball with heat reaching 5,000 C and set off a tsunami 35 feet high, which killed many people who had survived the initial explosion.

The Imo survived, although the ship was grounded at the opposite side of the harbour by the force of the blast. So intense was the burst, estimated to be around 2.9 kilotons, that it and its effects were studied by the scientists developing the world's first atomic bomb.

The damage was almost beyond imagination, with fire spreading throughout the shattered city, and then a blizzard the next day which dumped 16 inches of snow on the ruins, compounding the misery.

Cuthbertson said despite this, Halifax got back on its feet quickly. The harbour was up and running two days later, with stores and banks functioning four days after the disaster.

Relief work started immediately. Halifax's deputy mayor Henry Colwell quickly organized committees to take charge of the situation mere hours after the blast occurred. A contingent from Boston and its state of Massachusetts arrived with American Red Cross personnel, doctors, nurses and other volunteers and a lot of supplies and money to help tend to the wounded and begin building shelters. These were needed, as thousands were left homeless.

Cuthbertson said Halifax sent a massive Christmas tree to Boston as a way of saying thanks, a practice continued to this very day.

Still, the depths of the tragedy cannot be understated. One woman lost her entire family of 10 children plus her husband to the blast, surviving only because she decided to take a walk, while pregnant with her 11th child. Some 250 children under the age of five were killed in the explosion, and so many others were orphaned.

Many of the 9,000 injured were blinded by glass and other debris driven by the blast, and many of the dead weren't identified. Cuthbertson said that last fact isn't too surprising, as Halifax housed a transitory population, which came and went with the jobs, or assignments on ships. In a way, it may be impossible to know what the death toll truly was, for some casualties left little to no remains to identify.

Cuthbertson said once people had a chance to recover, they became angry and wanted to know who was to blame for the disaster. A wreck commission was convened a week after the blast.

The inquiry's report following 18 days of hearings 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. The Imo, which was found to be in the wrong side of the channel at the time of the accident, was never blamed officially.

All three men were charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence at a preliminary hearing and bound over for trial. However, charges against Mackey and Le Médec were dropped after a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice found there was no evidence to support them. Wyatt was acquitted by a jury in a trial that lasted less than a day.

Subsequent civil actions ended up through appeals going to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England, where it was determined the Mont-Blanc and Imo were equally to blame.

No compensation was ever paid out, and no party was ever convicted for any crime for actions that caused the disaster.

SUhler@postmedia.com