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When hell came to Halifax: Howard Baker explains how the chance convergence of two vessels produced tragedy and disaster. (Cross Current).

The towering mushroom cloud is usually regarded as a symbol of the Nuclear Age, but in fact this phenomenon was first witnessed eighty-five years ago, before the power of the atom was recognised or released. In December 1917 there occurred an explosion so colossal that it ranks as the greatest man-made detonation before the destruction of Hiroshima. The incident, which is described in Michael J. Bird's book The Town That Died, leveled one quarter of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and remains to this day the greatest disaster ever to strike Canada.

Established as a fortified settlement by the English in 1749, Halifax had expanded to become the capital of Nova Scotia by 1900, and served as a garrison city for the armies of the British Empire. When the British forces withdrew in 1906, Halifax faced decline, but the port facilities were developed, new factories were built and the city became Nova Scotia's commercial centre. The coming of the First World War brought thousands of allied cargo ships into the harbour to await convoy to Europe, and it was this distant war that was instrumental in reducing much of the city to rubble.

The missions of the two vessels at the centre of the disaster could hardly have been more contrasting. The Imro, a Norwegian freighter under the command of Captain Haakon From, was scheduled to leave Halifax for New York on December 5th, 1917, there to pick up a cargo of relief supplies for the people of war-torn Belgium. The Mont Blanc, a French freighter under the command of Captain Aime Le Medec, was due to arrive on the following day, and was laden with 2,300 tons of the explosive lyddite, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of gun cotton and thirty-five tons of highly inflammable benzole, this latter being contained in drums stacked on the ship's upper deck.

Given the twenty-four-hour gap between their intended departure and arrival times it seems incredible that these two vessels should arrive simultaneously at opposite ends of the narrow channel linking Halifax harbour to the Atlantic ocean and proceed along it to meet each other--and to meet disaster. Unfortunately the Mont Blanc had arrived at its destination a day early, but just minutes too late to beat the antisubmarine boom which sealed off the narrows during the night. At the same time, a delay in the delivery of steam coal to the Imro forced it to spend an extra night in Halifax harbour. Immediately the boom was raised, on the morning of Thursday December 6th, the two vessels weighed anchor, and shortly after 8.30 am they steamed towards each other along the narrows.

Disaster was not yet inevitable, since the waterway was wide enough for two vessels to pass each other. A Court of Enquiry would later seek to untangle the flurry of helm orders and siren signals that preceded the collision, but was hampered by the fact that no one present on the bridge of the Imro survived to give evidence. The only certainty is that the two vessels twice veered into each other's path while trying to get out of it, and they collided.

The impact drove the bow of the Imro through the starboard side of the Mont Blanc to a depth of some ten feet, slicing into the No. 1 hold and splitting open many of the drums lashed on the foredeck. Benzole cascaded through the torn plating on to the lyddite below, just as the Imro reversed propellor and pulled its bow clear in a shower of sparks. Ignition was instantaneous; in seconds the foredeck of the Mont Blanc was ablaze and an oily column of smoke rose over the stricken vessel.

Captain Le Medec's dilemma was appalling. His burning vessel was drifting landwards, neither the sole firefighting hose nor the bow anchor could be reached beyond the wall of flame, and there was insufficient time to unbolt the sea-cocks and scuttle the ship. Helpless to do more than protect his men, Le Medec gave the order to abandon ship. In seconds the lifeboats were away, the crew rowing frantically as they sought to escape the inevitable explosion.

As the blazing Mont Blanc drifted into Halifax harbour the road overlooking the docks filled with spectators, and trams slowed to allow passengers to witness the drama. Across the city people clustered at office windows and gathered on factory roofs to view the spectacle. Only the men in the lifeboats realised the danger, but they had no way of giving warning. As the vessel ploughed into Pier 6 and came to rest, the Halifax Fire Department was alerted, and appliances were despatched. At the same time several small boats approached the freighter to help tackle the blaze. These efforts were still proceeding when, at 9.06 am, the Mont Blanc blew up.

The explosion blasted the vessel into fragments, split the bed of the harbour and sent a mushroom cloud of smoke and debris surging three miles into the sky. The sea boiled and on every side ships were stripped of their funnels and superstructure by the blast wave that hit the shoreline a split-second later. Under its impact buildings collapsed and bridges were swept away; vehicles, locomotives and railway wagons were hurled like toys; and the railway tracks were ripped up for miles. The roads cracked and opened into fissures, while trees and telegraph poles snapped and spun away. Spreading outwards, the blast wave scythed down everything in its path: mansions, factories, churches, schools. Those buildings that withstood the initial impact nevertheless lost all their windows, contributing to the storm of splinters that swept across the blasted landscape, and for many the reprieve was only temporary: they collapsed seconds later when a hurricane of airborne wreckage roared back to fill the vacuum created by the blast. Then came a bombardment of rocks and red-hot steel fragments as that which had been hurled into the sky returned to earth. Even as this third onslaught ceased a thousand fires flared up across the city, fed by gas from fractured mains and fuelled by the kindling that had once been homes and workplaces.

Captain Le Medec and his crew had reached the shore seconds before the explosion, and had fled up the beach to the shelter of a nearby wood. They survived with few injuries, but the crowds of spectators had no chance. Hit by the full force of the explosion they were torn apart or hurled away, and the roadway on which they had congregated was first buried by wreckage and then swamped by the tidal wave that swept in as the sea rushed back to fill the hole in the harbour bed.

The boats tackling the fire were hurled away and their crews wiped out almost to a man. The city's Fire Chief and his deputy had reached Pier 6 seconds before the detonation, and they were crushed to death by debris before they could even step from their car. Captain Haakon From and his crew were killed as the blast threw the drifting Imro on to the shore. For more than a mile the beach was littered with wrecked ships, including debris from the steamer Curaca which was thrown across the full width of the narrows and lost all but eight members of its crew of forty-five.

Away from the waterfront the carnage was equally devastating; a square mile of the city had been flattened. Two hundred children and all the staff died beneath the ruins of the city's orphanage, as did over 400 of the worshippers at the Anglican church of St Mark. Of the seventy-five men working at Hill's Foundry near Pier 6 only two survived, and a hundred of the children who had answered the register that morning at Richmond School were dead by seven minutes past nine. The Canadian Government Railway lost sixty-nine employees, among them a hero named Vincent Coleman. Coleman, a despatcher in the Rail Yardmaster's office, was one of the few men in Halifax who knew the details of the Mont Blanc's cargo, and was therefore aware of the horrific implications of the blaze. He remained in his office, telegraphing warnings that stopped approaching trains from entering the city, and died at his post.

Within thirty minutes of the blast rescue teams were beginning to dig out the dead and injured, working in conditions soon made more appalling by the arrival of a fierce blizzard. By 4 pm the fires had been brought under control, and by the following day a relief committee had been established to organise aid for the injured and shelter for the homeless.

The international response to the tragedy was impressive. Millions of dollars poured in from as far afield as Australia. Britain pledged fifteen million dollars and the Lord Mayor of London opened a fund that closed at six million dollars. But it was from the United States of America that the most valuable assistance came. At 9 pm on that Thursday night a special train left Boston carrying medical supplies, and was quickly followed by a second train carrying the equipment for a complete 500-bed hospital and a full contingent of doctors, nurses and orderlies. These were the first of a succession of trains that would steam out of American cities over the next few days, carrying gifts of blankets, foodstuffs and other essentials. Despite the massive destruction to the railway system the main lines were cleared two days after the blast. Electricity and gas supplies were restored within a week, and the telegraph system within a fortnight. Gradually Halifax was brought back to life.

The Halifax Relief Commission declared the casualties to total 1,963 dead, 9,000 injured and 199 blinded, but this was a considerable underestimate for the Commission confined its calculations to the recovered bodies of Halifax residents and took no account of the seamen or the hundreds who simply vanished in the blast. Trauma counselling was then unknown, and in the months that followed the disaster, the city's doctors were faced with an epidemic of mental disorders ranging from acute depression to panic attacks.

One physician, a young Jewish doctor named Dr Shackenope, eventually succumbed to the effects himself. He had been one of the first to begin tending the injured around Pier 6 after the blast, and the sight of the carnage had affected his mind considerably. One night, unable to bear the horrific memories any longer, he hanged himself in his surgery. Thus, long after the Imro and the Mont Blanc came together so catastrophically, the Halifax disaster claimed its final victim.

Howard Baker is a freelance author.
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Title Annotation:collision of two freighters in harbor resulted in historic explosion
Author:Baker, Howard H.
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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