A frantic call came in that a ship was aflame in Halifax Harbour. Firefighter Billy Wells didn't hesitate. He suited up and jumped into the driver's seat and within minutes he, along with nine other firefighters, were racing toward the floating inferno. Then everything went black.
It was December 6, 1917 and the munitions ship Mont Blanc, abandoned by her terrified crew and burning following a collision in the harbour with the Belgian relief ship SS Imo, was drifting to the shore. What the firefighters -- and rubberneckers who had gathered along the shoreline to watch the spectacle -- didn't realize was that Mont Blanc was loaded with munitions on deck and below. The ships were not moving at great speed but the collision had generated sparks. In the holds were 2,366.5 tons of picric acid, both wet and dry, 250 tons of TNT, 62.1 tons of gun cotton. Secured on the deck, 246 tons of benzol in barrels. For the deck guns approximately 300 rounds, some on deck, some stored below. In short, Mont Blanc was a ticking time bomb.
Mont Blanc drifted toward shore and about 20 minutes after the collision exploded in a disaster that would become known as the Halifax Explosion (you may remember this commercial by Historica Canada that ran on television several years ago). Casualties were staggering - more than a thousand people died instantly from debris, fires and collapsed buildings, with another thousand to follow in the days afterward. Nine thousand more were injured and maimed in what was at the time the largest manmade explosion prior to the dropping of the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima.
From the Canadian Encyclopedia: Morgue records from 1918 show 1,611 known dead or missing -- about a third of them under the age of 15. By 2004, the number of dead had been revised at 1,952. Nine thousand more were wounded, including 300 blinded or partially blinded by flying glass. More than 1,500 buildings were destroyed and 12,000 damaged. Six thousand people were made homeless among more than 25,000 overall that lacked proper shelter after the explosion -- a problem made worse by the winter blizzard that struck Halifax the next day. Total property damage amounted to an estimated $35 million.
When rescuers were finally able to get to firefighter Billy Wells, he was still clutching the remaining half of the steering wheel. He had no idea what had hit him, but that steering wheel he was holding was all that was left of the truck and his friends. The other nine firefighters were dead.
Halifax Explosion Foundation of Christmas Tradition
Time has a way of dulling the senses, especially when we reflect on disasters. Pictures are black and white. "Thousands of people" is a statistic devoid of individual names and their stories. Today, the scars are there but are hard to see, replaced instead by manicured homes and bustling streets. At ground zero itself, a naval yard is being built near the exact site where the explosion took place.
In a surprising development, National Post reported that construction of new buildings at the naval yard completely obliterates the view from the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower at Fort Needham Memorial Park. The point of the memorial is that it is seen. Other historic ground-zero disaster sites around the globe such as National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Hiroshima Peace Memorial, USS Arizona Memorial and closer to home, the Swissair Flight 111 Memorial at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, are treated with great reverence. Even Lac-Mégantic, Quebec is hoping to create a lasting memorial at the location of the 2013 disaster where so many died in the train derailment. It's a rather incredulous development, and frankly mind-boggling, that Halifax's city planners and political leaders would have allowed this to happen. What's equally mind-boggling is there was no outcry from the public. Progress, I guess.
Hilltop views aside, one of the best memorials to the disaster is the city itself. When I landed in Halifax for the first time and got a glimpse of ground zero and the surrounding area that was affected by the explosion, the sheer size of the blast area really put things in perspective. It was astonishing to think one explosion in 1917 - before the development of World War II-era bombs - could obliterate an area so large. I couldn't help but think what was going through the mind of all the first responders who had to confront that horrific, heart-breaking sight.
An outstanding venue to learn about the Halifax Explosion is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Richard MacMichael, coordinator of visitor services staff and interpretive programming for the museum, says the exhibit on the Halifax Explosion of 1917 contains many rare and moving artifacts, most of which were graciously donated by survivors and their families.
"It puts a human face on what was the largest manmade explosion before the atomic age and preserves the stories of perseverance and tragedy that make up the fabric of the history of Halifax. The exhibit also contains several large fragments of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc, creating a vivid impression of the destructive power of the explosion," says MacMichael. "Visitors to the exhibit leave with a greater knowledge of Canadian history. Many of them know very little about the events of December 6, 1917 and the exhibit's focus on how families were effected can be quite thought-provoking and in some cases, moving. The exhibit contains a number of mortuary artifacts, which also serve to underline the impact of the blast on a wide range of ordinary people's lives. The museum also offers a school program on the story of the explosion aimed at students in grades three through eight that gives them an increased awareness of the disaster. We also offer a first-person interpretive experience as one of our staff tells the story of the explosion from the point of view of her great-grandmother."
After the explosion, news raced around the world. Medical assistance, food, clothing, building materials and skilled labour poured in from the Maritimes, Central Canada and the United States. But it was the "continuing assistance organized in nearby Boston provided by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee, that was particularly noteworthy," and it's that assistance that forms the foundation of one of the most enduring state-to-state friendships on the planet.