Wednesday, December 06, 2006
The Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917
Today in 1917, an enormous explosion ripped through Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia, Canada. The explosion damaged parts of the cities of Halifax, Richmond and Dartmouth, all of which bordered on the harbor, and was devastating in terms of the loss of life and property. It was the largest man-made explosion in history until the Trinity atomic bomb test of July, 1945.
The forces that would soon collide to cause the disaster were set in motion on the evening of the December 5th. The Mont-Blanc, a freighter of the French Navy, arrived outside Halifax Harbor. Because of the First World War raging in Europe, the harbor was protected by two anti-submarine nets which had to be opened in order to let ships in and out. For security reasons, the nets were closed at sundown and remained so for the evening. Thus, the Mont-Blanc would have to spend the night off nearby McNabs Island. On the other side of the net was the Imo, a Norwegian ship loaded with relief supplies bound for Belgium. She was not ready to get underway before sundown on the 5th, so she had to spend the evening in the harbor.
Early on the morning of December 6th, both the Mont-Blanc and the Imo got underway. Both vessels would need to pass through The Narrows, a thin ribbon of water which connected the outer harbor with the Bedford Basin. Passage through The Narrows was unregulated and depended on each captain's good judgement to govern entrance into and exit from the harbor. The Imo attempted to steer through The Narrows using the right channel, but a ship was blocking the way. Her captain decided to use the left channel and proceeded out. At that moment, the Mont-Blanc was entering the harbor using the same left channel. Neither ship yielded.
The Mont-Blanc's captain, realizing that a collision was imminent unless someone changed course, ordered his ship into the center channel of The Narrows. For her part, the Imo came to a halt, a maneuver that caused the ship to drift into the center channel. It was now too late for either ship to miss the other. The ships dealt each other a glancing blow; the Imo then attempted to back up, causing her to scrape against the side of the Mont-Blanc and generate sparks.
Normally, a collision of this nature between two freighters would be damaging, but not fatal. However, the Mont-Blanc's cargo turned the accident into a tragedy. She was carrying over 2,600 tons of explosives, including 500,000 kilograms of dry picric acid, a highly explosive powder. The sparks created by the collision ignited vapors from some of the cargo stored on the Mont-Blanc's deck, starting a fast-spreading fire that soon engulfed the entire ship. Knowing that his crew stood little chance of putting out the fire before it reached the highly explosive cargo below, the captain ordered the men to abandon ship. Fitting into two rowboats, they reached the safety of the Dartmouth shore as their ship drifted towards Halifax.
Other ships in the harbor tried to dowse the fires on the Mont-Blanc but made little progress. The ship finally came to rest against Pier 6 on the Richmond waterfront and the fire spread to the town. Onlookers rushed to the waterfront and people watched the unfolding catastrophe from their front porches and living room windows. Almost no one watching the scene knew what the Mont-Blanc had in her holds, for if they had, they would've moved as far away from the harbor as they could.
Finally, the inevitable happened: at 9:04AM, the cargo of the Mont-Blanc exploded. The ship herself, 3,100 tons in displacement, was vaporized. A fireball rose nearly two kilometers into the air and formed a giant mushroom cloud. Nearly three square kilometers of Richmond, Halifax and Dartmouth was destroyed instantly and windows were shattered more than 80 kilometers away. A tsunami formed in the harbor and created a wave 18 meters high. The Imo, still trying to make her way out of the harbor, was lifted up onto dry land by the force of the water.
Although exact numbers will never be known, it is estimated that 2,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of the blast. Over 9,000 people were injured and 1,500 were left homeless. Of the dead, more than 600 were under the age of 15. An unusually large number of people had injuries to the face and eyes from flying glass; presumably, this is because so many people were inside their homes watching the events in the harbor through glass windows. As a result of the number of cases of blindness in the area, Halifax became known in the following decades for its care and treatment of those who had lost their eyesight.
Although there were undoubtedly many heroes that day, one man stands out. Vince Coleman was a railway dispatcher who worked near the harbor. He was one of the few people who was made aware of the impending explosion, but he stayed on the job and sent out telegraph messages to a number of incoming passenger trains, telling them to stay away from the area. They all heeded his warning. Coleman was killed in the explosion while sending messages to government authorities, telling them of the disaster.