The Explosion that Leveled a City

Thursday, December 6, 1917 dawned over Halifax as beautifully as had countless other bright, snow-covered days during the late Nova Scotia autumn. By 8:30 a.m., however, that all changed when Halifax was rocked by the most violent man-made explosion ever created and would remain unparalleled until the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 30 years later. In mere seconds, one-third of Halifax had disappeared. Two thousand people lay dead. Nine thousand more were injured.

A French munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, was entering Halifax harbour in preparations of joining a convoy en route to supply ammunition to the Allies in France. The ship was loaded with 31,800 kg (35 tons) of benzine; 204,000 kg (225 tons) of TNT; 2,087,000 kg (2,300 tons) of picric acid; and 55,400 kg (61 tons) of cellulose nitrate (guncotton). All either highly explosive or extremely flammable.

Meanwhile, a Norwegian tramp steamer, the Imo, was leaving the harbour to pick up a load of relief cargo destined for Belgium. Despite proper signaling from both ships, the signals were somehow misunderstood and the Imo rammed the starboard bow of the Mont Blanc, crushing the steel plating to a depth of 3 metres (10 feet). The ships separated almost immediately, but sparks from the grinding of steel on steel set the benzine (which had been stored on deck) alight. The leaking, burning, liquid benzine dripped through cracks and into the holds of the ship where all the explosives lay waiting. Meanwhile, crowds gathered along the harbour shores to watch the spectacle of the blazing ship.

Despite warnings of an explosion, most people felt they were safe enough so far from the holocaust and held their ground so as not to lose their 'ring-side seats'.

Half an hour later . . . Boom...

The Mont Blanc was instantly turned into 2,722,000 kg (3,000 tons) of razor-sharp, burning shrapnel shooting out in every direction and searching for targets - human or otherwise. Deadly blast and shock waves headed for Halifax and nearby Dartmouth. The immense power of the blast was such that the Mont Blanc's 454 kg (half-ton) anchor shank fell to the earth over 3 km (2 miles) away.

Large, ocean-going ships in the harbour were completely stripped of anything that was not permanently attached. Smaller ships simply disappeared... vapourised. Huge rocks and boulders were ripped out of the harbour bed and sent flying as if by some medieval catapult. All the glass in a 32 km (20 mile) radius shattered and splintered, becoming deadly, jagged spears of destruction and injury. Ninety-seven km (60 miles) away, windows shivered in Truro; on Prince Edward Island, 200 km (125 miles) away, crockery rattled on shelves.

Acres of dockland were completely leveled. Train freight yards were totally destroyed. Iron railroad tracks were ripped from their beds and tossed like javelins. Freight cars were thrown across the harbour like Matchbox toys. A five-kilometre-high (three-mile-high) tower of smoke and burning gas rose like a giant, red, mushroom-shaped tombstone into the sky.

The harbour virtually became an empty bed of mud. The water had been totally blow away. Then a 4-metre (13-foot) wave of ocean water quickly rushed in to fill the void. Large ships were ripped from their moorings and tugboats were carried far inland.

In Halifax itself, concrete buildings crumpled to rubble. Wooden buildings simply vanished. Entire city blocks were flattened. Millions of cubic feet of burning gas fell onto the city like sparks from a firework which had ignited too close to the earth. Toppled wood- and coal-burning stoves dumped their embers onto wooden floors, setting home after home ablaze.

And then, as if to add insult to injury, Mother Nature sent the worst blizzard to hit Halifax in years to pound the already-beaten city with high, flame-fanning winds, fierce and heavy snowfall, and bitterly cold temperatures.

Yet, amid all of this chaos, death and destruction, there were a few incredible miracles:

Many people did not expect to become 'heros' when they woke up that morning. Many did, though, out of necessity, including Chief Master-at-Arms John Gammon, of the Royal Canadian Navy. Stationed on the depot ship Niobe, Gammon was supervising the activities of two divers who were, at the moment of the explosion, climbing down a ladder to work on an underwater concrete foundation. The blast carried Gammon 6 metres (20 feet) and slammed him into the ground. Quickly regaining his composure, Gammon assessed the situation. It was not good. The explosion had destroyed the pump house which supplied the divers with vital air and the four men who had been manning the pump were either missing or dead.

Able Seaman Walter Critch, who also survived the blast and was well aware of the circumstances, dug his way into the flattened pump house, lifted the roof with one arm, and cranked the life-giving pump with the other. Until moments earlier, this task had required the efforts of 4 men. Gammon, meanwhile, realized that the ocean would soon be washing in to fill the void left by the explosion. The divers, alive and staggering in the muddy water, struggled to untangle their air hoses and security lines. Gammon somehow managed to straighten out the lines and helped the heavily-weighted divers up the ladder just as the tidal wave struck the pier.

John Gammon received the 'Order of the British Empire' for his actions. Unfortunately, this did little to help alleviate his pain. His two youngest children were never found.

Boxer Bernie 'The Kid' O'Neil found himself pinned beneath the burning kitchen stove. Of the 18 people who had lived in the house, only he and his wife had somehow survived. Despite her own injuries, and the fact that she weighed only 47.5 kg (105 pounds), Annie lifted the hot metal stove off her beloved husband. A seriously-wounded Bernie, naked and unable to walk (his clothes having burned off his body), begged his wife to leave him and save herself, but she refused. Hiking her husband's legs over her slim shoulders, she dragged Bernie out of the building and to the harbour where she bathed his badly-burned body with sea water. A passing policeman helped her to carry 'The Kid' to an infirmary.

Edith O'Connell, a happy, cheerful, seven-year-old, had run with her aunt, cousin, and sister to Pier 6, where they watched the burning Mont Blanc. Edith was the only one to survive the blast, which had tossed her into the air like a doll and ripped the clothes from her body. She was lying on the ground, unconscious, when the tidal wave hit, washing her along with the rest of the rubble and debris, finally smashing her against the wharf. When she finally regained consciousness some time later, Edith was blinded from the flash and one arm and leg had been crushed to uselessness. Using her good arm and leg, Edith crawled through the masses of destruction and over dead bodies until she once again lost consciousness. She was finally found by a rescue party and rushed to a hospital where she lay in a coma for 6 days.

Edith's father, granted compassionate leave from the Royal Flying Corps, hastened to Halifax where he learned that his mother, brothers, sister, wife, and younger children were all dead. Edith, he was told, had not been found and could not possibly have survived the explosion. He left the hospital a very broken and defeated man. Edith recovered, but sadly was never able to locate her father.

As in any other disaster of this magnitude, it is impossible to understand why some people live and some people die. In many cases, it appears that pure chance and a protective hand of luck keep some alive. In one house, a baby lay asleep on the second floor while many people below lost their lives. In another house, another baby survived when a closet door fell over his bed and protected him when the ceiling collapsed. And, in yet another house, an 18-month-old child was found the following afternoon, crying and trapped under a wood stove, protected by the protruding ashpan which supported the stove and the roof above her. She became known as the 'Ashpan Baby'.

The Richmond area of Halifax was the most devastated section of the city. On June 9, 1985, ten bronze church bells were moved from the United Memorial Church of Halifax to a permanent monument in the Richmond area. The powerful, upthrust shape of the monument symbolizes the rebirth of the city. Many survivors of the disaster gathered for the dedication ceremony and cried as the bells rang out, filling their neighborhood with the mournful sounds of life.

A memorial service is held each December 6 at 9:00 a.m. The hymns that were sung during the original ceremony in 1917, honoring the unidentified victims, are sung once again, and the ten bronze bells ring out 'Abide with Me'.