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The Great Halifax Explosion

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When on December 6, 1917, the cables flashed the tidings that at nine o'clock that morning the city of Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, had been almost completely destroyed by a terrible explosion, the world, attuned though it was at that grim period to happenings of savage violence, could scarcely credit such news, and Canada, in particular, was utterly stunned. Situated in close proximity to the coalfields of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, and endowed with a magnificent natural harbour, Halifax was one of the richest and most important cities in the Dominion. It had developed into Canada's chief winter port, and all the big Canadian railways had their termini there. Moreover, it was an important coaling station for the British fleet; its dockyard, rated first-class and provided with storehouses, machine-shops and magazines, extended over 16 acres; the fortifications were so formidable that Halifax was sometimes called "The Kronstadt of America." That such a place should have been demolished by an explosion seemed preposterous.

Yet it was only too true, and the fans et origo of the catastrophe was a harmless-looking 3,000 ton steamer called the Mont Blanc, whose holds, for all her unpretentious appearance, contained nearly 5,000 tons of high explosives. While passing through the narrows leading from the outer harbour into Bedford Basin, bound in from New York, this vessel had the misfortune to collide with the Imo, a Belgian relief ship just putting out to sea, soon after which she took fire and blew up. The weather at the time was perfectly clear, and the ships had plenty of room to pass, but through a misunderstanding they headed for one another. The blame was laid by each captain upon the other afterwards, and the owners of the Mont Blanc filed a suit in the Admiralty Court against the Imo's owners, claiming $2,000,000 damages. When the case was heard, however, Mr. Justice Drysdale adjudged that the fault had lain entirely with the munition ship, and it was against her owners, accordingly, that damages were assessed. Furthermore, the Government Commission which investigated the circumstances of the collision decided that the blame belonged to McKay, the Mont Blanc's pilot, and to her master, Captain Lamodec, who were held to have disregarded the rules of the road. Both men were arrested and charged with manslaughter, though McKay was later discharged on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to establish criminal culpability in his case. The Commission further recommended the French authorities to cancel Lamodec's licence and deal with him according to French law, and it found, too, that Captain Wyatt, the chief examination officer, had been guilty of neglect of duty in not keeping himself informed as to ships' movements and not taking adequate steps to enforce the various regulations. It was pointed out, however, by Lieut.-Col. J. T. Bucknill, in a convincing letter to The Times, that in any case a ship laden with high explosive had no business whatever to enter the harbour of a city with 50,000 inhabitants living for the most part in wooden houses, and, at that, built on the side of a steeply rising ridge.

At the time when the Mont Blanc sighted the Imo, the former ship was proceeding in the. direction of Bedford Basin at half-speed, the latter vessel being about two miles distant and heading towards the Dartmouth shore, which lay on the north side of the bay. The harbour at this point was something under half a mile in width, and on each side the land sloped rather sharply upward from the water front, forming what might be described as a great natural trough. As the two ships neared each other, the muddle already noted arose. When it became obvious that a collision was inevitable, the Imo reversed her engines, which, she being light without cargo, had the effect of bringing her round slightly to port, with her bow turned towards the other vessel's starboard.

In her forward hold the Mont Blanc had picric acid; then came a steel bulkhead, and, in the next two holds, a quantity of T.N.T. As the picric acid would not explode through the mere impact, whereas the T.N.T. probably would, Captain Lamodec held so that his ship would be struck forward of the hold where the former was stored. A moment later came the collision, the Imo cutting into his vessel to a depth of about one-third of the way through the deck and forward hold. This, of course, was what the captain of the munition ship had manoeuvred to bring about; unfortunately, however, there were stored on the forward deck twenty barrels of benzol, which immediately poured down into the picric acid and ignited it.

As clouds of pungent smoke went rolling up from the gaping rent in the deck, the Imo backed away desperately in the direction of the Dartmouth shore. The crew of the Mont Blanc, meanwhile, set to work with feverish energy to try and check the conflagration, and, when that proved hopeless, to sink the ship. People on the waterfront and aboard other vessels in the harbour saw them labouring like madmen, but being driven back step by step by the flames, until at last they abandoned hope, made a wild rush into the boats, and rowed as hard as they could for the shore. Had they devoted their efforts to sinking the ship at the very beginning instead of attempting to fight the fire, possibly many lives might have been saved. In the letter already cited Colonel Bucknill pointed out that the process of scuttling the vessel seemed to have been put off too long, so that the charge, when the explosion came, was allowed to have full effect in a horizontal direction above water. When the Cabo Machichaco had been in a similar situation in Santander harbour in 1893, he recalled, she had been promptly scuttled, with the result that her hold was submerged to the waterways. Thus in that case the force of the explosion had been directed to the zenith by the walls of water surrounding the charge, while horizontal waves of air-compression had been reduced to minima.

The explosion - if a word so commonplace can be used to describe that stupendous blast - came seventeen minutes after the collision. An American naval commander cruising off Halifax reported that he both saw and heard it 52 miles out at sea. Five British steamers and a tug lying in the harbour were seriously damaged and two-thirds of their crews killed outright; the Imo was flung aground in a battered condition and with all her crew missing. Ashore, imprisoned as it were by the sides of that natural trough formed by the hills, the concussion was simply inconceivable: the monstrous energy so suddenly released seemed to rock heaven and earth. Up on the slopes lying behind the principal water-front works, separated by some distance from the explosion, the city's finest public buildings and best residences shuddered and oscillated as though in the throes of some frightful earthquake, and every window was shattered into smithereens. All the city north of the Queen's Hotel was more or less wrecked; a number of large and important structures, including the Inter-Colonial North-End Station and the plant of the International Railway at Willow Park, were totally demolished. As for the northern and oldest part of Halifax, known as Richmond, it was simply smashed out of recognition. This district was built up for the most part of small wooden houses in narrow streets. Being situated on a slope, the roofs of these dwellings were elevated above those nearer to the water-front, so that the majority of them were exposed to the full violence of the blow, and were flattened to the ground as though they had been struck down by some Titan's sledge-hammer. As instances of the fearful force let loose may be mentioned that windows were broken sixty miles away, a telegraphist was killed at his desk four miles inland, and a number of freight cars were blown a distance of nearly two miles through the air.

The crew of the Mont Blanc, who had run into the woods for shelter when they reached the shore, told afterwards how the blast of the explosion knocked every man of them flat and covered them with a shower of leaves and branches from the trees, though only the gunner was fatally injured. Immediately succeeding the detonation, they said, there was a momentary pause of stunned silence, and then from the stricken town Bedlam broke loose.

In the hotels and other big, stone-built structures there was little loss of life or personal injury, but very different was the tale in Richmond, where most of the unfortunate inhabitants were caught and crushed in a moment when the buildings descended on them like a line of traps, giving them no time to escape. Thousands of tons of broken glass went flying through the air, and it was estimated that over 300 people were blinded by the fragments. Mr. J. Sheldon, editor of the Dartmouth paper, The Patriot, gives us a glimpse of the appalling wounds inflicted by that storm of jagged slivers. "At the southern end of the harbour," he says, "the people suffered mainly from shattered glass. One woman had her throat cut by a glass splinter and bled to death. Almost every person within a mile of the water-front was more or less severely injured by the shattered window panes.... Trees were torn up by the roots. The Indian Reserve, north of Dartmouth, was nearly wiped out. One Indian woman was taken from the ruins with her leg hanging by a shred of flesh. The injured and dead were indescribably mutilated."

Among children, particularly, the casualties of the north section were frightful. Out of 550 boys and girls who entered certain schools in Halifax that day, less than ten escaped with their lives; 200 little ones were killed in Dartmouth School, and at the Protestant Orphans' Home the matron and every single child perished. But the horrors of the collapsed buildings and rain of broken glass were not all: the terrific heat of the consuming gases released from the exploded munitions swept the city with its fiery breath and set it alight. The stone buildings near the Citadel escaped from being ignited, but Richmond, where the narrow streets were all choked with tons upon tons of kindling wood, was not so fortunate; in this district, before the wretched inhabitants could recover from the shock of the explosion, they found fire roaring down on them in great gusts through the splintered woodwork.

The universal impression for the first few moments was that the Germans had made an air-raid, and this belief was strengthened when the thousands of people who came rushing out into the open beheld a vast pall of grey smoke hanging over the northern end of the city. Believing that other explosions would follow, the frightened mob poured into the southern section, where they herded together in the open space and remained there for hours until they could at last be convinced that all danger was past. In less than half an hour after the occurrence of the disaster there were 5,000 people gathered on the common, while thousands more had run in their panic right outside the city and taken refuge in the open fields. Meanwhile, the injured in Richmond crawled as best they could out of the tangled wreckage of their homes and lay in the streets till ambulances or other conveyances came to remove them to hospital, the less serious cases doing their best to render first-aid to the badly wounded. Indeed, the hospitals were all so full in next to no time that hundreds of the injured were compelled to walk about untreated until they could be attended to. Women fled along the littered streets with their children in their arms, crazy with fright, tripping and stumbling among the debris. Others simply stood in dumb horror, watching their homes being consumed in the flames, only too often with members of their families still trapped among the blazing timbers.

Various people who were in Halifax at the time of this dreadful event have left their impressions on record, and some of these stories are very strange. There was one man who saw the amazing spectacle of his chest of drawers leaping high in the air from the force of the concussion; a fraction of a second later it landed right on top of him and after that he remembered no more until his family came to his rescue. Another intensely dramatic incident took place while the Associated Press was receiving an account of the catastrophe from its Halifax correspondent. In the middle of a sentence the telegraph instrument stopped abruptly, and all attempts to get in touch again with the sender of the message were fruitless. It was learned afterwards that the telegraphist, suddenly getting word that his wife was fatally injured, had abandoned his key and rushed out to search for her.

Most witnesses are agreed that three distinct reports accompanied the explosion. The first was a comparatively light rumble, resembling the noise made by a minor seismic disturbance. Then came the devastating blast which made even the massive Citadel quake to its very foundations, and, immediately after that, the ubiquitous crashing of shivered glass. Mr. Duncan Grey, who chanced to be engaged in the inspection of a shed on the water-front at the moment of the calamity, has related how he barely escaped with his life, and it is to be noted that he, too, differentiates between the mere report of the munition ship blowing up and the tremendous blow struck by the expanding gases. "A few seconds after the roar of the explosion," he states, "a gust of wind swept through the shed and down came pillars, boards and beams. I rushed into the open, and the sight that met my eyes was the worst I have ever seen, though I am acquainted with the horrors of the battlefield. I saw people lying under timbers, stones and other debris, some injured beyond recognition, others at the point of death. As near as I can remember, I pulled out twenty-two men and children from the wreckage. Partly blinded by smoke from the burning dwellings, I gave what help I could to mothers and little ones who were searching for lost relatives. I struggled on, coming across many bodies of men, women and children. Death was everywhere, and the flames were sweeping a wide pathway for themselves. Some men, half demented, dashed into the burning debris in the effort to rescue their wives and families, while little children were running along, some covered with blood, crying for their parents."

One's predominant impression of such a catastrophe as the Halifax explosion must be that of its appalling suddenness. One minute - one moment, one might even say - the inhabitants of the city were going about their various ordinary' activities and preoccupied only with the affairs of their individual lives. Men were making a start with the day's tasks in office or workshop, their wives were planning the midday meal, the little ones were settling down to their lessons at school. Down in the harbour everything would be just as it had been on a thousand such mornings - a number of ships lying motionless on the calm surface of the Bay, here and there a tug fussing to and fro, and over towards the Bedford Basin two steamers drawing close to each other as they prepared to pass in the narrows - and sounding their syrens rather more, perhaps, than might have seemed necessary. Then, with lightning suddenness, this peaceful picture disappears and we are looking in stupefaction at a wrecked city, its rows of neat dwelling houses battered into rubbish heaps, scarlet tongues of flame jumping from pile to pile of debris, overhead the grey smoke-cloud drifting off into the blue, and the warren of little streets filled with a frantic throng that stampedes wildly over the litter and the mangled dead in its panic to escape from it knows not what, though many remain rooted to the spot in a state of paralysis.

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