Haligonians watched with curiosity as Mont Blanc drifted to Halifax, the ship ablaze from an accident. Minutes later, the ship exploded, with many injured and killed
Dateline: December 6, 1917
Halifax, Nova Scotia
World War One
The French ship Mont Blanc
Fully laden with explosives, the Mont Blanc was slowly sailing toward the crowded Bedford Basin to wait for the convoy to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Supply ships traveled in convoy for safety – WWI was in full operation.
The Imo, a Belgian relief ship
The Imo was cruising through the same waterway on its way to port in New York City, where it would pick up a cargo of relief supplies destined for Belgium.
Citizens of the City of Halifax
As events unfolded over a very short period of time, many watched from windows and hundreds ran to the waterfront, captivated by the excitement of a fiery ship floating in the busy harbour.
The Chronicle of a Disaster:
With a full cargo of munitions for Allied use in Europe, the Mont Blanc’s load contained 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton, 2,300 tons of picric acid (used in explosives), and 35 tons of a highly explosive mixture called benzol. As the ship slowly sailed toward Bedford Basin, another ship, the Imo, was moving fast in the same water lane.
“At the entrance to the narrows, after a series of ill-judged manoeuvres, the Imo struck the Mont Blanc on the bow,” said the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. “Although the collision was not severe, fire immediately broke out on the Mont Blanc.” Understanding the direct danger, the Mont Blanc crew immediately took to the lifeboats.
A huge explosion in a “blinding white flash”
Engulfed in flames, the deserted French ship drifted toward the Halifax harbour, given momentum from the collision. Hundreds of spectators, men, women and children, flooded down to the city’s north shoreline to watch the saga playing out before their eyes. Others watched from windows in their homes and businesses. The sight was captivating. The Mont Blanc brushed a pier, setting it on fire. Fire crews arrived right away and attempted to put out the ship’s flames. At 9:05 a.m., Halifax.ca said, there was “a blinding white flash creating the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age.”
The fiery blast was so big that the Mont Blanc was splintered into bits; the barrel of the ship’s cannon was launched 3.5 miles away, a portion of the huge, heavy anchor shank became a missile that landed two miles in the opposite direction. The anchor piece weighed over 1,000 lbs. Numerous ships in the bustling area were damaged or destroyed. The shockwaves were felt almost 300 miles away, and windows were broken in a 50-mile radius. The north section of the city of Halifax and part of Dartmouth were demolished, exploded and disintegrated by fire. Everything in its reach was destroyed – churches, schools, businesses and homes.
Thousands dead and injured; a winter blizzard hindered rescuers
But most devastating was the injury and loss of life. Rescue efforts began immediately to find the casualties. Almost 4,000 people were injured in the sudden blast, nearly 1,000 people with eye injuries from flying glass. After weeks and months of searching through the rubble, it was determined that almost 2,000 people were dead. Hindering the urgent rescue process was a blizzard the day after the explosion, covering the city in 16 inches of snow.
Help came from far and wide for the people of Halifax. Foreign aid flowed in from China and New Zealand, England and the United States. Living nearby, the state of Massachusetts “donated $750,000 in money and goods and gave unstintingly in volunteer assistance…” noted Halifax.ca. “To this day, Halifax sends an annual Christmas tree to the city of Boston in gratitude.” Gradually, the ruined sections of the city were rebuilt.
This year, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Service will be held on December 6, 2007 in the Bell Tower at Fort Needham Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to honour the victims on the 90th anniversary of the explosion.
This article was first published on Suite101 in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod