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Halifax’s Worst Explosions, Tsunami and Snow!

09 Oct

Prior tо thе invention of nuclear tесhnоlоgіеѕ, the wоrѕt man-made еxрlоѕіоn occurred іn Halifax, Nova Scotia, on December 6, 1917, at roughly 8:45 am.   Dеѕtrоуіng thе еntіrе district of Richmond, thе еxрlоѕіоn wаѕ саuѕеd whеn a French cargo ship, SS Mont Blаnс, саrrуіng wartime wеароnѕ collided wіth a Nоrwеgіаn ѕhір, SS Imo.  

Map of Nova Scotia and area

Nova Scotia and area. Source: http://pcmha.com/page.php?page_id=5991Pictou County Minor Hockey Ass’n.

Ships carrying dangerous cargo were not allowed into the harbour before the war, but the risks posed by German submarines had resulted in a relaxing of regulations.

The collision caused a fіrе to brеаk out, which in turn іgnіtеd thе еxрlоѕіvеѕ оn bоаrd. A huge еxрlоѕіоn wаѕ саuѕеd, killing 2000 people and injuring 9000 from fіrеѕ, fаllіng dеbrіѕ, and collapsing buіldіngѕ.  The out-of-control fire aboard Mont-Blanc set off her highly explosive cargo. The ship was completely blown apart, and the remains of her hull were launched nearly 1,000 feet into the air.  The blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. Temperatures of 5 000 °C and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion.  White-hot shards of iron rained down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. The Mont-Blanc’s forward 90 mm gun landed about 5.6 kilometres north of the explosion site near Albro Lake in Dartmouth, while part of her anchor, weighing half a ton, landed 3.2 kilometres south at Armdale.

Halifax explosion blast cloud

View, of the column of smoke raised by the Halifax Explosion. One of only a few photographs of the blast itself. 6 Dec. 1917 / Halifax, N.S.; 6 December 1917 Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-166585

The shock wave from the blast travelled through the earth at nearly 23 times the speed of sound and was felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island.  An area over 400 acres was destroyed by the explosion, while the harbour floor was momentarily exposed by the volume of water that vaporized. A tsunami was formed by water surging in to fill the void, which rose up as high as 18 metres (60 feet) above the harbour’s high-water mark on the Halifax side.  Imo was carried onto the shore at Dartmouth by the tsunami.

The disaster had damaged buildings and shattered windows as far away as Sackville and Windsor Junction, about 16 kilometres  away. Buildings shook and items fell from shelves as far away as Truro and New Glasgow, both over 100 kilometres  away. The explosion was felt and heard in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, roughly 215 kilometres  north, and as far away as North Cape Breton, 360 kilometres  east.

Relief efforts were hampered the following day by a blizzard that blanketed Halifax with 16 inches  of heavy snow.

Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister at the time, was in Charlottetown at the time of explosion and he also heard it along with many of his officials. He arrived and toured Halifax two days later to oversee and organize the recovery and rescue efforts.

Thе еxрlоѕіоn also wiped оut the еntіrе lосаl соmmunіtу оf Mі’kmаԛ First Nаtіоnѕ реорlе that had lіvеd in thе Tuft’ѕ Cоvе аrеа fоr generations.

The last body, a caretaker killed at the Exhibition Grounds, was not recovered until the summer of 1919.  An additional 9,000 were injured, 6,000 of them seriously; 1,630 homes were destroyed in the explosion and fires, with 12,000 more houses damaged.

Many of the wounds inflicted by the blast were permanently debilitating, with many people partially blinded by flying glass or by the flash of the explosion.  With the recently formed Canadian National Institute for the Blind, they managed to greatly improve the treatment of damaged eyes.

The death toll could have been worse if not for the self-sacrifice of an Intercolonial Railway dispatcher, Patrick Vincent (Vince) Coleman, operating at the Richmond Railway Yards about a quarter-mile away from Pier 6 where the explosion occurred. He and his co-worker, William Lovett, learned of the dangerous cargo aboard the burning Mont-Blanc from a sailor and began to flee. Coleman remembered, however, that an incoming passenger train from Saint John, New Brunswick was due to arrive at the rail yard within minutes. Coleman sent his Morse code message and left with Lovett. For unknown reasons, he returned to his post alone and continued to send out urgent telegraph messages to stop the train. Several variations of the message have been reported, among them this from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic:

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

There are a number of books written about this event.  A few notable ones are:

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917,

Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917,

Dear Canada: No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917,

and Dear Canada: No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917.

 

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19 responses to “Halifax’s Worst Explosions, Tsunami and Snow!

  1. inmycorner

    October 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    What an incredibly important blog you are keeping! I am so grateful to have made this connection with you! I will follow with glee and great interest. Thank-you, of proud Canadian! Perhaps you would be interested in reading my Dad’s blog posts (no longer maintained) as they re-tell his World War II stories as a pilot on loan to the RAF? It is entitled, “High Flight”.

     
    • tkmorin

      October 12, 2014 at 10:00 pm

      I’ve been reading your blog and I’m quite enjoying it! And thank you for the kind words! Means a lot to me! 🙂

       
  2. L. Marie

    October 11, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Oh my word! How awful! But what a hero Coleman was! That brings tears to my eyes!

     
    • tkmorin

      October 11, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      He’s a true hero, that’s for sure! I’m happy to spread the word! 🙂

       
  3. seeker

    October 10, 2014 at 12:22 am

    Holy Molly, this is just like an atomic bomb exploding, Tk. Mr. Coleman is commendable. I hope he received an award for heroism and bravery from Canada. Another good story. Thank you.

     
    • tkmorin

      October 12, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      Thank you, P! I really am glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

       
  4. michelinewalker

    October 9, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    TK,
    I have nominated you for a prize. You need not nominate anyone for the same prize. I like your posts. http://michelinewalker.com/2014/10/10/the-versatile-blogger/

    Have you read the novel about the explosion?

     
    • tkmorin

      October 9, 2014 at 11:10 pm

      Wow, thank you Micheline, for the prize! I appreciate it!

      I recently read the story in Canadian disasters, part of Scholastic’s Amazing Stories, again. I forget the author’s name. Great series! I usually find myself researching a story more thoroughly when a certain story touches me. This one certainly did!

       
  5. Yvonne

    October 9, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    My father was serving on the HMS Niobe which was docked in Halifax at this time. I wish he was here now so I could ask him questions!

     
    • tkmorin

      October 9, 2014 at 10:56 pm

      Wow. I would have liked to listen in that conversation too!

       
  6. weggieboy

    October 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Whew! What a tale, and the heroism of the dispatcher, Vince Coleman, is unimaginably touching. Great post.

     
    • tkmorin

      October 9, 2014 at 10:54 pm

      Thank you. Yes, even though this was a longer post for me, I just had to write about him. His sacrifice, if I remember well, saved over 300 lives, on a train that was due in through town.

       
  7. Michelle Bennetts Heumann

    October 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I’d say that other than the actual founding of the fort, it was the most defining event in Halifax’s history. It’s an incredible, sad story. It’s not really part of Canada’s larger war history narrative, but it should be.

     
  8. Maggie Wilson

    October 9, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Utterly terrifying account. Thanks for this.

     
    • tkmorin

      October 9, 2014 at 10:12 am

      You’re welcome, Maggie. I’m pleased you liked it. 🙂

       
  9. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    October 9, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Another excellent book that has the explosion as its main event is the novel Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan.

     
    • tkmorin

      October 9, 2014 at 10:11 am

      They are all great. I believe that Canadians can benefit learning about this disaster, terrible as it was.

       

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