Halifax, Nova Scotia, is sadly well acquainted with tragedy. In a blog entry that I posted yesterday, I mentioned the city’s connection with the sinking of the Titanic, which occurred seven hundred nautical miles away, and with some of the victims of that terrible event. About five and a half years thereafter, though, an even more horrible catastrophe occurred far closer to home: On 6 December 1917, the Norwegian ship Imo, a neutral relief vessel contracted to carry supplies and materiel for the civilians of Belgium who were suffering because of the First World War, collided with the French ship Mont Blanc, which was carrying high-explosive munitions for the war effort, in the area of Halifax Harbour called “The Narrows.” Within thirty-five minutes — but not before other boats had pulled up close to help fight the fire that had broken out owing to the friction caused by two colliding metal ships — the Mont Blanc exploded. That explosion sent flames into the sky accompanied by a cloud of smoke that very soon extended approximately three miles above the city.
For a brief instant, the sea floor of the harbor was even exposed to view. Tsunamis passed through portions of the city repeatedly, then also repeatedly receded, pulling rubble and people with them back into the water. The entire residential district known as Richmond was obliterated. Rocks from the seabed were hurled into the air, landing long distances away. The forward gun of the Mont Blanc, its barrel melted, landed in Albro Lake, more than a mile from the harbor. The shank of one of the freighter’s anchors fell, almost intact and weighing half a ton, into a forest approximately two miles from the explosion. The Mont Blanc itself was essentially vaporized. The sound of the blast was heard by people scores of miles away. When the shock wave from the explosion passed through the water beneath him, at least one ship captain out on the North Atlantic many miles away feared that his vessel had just hit a mine. Some who survived the blast assumed, at first, that they were under German attack.
Some of the sources claim that this was the largest man-made explosion ever known, prior to the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. The official report puts the death toll at 1,963, the number of wounded at roughly 9,000, and the number of those who survived but were permanently blinded at 199. Many, though, think that the official report grossly underestimates the number of fatalities. One of the rescuers, for example — a man who went on, decades later, to become the Halifax fire chief — recalled that he was directed in the days following the disaster to provide 3,200 markers for the dead. And other critics of the report argue that it ignored the untold numbers of victims who perished on the boats and ships that had been in the harbor itself, as well as the residents and visitors who simply vanished without a trace.
The hands on the north clock face in the Halifax City Hall tower are permanently fixed at 9:04:35, the exact moment of the blast aboard the Mont Blanc on the morning of 6 December 1917. The clock face is a replica of the City Hall clock that was stopped by the force of the explosion.
I’m perfectly astonished that, until I was Googling some information on Halifax during the evening before we landed there, I had never, to the best of my knowledge, heard of what is now known as the “Halifax Explosion.” It’s an arresting story that, among many other things, would make a very dramatic and affecting film. And here’s a story that I would put right at the heart of the plot:
Chief clerk William Lovett and train dispatcher Vincent Coleman were in their telegraph office at Richmond Station and the freight yards of the Canadian Government Railway when the Imo and the Mont Blanc collided. Within minutes, another man ran past their door, shouting to them that they should run for their lives. The Mont Blanc, he yelled, was loaded with explosives and was certainly about to blow up. They jumped up and ran. But then, as they were crossing the tracks, Coleman, the train dispatcher, stopped. There were, he explained, trains coming toward Halifax bearing hundreds of people. He had to go back to stop them from coming. Hundreds of lives were at stake.
Vincent Coleman was killed instantly by the blast. However, the last Morse code message that he sent read as follows: “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye, boys.” Apparently, several trains did stop, and hundreds of lives were saved.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
In conclusion, though, I offer for your torment and indignation yet another appalling horror from the ever-flowing Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File©:
Posted from the North Atlantic