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The Halifax Explosion

Story ID:3276
Written by:Michael Timothy Smith (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Halifax Nova Scotia Canada
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The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion

As many turn their thoughts to Christmas preparations this time of
year, I like to take a moment to reflect on a not-so-well-known event.

Thursday, December 6, 1917, the skies were bright and clear in
Halifax, Nova Scotia. In Europe, World War 1 raged. Halifax Harbor
was busy. Convoys of ships, loaded with supplies of food, munitions
and troops gathered in Bedford Basin, ready for the voyage to Europe,
with heavily-armed warships as escorts.

The French ship "Mont Blanc" was headed into the harbor to moor
and await a convoy to accompany her across the Atlantic. At the same
time, the Belgian relief ship "Imo", left her dock in Bedford Basin,
headed for open sea. There was a collision. The Mont Blanc caught fire.

On the deck of the Mont Blanc were five tons of benzene. In its
holds were: 300 rounds of ammunition, 123,000 pounds of gun-cotton - a
powerful explosive formed by the action of nitric or sulfuric acid on
cotton. Also in the holds were 4.6 million pounds of picric acid (an
explosive, which, when dry, is extremely sensitive to shock and
friction), and 4.7 million pounds of TNT.

People rushed to the shores to watch the ship burn, unaware of what
was to come.

The Mont Blanc exploded in a blinding flash. Its deck and hull
disintegrated. It was and is the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion
in history. A mushroom cloud rose more than a mile in the sky. Three
thousand tons of the shattered ship rained down on the city. More than
1600 buildings were destroyed and 12,000 were damaged. Almost 2000
people were killed - some from the blast and some from the 18 meter
(59 foot) tsunami that rolled onto both sides of the harbor. 9000
people were injured, many blinded, as they stared out windows that
imploded. More than 325 acres of the city were reduced to rubble. All
glass within a twenty mile radius shattered and splintered. The
anchor of the Mont Blanc, weighing more than half a ton, landed five
kilometers (three miles) away, and the barrel from one of her cannons
fell to the ground 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) in the other direction.
Millions of liters of burning gas fell on the city. Toppled wood and
coal-burning stoves ignited the collapsed buildings.

The shock wave was felt as far away as Sydney, Nova Scotia, 270
miles away.

Halifax was a burning wasteland.

The next day, as if the city and its people were cursed, a six day
blizzard struck, dumping close to two feet of snow over the rubble. The
survivors suffered without food and shelter.

The day brought death and destruction, but it also created many
heroes. Most notable, Vince Coleman. The railway yards were located
near the harbor, close to the site of the collision. As the crowds
gathered to watch, a warning was given to employees at the railway,
freight yards - an explosion was about to occur. Realizing the danger,
Vince Coleman, a telegraph operator for the Canadian Government Railways,
heeded the warning to evacuate and began to leave for the safety of
higher ground. However, he remembered that within minutes, a passenger
train from Boston was due. The train had to be warned of the
impending explosion.

Vince Coleman was successful in getting his message over the wire
to stop the train. Mr. Coleman died that day, but he saved the lives of
over 700 railway passengers.

(See the link below the story for the video on Vince Coleman)

Among the dead that day was a woman who died in her home. Two of her
children were crushed when their school collapsed. The woman was my great
grandmother and the children my great, great aunt and uncle. One her
children survived. She crawled from the rubble of the school and years
later became my grandmother.

The tragedy in the harbor of Halifax is the only information I have
of the family I lost. Everything they owned was destroyed.

Help came quickly. From all over the province, people rushed to
assist those in need. A great deal of help came from USA, mainly
Massachusetts. The Red Cross in Boston sent medical help, food, and
other supplies. Each year, Halifax sends a giant Christmas tree to
Boston, to let them know, their help is not forgotten.

The tree is erected in the Boston commons. It stands tall and
proud in the tradition of Christmas and also as a reminder and thank
you to those who came who came to assist my family and city in their
time of need.

Thank you, Massachusetts. You're help will never be forgotten.

Michael T. Smith

The Halifax Explosion - Vince Coleman