Looking back at the Halifax Explosion

The greatest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons

This year, Dec. 6th is the centennial of one of the worst disasters in Canadian history. On that day in 1917, the French munitions ship, the S.S. Mont Blanc, collided with the Norwegian freighter, the S.S. Imo, in Halifax harbour. The result was the greatest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons.

The Mont Blanc was fully loaded with TNT, picric acid, benzole and guncotton. It had taken on its cargo in New York, but had stopped in Halifax to join up with a convoy of ships for the trans-Atlantic crossing to Bordeaux, France.

Ships with such dangerous cargo had been barred from Halifax harbour prior to the First World War. However, the extensive wartime activity of German submarines in the Atlantic had led to a change in those rules.

The S.S. Imo had sailed from the Netherlands to pick up relief supplies for war-torn Belgium. It was said to be speeding during its departure from Halifax harbour to make up for time lost while refueling at the port.

At 8:45 a.m., the Imo collided with the Mont Blanc in the Narrows connecting the upper Halifax Harbour with the Bedford Basin. While the damage to the Mont Blanc initially did not appear severe, barrels of benzole broke open causing widespread spillage of the highly flammable fluid. When the Imo attempted to pull back from the Mont Blanc, sparks were created from the scrapping metal. This ignited an extensive fire that was impossible to put out.

The crew of the Mont Blanc quickly abandoned ship. The burning and now abandoned vessel began to drift across the harbour towards the Richmond area of north Halifax.

A number of boats rushed to the scene to fight the fire and to pull the Mont Blanc back away from the shore. Men from the Canadian H.M.C.S. Niobe went out to see if they could scuttle the Mont Blanc.

Tragically, there was not enough time left before the munitions on board caught fire and the Mont Blanc blew-up. The size of the explosion was astonishing. Subsequent estimates have set the blast at the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of T.N.T.

The City of Halifax was shattered. Dartmouth was also severely damaged. Numerous fires broke out the aftermath of the explosion, thereby increasing the devastation. Even more damage was caused by the tsunami that followed the blast.

More than 1,600 people were killed instantly by the explosion. Another 300 of the estimated 9000 injured later passed away. In one of the twists of fate, because the crew of the Mont Blanc had escaped the burning ship, only one of them was killed.

Many of those killed and injured were victims of the huge amount of flying glass created when virtually every window in the community shattered.

A heavy snowstorm set in the following day, increasing the misery of the injured and homeless and hampering relief efforts. Such was the extent of the devastation that the last body of an explosion victim was not uncovered until 1919.

Petty Officer Henry Bernard George of Red Deer, eldest son of Dr. Henry and Barbara George, was one of the men of the H.M.C.S. Niobe on that tragic day. He had not been part of the party which had gone out to try and scuttle the Mont Blanc. He was however, knocked off the deck of the Niobe by the force of the explosion. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured. Nevertheless, he was left with powerful life-long memories of the experience.

C.H. Bearchell was another Red Deer resident who had been in Halifax during the explosion. He too was not seriously injured, but eventually returned home with the searing memories of what he had experienced.

In 1918, the City of Halifax sent large Christmas tree to the City of Boston as a token of appreciation for the help that community provided in the aftermath of the great disaster. A Christmas tree of thanks and remembrance continues to be sent to Boston each year.

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