THE DAY HALIFAX BLEW UP
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
A dockside telegraph operator looked out at Halifax harbor and what he saw sent him rushing for his key where he lapped a dramatic message: “Ammunition ship is on fire and is heading for Pier Eight. Good-by.” Then, with more than 1,600 others, he died in the greatest explosion the world had ever seen
ON A CLEAR December morning thirty-three years ago two tramp steamers trudging along the bleak water of Canada’s east coast sighted one another and exchanged the perfunctory whistle blasts of the sea roads.
Ordinarily such signals are routine traffic procedure, and are intended to eliminate danger of collision in passing. This time they did just the opposite. They not only brought the two cumbersome vessels crashing together, but they precipitated the greatest civilian disaster in the history of North America.
Calamity, awful and complete, overwhelmed a modern city in one searing instant.
One thousand six hundred people died terrible deaths, their bodies torn, blackened and dismembered—in many cases completely disintegrated. Eight thousand more were injured, and twenty thousand were left homeless and destitute on the
icy threshold of the coldest Canadian winter in twenty years.
This was the Halifax explosion of 1917.
It was more sudden, more spectacular and far more dreadful than the San Francisco earthquake or the Chicago Fire. Among non-military disasters in the English-speaking world, none but the loss of the Titanic has approached it since the Great Plague of London.
Unlike calamities of more natural origin it was accompanied by phenomena for which there was no precedent and, what was worse, against which there was no known protection. There was the incredible, invisible wall of blast, fanning out on every side with the speed and strength of a hundred hurricanes, leveling everything before it. There was the cataclysmic crashing of thousands of buildings, dissolving in rubble and entombing their occupants, dead and alive.
And after the first moment of paralyzing shock there was the blind panic of fifty thousand survivors milling in the corpse-littered streets, while the shattered remnants of the city’s emergency services fought to cope with a holocaust for which they had neither the facilities nor the training.
Had it not been for prompt and extensive aid rushed from a dozen cities in Canada and the United States, the loss of life would have been even greater.
Canada, with the rest of the British Empire, had been at war for three years and four months when the disaster struck on that cold Thursday morning of Dec. 6.
Halifax, the Dominion’s foremost Atlantic seaport, was crammed to the outskirts with a population swollen by servicemen to far beyond its normal fifty-seven thousand. Crowded, too, was the harbor where a score of troop transports and freighters lay uneasily at anchor, awaiting convoy overseas. A dozen civilian and admiralty tugs bustled busily about. Heliographs blinked and flickered between ships and shore, and a few longboats inched their way toward the docks with day-leave crewmen.
Towering above all other shipping, the huge warship H.M.S. Niobe kept ceaseless vigil.
Connecting the harbor with the sea is The Narrows—a deep channel of protected water which helps to give Halifax one of the finest natural harbors in the world. The city lies on the inland side, with the smaller town of Dartmouth facing her across the gently rolling channel.
It was in The Narrows at 8.25 a.m. that a Norwegian cargo ship, the S.S. Imo, outward bound with food and clothing for Belgian refugees —and with bandages and medicine which would have saved many Canadian lives a few hours later—sighted the inbound S.S. Mont Blanc flying the French tricolor.
That the Mont Blanc was not also flying a red flag—the international symbol for “I Have Explosives Aboard”—was later to be a contentious issue. For the Mont Blanc’s midship and aft holds were chockfull of TNT and guncotton, her forehold carried carboys of potent picric acid, and on top of it all was a deckload of benzol—as deadly a devil’s brew as any mad nihilist could have assembled anywhere.
Loaded at Gravesend Bay, N.Y., the entire 5,000-ton cargo was assigned to the French Government for munitions. Smoking and drinking had been strictly forbidden since the cargo was taken aboard, and the order was still in force when the Mont Blanc headed into Halifax Harbor to await convoy overseas.
On her bridge were Captain Aime Lemedec, Halifax pilot Francis Mackay and a wheelsman. On the bridge of the outbound Imo were Captain Fram, another local pilot named William Hayes and several members of the crew. Of these only Lemedec and Mackay survived. The result was that no completely clear version of the exchange of signals that led to the collision was ever reached.
The ships approached each other off a berth known as Pier Eight, at 8.40 a.m.
In all the history of maritime accidents no two ill-fated ships ever bore down on one another under less dangerous conditions. The sea was comparatively calm. Only the occasional whitecap flecked its blue expanse. With the temperature at fifteen above zero and with only a light breeze blowing, visibility was unlimited. Those on deck could see clearly the church spires of Halifax and the tiny moving specks that were people on the shore.
No other ships were close enough, observers later said, to complicate or interfere with whatever passing procedure the two masters and their pilots might decide upon.
On one other point all witnesses agreed. Soon after the first exchange of whistles it became apparent that a confusion of intentions existed.
Both whistles brayed again. Both wheels were spun hard over, engine-room telegraphs jangled in sharp alarm, and foam boiled at both sterns as t he engines pounded madly in full reverse.
It was too late.
While hundreds watched spellbound from the decks of other ships and from the shore less than half a mile away, the prow of the Imo buried itself deep in the forward port side of the Mont Blanc.
The French vessel’s foredeck was ripped open, and down into the hold cascaded thousands of gallons of benzol. As it met the picric acid swilling about in the shattered hold a tremendous billow of choking vapor erupted above the two ships.
At first, the captain of the Imo rang “full speed ahead” to keep his ship’s nose plugging the hole in the Mont Blanc. Then, according to a crew member who survived to testify, the skipper got a whiff of the swirling fumes and glimpsed the first tendrils of an ominous and strangely lurid blue fire already creeping out of the Mont Blanc’s riven hold.
Suspecting an explosion was imminent, the master pulled the Imo away and headed her with straining boilers for the other side of the channel where Dartmouth lies. He never got there—under his own power.
The time was now 8.50 a.m.
Meanwhile on shore a vigilant Royal Navy lookout had reported what appeared to be a simple collision between two cargo ships in the harbor. The officer who received the lookout’s report trained his binoculars on the scene, and immediately lie too spotted the peculiarlooking blue flame spurting out of the Mont Blanc’s damaged hull and felt the same chilling premonition. The Royal Navy worked fast. Captain Brennan of the tug Stella Maris, towing two scows a mile away, received a peremptory heliograph signal to cut her tow-lines and head for the Mont Blanc at full speed. Sharp on the heels of the message came a further order to get a line aboard the Mont Blanc and pull her farther away from shore.
By the time the Stella Maris fumed alongside there was not a living thing aboard the French tramp except the ship’s cat. If the Royal Navy had worked fast, the crew of the Mont Blanc had worked faster.
Captain Lemedec admitted later that the first glimpse of flame spurting out of his ship’s forward hold had been enough for him and his crew. Only too well aware of what lay under the deckplates, they were into the lifeboats at the double and pulling like madmen for shore—not the Halifax shore toward which their smoking ship was drifting inexorably, but across the channel toward Dartmouth.
It was now nine o’clock.
In Halifax the city clocks chimed— for the last time in many months.
In dozens of schools children were settling restlessly for the first lessons of the day.
The main streets were alive with pedestrians and workers were streaming into office buildings. They paused to stare as a horsedrawn fire engine clanged noisily through the morning traffic, headed for the waterfront. Its crew clung to the lurching vehicle, knowing only that the destination was Pier Eight. A waterfront grocer, Constant Upham, had seen the smoking Mont Blanc drifting a few hundred yards off shore and had turned in an alarm.
No particle of those firemen or their hoxses was ever seen again.
In the Richmond Station of the Canadian Government Railway near Pier Eight, operator Vincent Coleman watched the Mont Blanc drifting toward him. He too guessed the dread meaning of the blue flames darting out of her shattered hull. Reaching for his telegraph key, he tapped to his head office a dramatic message: “Ammunition ship is on fire and is making for Pier Eight. Good-by.”
That was the last ever heard of Vincent Coleman.
It was now four minutes past nine o’clock—twenty-one minutes after the Imo and Mont Blanc had locked hulls in collision.
Across the water on the Dartmouth shore the Mont Blanc’s lifeboats grated on the beach, and Captain Lemedec and his men leaped out and sprinted wildly for the shelter of a nearby clump of trees.
Two hundred yards from the Mont Blanc as she drifted slowly toward Pier Eight, the British transport Middleton Castle lay at anchor. On deck, about to board a small boat to go ashore, was Third Officer Mayers. Having just come from his cabin on the shoreward side of the ship he could not see the Mont Blanc and knew nothing of the collision.
Tidal Wave Drowns Hundreds
Out of hundreds of freak escapes and strange ordeals which were to be written into the story of the Halifax disaster, fate at that instant was selecting Mayers for the most bizarre.
At 9.05 a.m., at the precise moment when Mayers was climbing into the small boat, the Mont Blanc let go.
In one shattering second two square miles of north-end Halifax and a large section of Dartmouth across the harbor were leveled, and virtually every inhabitant of those two areas was killed or injured.
In the remaining part of both municipalities every single pane of glass flew into showers of deadly daggers, sending hundreds of persons screaming through the streets with torn faces and slashed eye alls.
At least a hundred separate fires broke out in a matter of seconds, while a rain of lethal debris began to fall over the areas, puncturing the x'oofs of many buildings still standing and killing scores of fleeing survivors of the original blast.
The sinking Mont Blanc had been low in the water when the explosion occurred, with the result that gigantic forty-foot concentric tidal waves roared across the harbor at express speed. An estimated two hundred people standing
on the nearby shore wei'e instantly engulfed by the wall of water, with no survivoi's.
The monsti'ous wave snatched up the Stella Maiàs just as she got her line aboai-d the munitions ship at the moment of the explosion, and hurled her bodily over Pier Eight with the loss of her entire crew.
The big Imo, fleeing frantically toward the Dartmouth shore, was likewise flung in a great shattered hulk on the shoi-e near Tuft’s Cove on the far side of the channel. Her captain’s head was blown off as he stood on the bridge and pilot Hayes and xxxost of the crew were also lost. More lucky, the crew of the Mont Blanc escaped death in their shelter of ti'ees not far away.
A Gun Flew Two Miles
Of the fire engine, which was just beginning to slacken speed near Pier Eight when the disaster occurred, the only identifiable part of the men or the team ever located was a chaired hoi'se collar, stamped H.F.D., found on the roof of a buildixxg two miles beyond Halifax outskirts.
Also en route to Pier Eight from another direction, Fire Chief Condon and Deputy Chief Edward Brunt were instantly killed when the blast tossed their automobile upside down on top of them. Reporter Jack Ronayne of the Halifax Echo, following the fire car on a newsman’s hunch, was also killed.
Two ships tied up near HMS Niobe were shattered, and the ponderous warship suffered heavy casualties.
The disintegration of the Mont Blanc was so complete that an estimated one hundred persons were killed in Halifax and Dartmouth by flying portions of her hull and superstructure. The most fantastic of these incidents sent a twenty-foot length of heavy steel chain from her deck flying a mile and a half across the harbor, where it sliced through the wall of a small military hospital, killing a number of patients and causing part of the building to collapse. One of the Mont Blanc’s heavy deck guns was found two miles inshore.
Third Officer Mayers of the Middleton Castle recovered consciousness an hour after the explosion, lying naked and alone on high ground a half mile inshore. His ship had been blown to pieces and almost all of the crew killed.
Throughout Halifax, but notably in the leveled northern section known as Richmond, bodies littered the streets —hundreds of them dismembered, decapitated, or tom or chax-red beyond recognition. The moans and screams of the injured rose above the bedlam of the devastated city to mingle in a tei’rible cacophony with the shouts of terror - stricken crowds stumbling through the streets.
In a country more than three years at war many were sux-e the city had been bombed by German aircraft or shelled from the sea and there was no radio or puhlic-address system to tell them otherwise. Crippled public services were in no shape to deal with the disaster. Heavy damage to hospitals limited medical help, and the next day many injured persons were still wandering dazedly through the streets.
Buildings destroyed included the King Edward Hotel, the Armories, the main railway station, the government drydock and warehouses, the Market Hall, Wellington Barracks, the Halifax Exhibition buildings, the Home for the Deaf, a Protestant Orphanage, Admiralty House, several breweries and foundries and half a dozen churches and schools.
One hundred children were instantly killed in the collapse of the Richmond Public School, and most of the other pupils were injured. Weeping rescueworkers— including dozens of frantic parents—were unable to lift massive beams from many of the tiny crushed forms before their feeble cries ended in death. Fifty boys and girls lost their lives in St. Joseph’s School and in the Protestant Orphanage casualties were also heavy.
The hard-hit Halifax Fire Department was fighting hopeless odds until engines and men arrived from outside municipalities. Even with this help it was 24 hours before the danger of fire engulfing the whole city was averted.
With the small Police Department swamped, uniformed soldiers and sailors took on the task of averting mass hysteria and restoring order. Their work was complicated by a blizzard which blew up in a few hours, blacking out most of the area and seriously impeding all traffic. By midnight the temperature had plummeted to 12 below zero, bringing added hardship to injured and rescuers.
Soon after the Mont Blanc blew up the battered city was threatened with two other major explosions, either one of which would have completed the destruction and wiped out much of the remaining population. Both threats were averted through acts of great heroism.
One local arsenal, filled with munitions awaiting transport overseas, was ringed with raging fires on three sides when a detachment of the SeventySecond Ottawa Battalion under a Lieutenant Olmstead opened the water mains and flooded the place, remaining in the midst of the munitions until the icy water rose to their chins and all danger was past.
Meanwhile, on the devastated waterfront Captain J. W. Harrison, Marine Superintendent of the Furness-Withy Line, had met another crisis. At the moment of the explosion a second munitions ship, the S.S. Picton, had been tied up some distance from Pier Eight while 60 men stowed provisions.
Seeing the Mont Blanc afire and knowing the Picton’s dangerous cargo, the 60 dockmen rushed aboard the Picton and had just closed her hatch covers when the Mont Blanc exploded. Miraculously, the Picton’s load was not detonated, but the pier roof collapsed and killed all the men, while the blast killed most of the Picton’s crew. The rest abandoned ship just as flames broke out in her battered superstructure.
Captain Harrison, aware of the Picton’s cargo of munitions, rushed to the dock and hacked through her hawsers. Then he clambered aboard the deserted ship and, as she drifted out into the harbor, he rigged up a fire hose single-handed and kept the flames under control until help arrived and the fire was extinguished. The opinion was afterward expressed that the explosion of the Picton’s cargo would have killed another six thousand.
In every street in Halifax and Dartmouth heart-rending scenes were taking place. Scores of businessmen rushed home from the less badly hit downtown districts to find their families wiped out and their houses in ruins. In one temporary morgue alone two hundred corpses were classified as hopelessly unrecognizable. Many of the dead were soldiers home on leave who had survived two and three years in the trenches.
Next to Richmond’s corpse-littered streets, the heaviest loss of life occurred along the waterfront and in ships on the harbor. Two tugs set about picking up floating bodies and three days later were still shuttling back and forth with their sodden lifeless cargoes.
So thick were the bodies in the harbor offshore that a dredge was employed to bring them to the surface; two hundred were recovered in this fashion. On shore demolition workers were paid a bonus by city officials for each body recovered.
Meanwhile, with communications cut off as a result of the collapse of telephone and telegraph lines, it was hours before details of the tragedy spread across a shocked Canada and the continent.
Seventy-five miles away at Truro citizens who had rushed from their shaking houses at the sound of the blast did not hear the full explanation until the arrival of the first emergency train hours later. It was laden with injured and dying and delivered the first incoherent newspaper dispatches.
Outside help came quickly. Doctors, nurses and Red Cross workers poured into the city, along with reinforcements for soldiers and sailors working without rest or food.
Emergency accommodation got top priority and every habitable building and hundreds of hastily pegged Army tents soon held patients, relief workers and homeless. Every city and province of Canada sent trained personnel, food and other assistance, while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts dispatched a corps of doctors and nurses.
from London King George cabled sympathy and the British Government backed it up with a cash donation of five million dollars.
In Ottawa, Governor-General the Duke of Devonshire and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden called for a nationwide mobilization of relief facilities; war-weary Canadians forgot forty-two months of privation and sacrifice to aid their stricken fellow-citizens.
Blinded Kids at Christmas
Trainloads of supplies and equipment arrived. Other trainloads were not so welcome. Many Americans, morbidly curious, sought to reach Halifax at the height of relief activity and were intercepted and turned back.
There was no looting, although for many days merchants’ wares stood in reach of passers-by through gaping window frames. Suspicion of enemy sabotage died hard, and by the end of the week authorities had rounded up all persons of German birth or citizenship not already interned.
One of the most terrible aftermaths of the disaster was the high incidence of eye injuries caused by flying glass splinters. In one day sixty persons had eyes removed at Victoria Hospital alone, and by Dec. 12 the total had risen to two hundred. It was later estimated that between two and three hundred were blinded permanently while many lost one eye. Doctors agreed that one of the most harrowing sequels of the holocaust was the sight of ward after ward of blinded or halfblinded children on the eve of Christmas.
One post-explosion freak was the fact that Africville, a Negro district directly in line of the blast and consisting entirely of frame houses, escaped with light damage and only one death, whereas modern buildings farther from the scene were totally destroyed.
Similarly, thirty-six cadets at the Naval College near Pier Eight sat unconcerned and watched the burning Mont Blanc drifting offshore only five hundred yards away, and escaped without serious injury when she blew up an instant later. Yet persons two and three miles away, protected by intervening steel and brick structures, were killed.
By Saturday night 1,020 bodies had been recovered and a week later the toll had risen to 1,600 known dead, 300 missing, 8,000 injured and 20,000 homeless. Of the dead, 150 lost their lives in Dartmouth.
No exact death toll was ever agreed upon because scores of bodies vanished without trace, hundreds of others could not be recognized and morgues contained great gruesome stacks of arms, legs, heads and torsos which posed a futile and grisly task of sorting and matching; the last remains were buried in nameless graves. A few bodies were found completely unmarked and with features in repose, indicating sudden and painless death through blast.
The Red Flag Didn’t Fly
Captain Lemedec of the Mont Blanchad been detained by the British Admiralty in Halifax after the disaster, and the official probe opened in Halifax Dec. 13 under Justice Drysdale, Judge in Admiralty. The principal witnesses were Captain Lemedec, Pilot Mackay and Alex Johansen, steward and one of the few survivors of the Imo.
On the absence of a red warning flag at the masthead of the Mont Blanc, it was argued by Captain Lemedec that this would have brought on his ship’s trail every hostile submarine in the West Atlantic. Anyhow, his counsel submitted, the issue was not what the vessels carried, but how they were navigated and steered.
In one grimly humorous part of the proceedings it was established that on the morning of the collision as they stood on the bridge of the Mont Blanc, Captain Lemedec and Pilot Mackay had no means of carrying on a conversation. The captain admitted that he understood no English, and Mackay’s stout assertion that he knew “a little French” was soon exploded by the court.
When asked how he would instruct a Frenchman to reduce to half speed, Mackay replied that he would shout
Queried by the court through an interpreter on what a French officer would do if a pilot cried “Demitasse!” Second Officer Joseph Leveque of the Mont Blanc replied, “Naturally, I would go below immediately for a cup of coffee.”
On Feb. 4, 1918, the Drysdale Commission handed down its report laying full blame for the collision on Mackay and Lemedec, alleging that they had violated the rules of the road while attempting to pass the Imo. Both men were placed under arrest on charges of manslaughter which, however, were later withdrawn because of insufficient evidence.
The curtain came down on the disaster in October 1920 after a longdrawn-out civil action in which the owners of the two ships counterclaimed for damages. The case was fought bitterly through Canadian courts and finally was carried to Britain, where the Privy Council ruled that “both ships were to blame for their reciprocal neglect.”
Meanwhile, Halifax lay in ruins with sixteen hundred newly buried dead, victim of the greatest explosion in the history of mankind to that time, and a grim reminder of the vulnerability of a civilian community in time of war.