Dec. 6,1917, began normally enough for John Tappen. The 19-year-old apprentice pipe fitter was working in the engine room of a ship anchored along the Halifax waterfront when someone yelled that two vessels had collided in the narrows of the harbor. Rushing on deck, he saw the freighter Imo and the smouldering French munitions ship Mont Blanc drifting apart. The last thing Tappen remembers was watching the crew members of the Mont Blanc, loaded with 2,766 tons of TNT and other explosives, abandon ship. Then, at 9:06 a.m., the Mont Blanc exploded. The shock waves hurled Tappen down a corridor into the interior of the ship on which he was working. “When I regained my senses, I noticed all of the buttons on my vest had been blown off,” recalls Tappen, now a 93year-old retiree living with his son and daughter-in-law in Halifax. Climbing back on deck, he discovered just how fortunate he had been: most of his co-workers were dead. And as Tappen looked out upon the wreckage of the city’s north end, he began to grasp the full extent of the catastrophe.
The Halifax explosion was the largest manmade blast before the atomic age—and the worst disaster ever seen in Canada. All told, it killed 1,600 people, left another 9,000 injured and 6,000 homeless. When the final grim tally was complete, 1,600 buildings had been
destroyed and 12,000 badly damaged—most of them in Halifax’s working-class north end, which was virtually levelled by the explosion.
Yet the horrible tragedy also produced acts of selfless sacrifice and heroism. Halifax telegraphist Vincent Coleman died at his keyboard while tapping out a warning to an incoming passenger train that the munitions ship was on fire. Many other Haligonians also rose to the challenge. As Tappen and two of his co-workers made their way to shore, climbing from their boat to another that was next to the dock, they found a group of dockworkers struggling to stay afloat in the icy waters. “I don’t think they would have survived long if we hadn’t come along,” explains Tappen.
All the same, there was little else Tappen and the others could do as they picked their way through the rubble of the dockyard and listened to the trapped men and women crying for help from inside the collapsed buildings. Today, 75 years after the calamity, the details of the carnage on that terrible day remain deeply etched in Tappen’s mind. “I’m getting to an age where I have trouble remembering certain things,” he says. “But there are some things that I will never forget.” And even as the men and women who actually witnessed the explosion shrink in number, it is unlikely that Halifax itself will ever forget its day of destruction.
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