Monday, December 6, 2010

December 6, 1917




It was World War I.

Gigantic convoys of ships carrying weapons, food, and troops went constantly to Europe, bringing supplies to the Allies. They left from several major Canadian and American ports.

On this day one of them went horribly wrong. And outside of where it happened, it's mostly forgotten.

A large convoy was gathering in Halifax harbor for the trans-Atlantic journey. One ship was a freighter heavily loaded with explosives, the S.S. Mont-Blanc.

At 8:40 that morning, due to a series of mutual errors, she collided with the freighter S.S. Imo.

The Mont-Blanc immediately caught fire. Her crew tried to put it out, but due to its rapid spread were unable to. Scuttling attempts were unsuccessful, and the crew were forced to abandon ship. Someone rang a fire alarm, and several firefighting teams quickly responded to the docks. But with the ship in the harbor, there was little they could to but watch it burn. None of them knew about its cargo.

At 9:04 a.m. the disaster happened.

The ammunition cargo on the Mont-Blanc exploded with the force of 3 kilotons of TNT (roughly 1/5 the strength of the Hiroshima atomic bomb). To this day it remains the largest accidental explosion in human history. Windows were shattered 10 miles away. Objects fell from shelves 80 miles away. The explosion was heard over 200 miles away.

A mushroom cloud and fireball rose over a mile into the air, and a tsunami wave of water, 60 feet high, was sent surging into Halifax. The steamship Imo was picked up and thrown ashore like a toy. Many people (including the firemen) who'd gathered ashore to watch, or were trying to get to the Mont-Blanc to help, simply vanished.

Fire spread through the city. Since it was winter, many homes had furnaces and heating stoves alight, and the shock wave blew them over, spreading heating oil and coal on the ground. Red hot shards of the ship's metal rained everywhere in the city, starting fires in buildings not directly affected by the explosion. A half-ton section of the Mont-Blanc's anchor was thrown over 2 miles into the city, and is now part of a monument. To this day St. Paul's Church has a piece of wreckage embedded in the building.

The city within 1 mile of the entire explosion (326 acres) was utterly destroyed. Buildings, docks, warehouses, homes, and people- all gone in a few seconds. Large fires swept quickly through many city blocks, fueled by winter stores of coal and heating oil. An inferno grew quickly.

Many of Halifax's rescue workers were injured or killed by the explosion, and so the city's ability to react was already impaired. Firefighters from nearby communities came to help- only to find that fire hose and nozzle sizes weren't standardized, and they couldn't connect to the Halifax hydrants. In spite of this, they and surviving local crews worked valiantly to put out the fires, and began rescue efforts of the many trapped under collapsed buildings.

But it was a northern Winter, and darkness came early, along with bitter cold. Rescue workers struggled through the night, chasing voices and moving frozen debris by hand.

The dawn brought light- and a heavy snowstorm. It became the largest blizzard of that decade, dropping 16 inches of snow on Halifax in a few hours. It put out the last of the fires, but also impaired efforts to reach those who were trapped. Many survivors stuck under debris died from exposure while awaiting rescue.





This view overlooking Halifax harbor was taken after the snowstorm. This had previously been a busy neighborhood and business district. Click to enlarge.


All told, roughly 2,000 people died- 600 of them under 15 years of age. Another 6,000 were seriously injured, with 9,000 total wounded. 31,000 more were either homeless or had only minimal shelter. Many of the wounded were blinded by flying glass, and care for them eventually led to new treatments for eye trauma.

Although there were many heroes that awful day, one man stands out. His name was Vince Coleman, and he was a railway dispatcher ashore. When he learned of the burning ammunition ship, he realized that a loaded passenger train was on it's way to the waterfront depot, and would be there in a few minutes. Instead of saving himself, he ran to the telegraph key and quickly tapped out "Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching Pier 6. Goodbye." He was killed a few seconds later in the explosion, and is credited with saving at least 300 lives.

Local hospitals overflowed with the dying and wounded, and anyone with medical training was pressed into work. The overtaxed Canadians were assisted by medical crews from American and British warships that had gathered for the convoy. An old ocean liner was turned into a hospital ship overnight. Other medical responders arrived, sent from all over Nova Scotia to assist.

Word of the disaster reached America in a few hours, and the state of Massachusetts rapidly organized a relief effort. All available trains in Boston were frantically loaded with food, medical supplies, shelter materials, and volunteer rescuers and medical personnel. The first train left Boston the night of the explosion, chugging through the same blizzard that was impairing relief efforts, and arriving roughly 30 hours later. It was followed by many other trains from all over Eastern Canada and America. The supplies and workers they brought are credited with keeping the death toll from going higher.

It's been 93 years since the tragedy, and the American assistance hasn't been forgotten. To this day Nova Scotia annually chooses it's finest Christmas tree and sends it as a gift to the city of Boston. This is the tree that stands in Boston Common every holiday season, remembering assistance in a time of need.




45 comments:

Anklebuster said...

Thanks for sharing this history lesson. I never knew anything about this.

It's nice that Nova Scotia honors the memory of the helpers.

Happy Holidays!

Mitch

Purple Haze said...

Wow, thanks for that. I had no knowledge of that before on the other side of the pond.

Anonymous said...

This is a story worth sharing.So I think I will.

Pink said...

That is an amazing story. I love your maritime history posts. Thank you, Dr. Grumpy.

GalFromAway said...

As a Haligonian, thank you for sharing this. :) The memorial ceremony honouring this event is taking place as I type this.

More info here:
http://archives.cbc.ca/war_conflict/first_world_war/topics/971/

Danielle said...

Thank you for sharing. It's been a few years since I learned about this in high school history.
I didn't know the part about the Christmas tree.

clairesmum said...

As a life long Boston area resident, and someone who has traveled a bit in the Maritimes (including Halifax) I know the story - thanks to you, now lots of others will know it as well. It's good to remember all the good that individuals and groups (including governments) can do.

Queen Silly Britches said...

This one made me cry.

Anonymous said...

Thank you posting this. I had never heard of this event. I enjoy these historical posts. I learn something every time I read one.

thegooddrlaura said...

December 6 is an historic day for my family, as well. It was 1941. My Uncle Frank was a young guy, probably 19-ish years old, stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was a sweet gig. No war at that time, just plenty of beach, booze, and babes. He got his orders from the Navy to ship out and left Pearl Harbor on Saturday, 12/6/41. He was really disappointed...

He would have been on one of those ships on Sunday.

He spent the war years mostly in India, I think, although and I might not have the details right. We lost Uncle Frank a few years ago to Parkinson's Disease. He lived a long life, had 3 sons and 2 marriages.

Jackie said...

Thanks for the post Doc Grumpy. My family lived in Halifax and was profoundly affect by the explosion.

They never found two of my great-great uncles. My great-uncle was blinded by flying glass. My Great-grandfather Met a nurse from Boston who volenteered to hop on a train and come to Halifax to help with the effort she stayed and they married.

Recently the last living survivor of the explosion died. "Ash Pan Annie" survived as the force of the blast knocked her into the family's Ash pan for their stove and she survived, insulated from the explosion/cold until she was found the next morning.

The history behind the explosion is amazing. I encourage everyone to spend time reading up on it. I've reasearched for years and still have not learned everything.

xx
Jaxs

Anonymous said...

Amazing story. I want everyone I now to read it.

catrowan said...

Thanks Grumpy. I was born and raised in Halifax. I remember first seeing the anchor and where it landed as a child. It was hard to imagine the force that caused such a large, heavy anchor to travel so far from the harbour. Halifax was forever changed after that day.

The Mother said...

Once again, you've come up with stuff I knew nothing about.

Halifax repaid her debt to America on 9-11, when planes from all over Europe bound for America were sent there. Ordinary people all over Halifax welcomed the strangers into their homes, fed and clothed them, for what turned out to be months.

Bulrush said...

Hi Grumpy,
I'm a WW2 guy myself. If you like WW2 go to http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/ .

I transcribed a couple books for them. Lots of official documents, official accounts, etc.

Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for remembering.In a similar vein, the government of the Netherlands sends a great pile of tulips to Ottawa every year to remember our sheltering their Royal family during WW2
Barb (a Canadian reader)

Cal said...

Nice remembering. Thanks!

Magdalene said...

Here's a bit more on the Ashpan baby...
http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/rss/article/1140606

Frantic Pharmacist said...

Never heard this story! Very inspiring.

Captain Foulenough said...

Goddamit, someone's chopping onions in here, or something. Shit. *sniff*

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story. Thanks for bringing it up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks from another Haligonian. It is interesting to see our local history being spread so wide and far via a (mostly) medical blog.

I am a family doctor. I can't tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I frequently check your blog between patients to reassure myself that despite how crazy my patients are, yours are crazier! Perspective helps !

Anonymous said...

Living next door in New Brunswick, I've heard this story many times. And yet... when I got to the part about Vince Coleman, I still got goosebumps.

Thanks for sharing, Dr. Grumpy.

Anonymous said...

"It's" is a contraction for "it is" and should not be used to indicate a possessive. Punctuation FAIL.

SeaSideRobin said...

Wow.

Living in Moncton, NB, I'd heard about the Halifax explosion and the brave telegraph operator, but never heard the details of the events which led to the explosion.

Thanks for this!

Pam said...

What a beautiful and tragic story. Thanks for the history lesson.

flo nightengale said...

I love your maritime history blogs (and the medical ones too). You are my best history "prof."

Anonymous said...

once again, honrun grumpy. through a thin tear film the blast looks like a pyroclastic volcanic eruption.

Captain Micah said...

I travel to Halifax frequently for work and love it. I had NO idea about any of this happening and plan to visit the memorial site next time I'm there. It might be in the dead of winter, but that will only help it feel more real. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

From yet another Canadian physician (paediatrician). I know this tale well and thought that you would be interested to know that in the aftermath of this explosion a number of surgeons operated only on the injured children. As such this is credited as the birth of paediatric surgery as a sub specialty.

Sunny said...

There's also a 'Part of our Heritage' clip about Vince Coleman, which is on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oaRr6A-gkA Take a look.

Deodand said...

And one more factoid from a Haligonian-by-marriage: The area of the explosion was not rebuilt until it was needed during WWII, 30 years later. Thanks for telling this story.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to remember when I had read about this before and then I remembered it was in Anita Shreve's A Wedding in December.

Very interesting!

Check Yourself said...

Anonymous @ December 6, 2010 3:55 PM:

If you are referring to Dr. Grumpy's use of "it's" in the last paragraph, HE IS RIGHT! IT'S is not used as a posessive pronoun, so ITS would be wrong. It's is also a contraction for IT HAS, as in: "IT HAS been 93 years since....."

Dumbass.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

I went back and corrected the errors.

Munk said...

Damn you, Grumpy, you made me cry again. I'll send a bill for the boxes of tissues, as soon as I'm done forwarding the link a bit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. As yet another Haligonian, I've obv grown up with this story. They did a film about it a few years ago, with many scenes shot up on Citadel Hill.
I always find the story about the window in one of the churches the spookiest. There is a silhouhette shape in the glass of the window that is supposed to be that of a young priest blown through the window that morning. Supposedly the glass has been replaced since, but the silhouette reappears.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24569010@N06/3255815469/

Anonymous said...

I spent a large chunk of my childhood in Nova Scotia, and did a project on the Explosion in elementary school. It remains the sixth-largest non-nuclear explosion in history, if I recall correctly.

To give those who can't conceptualize the numbers an idea of the sheer scale of that explosion: the village I lived in was 300km (~185mi) away from Halifax, and the really old timers (all of whom have passed on now, sadly) remembered windows rattling and the ground shaking enough that small objects like china fell off the shelves on the day of the explosion. They said it sounded like thunder on a sunny day.

ERP said...

I've been to Halifax and heard the story first hand from an old lady who was a kid at the time. Pretty horrible.

Melina said...

We learned about the explosion in school (I live in Alberta), but never with that much detail. If the events were explained like that, we would have paid more attention to the lesson.

Thanks

Stacey K. said...

Sometimes we forget what we have done for people and what others have done for us.

Nova Scotia's gift of a tree to Boston and the Netherlands gift of tulips are just two of the many gifts exchanged between nations and a memory and a reminder of the good that nations can show to each other.

Something more recent are the nations that came to Israel's aid in fighting their recent forest fires.

To those that have helped their friends, and especially those that have helped their "enemies" Thank you.

M said...

I lived in Boston for a year and watched the tree lighting ceremony... and never knew that about it. Thanks fo sharing.

Cartoon Characters said...

My aunt's mother was one of the orphaned survivors....she told me this very same story just a year before she passed on....it was horrific.

Orks were made for Krunkin! said...

Another Halifaxer here. I remember my grandmother telling me what she remembers about the explosion. Where I grew up (3 hours from Halifax) she remembers the windows and china rattling in the house and the giant cloud.

I've seen the anchor and the church and grew up trolling the books and then the web for more information.

I hope Boston enjoys the trees for many more years to come!

eab said...

The annual Christmas tree is generally described in Boston as "a gift from Canada/Nova Scotia/Halifax", though sometimes there will be a mention that the trees are a thank-you for aid provided after the Halifax Explosion. Once in a while one of the local papers will go into a little more detail, but most Boston-area residents aren't aware of the whole story.

When my spouse and I visited Halifax some years ago, we stumbled across an exhibit about the disaster at Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Grimly fascinating. See their website at http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mma/atoz/HalExpl.html

Also worth mentioning is the book Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery by Janet Kitz.

 
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