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Halifax Explosion

The Halifax explosion of 1917 had a monumental impact upon the lives of hundreds of thousands of Canadians. The disaster changed Halifax in an instant, and affected it for years to come. One such incident that could be related back to Halifax was the 1918 sinking of the S.S. Florizel. Many passengers and crew were eager to travel or return to Halifax and visit their loved ones, or to aid in the reconstruction. It was claimed that the Florizel’s speed was reduced deliberately to ensure a longer stop-over in Halifax. This consequentially added to the navigational misjudgement of their location, leading to the ship running aground off near Cappahayden. The engineer, John V. Reader, was accused of deliberately slowing the ships engine down to delay arrival in Halifax and cause the Florizel to stay an extra night in the city. Unfortunately Reader died in the sinking. To fully understand Reader’s alleged actions, the Halifax explosion and its effects on the world should be examined.

On December 6th, 1917, the hub of the Dominion of Canada suffered the greatest man made explosion prior to the atom bomb. The French ship Mont Blanc, a vessel that was barely seaworthy, was outside of Halifax harbor. The ship was carrying an overabundance of explosives: 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of benzol, and 10 tons of gun cotton. Despite the dangerous cargo she was carrying, the Mont Blanc was not flying the regulation flag that notifies other ships that she was carrying explosives. 7:30AM that day, Mont Blanc left her anchorage outside the harbor to join a convoy situated in Bedford Basin. During that time, the Belgian relief ship Imo, a much faster ship, was leaving its mooring in Bedford Basin. The Imo was travelling at an excessive speed towards the same area the Mont Blanc was occupying. When the Mont Blanc spotted her they proceeded to signal that she was in her correct channel, and did not intend to move. The Imo signaled back to the Mont Blanc that she was still moving ahead. This however had no affect on the slow moving Mont Blanc who signalled again that she still intended to pass to starboard.

The Imo assumed that the Mont Blanc would swing towards Halifax, but instead the French ship again signalled that she would maintain her course. Due to this signal the Mont Blanc saw only one course available, to swing to port, towards Halifax and across bows of the Imo, a decision she was later criticized for making. Both ships then signalled full speed astern. When Mont Blanc reversed her engines however, it caused the Imo’s bow to swing right and collide with Mont Blanc, striking the picric acid that was stored beneath the drums of benzol on deck.

The crew aboard the Mont Blanc, being fully aware of the dangerous cargo, immediately abandoned ship by way of lifeboats, taking refuge in Dartmouth. On shore, the crew tried to warn bystanders yet they paid no heed. Meanwhile the Mont Blanc, on fire, began to drift towards shore until it reached pier 6, located in a very busy area of Halifax, setting the pier on fire. The ship was burning for approximately 20 minutes, catching the attention of curious bystanders. The small gathering groups around the pier were unaware that it would explode with devastating force.

At 9:05 the ship exploded, creating a fatal blast that destroyed everything in its path. Over 1900 people were killed immediately, 150 bodies were never identified and many others were not found. Well over 4000 people were treated for injuries; 1000 of those injuries were eye related due to the fact that many gathered to their windows to see the burning ship. In all, 25 limbs were amputated and 250 eyes were removed. During this time hospitals and shelters were overcrowded and some had to be transported by train to other cites.

The magnitude of the blast destroyed ships, buildings, churches, and houses. Structures that survived the initial shock wave eventually burned to the ground; in all 1630 homes were completely destroyed. Practically all of the North-end of Halifax had been obliterated. Windows were shattered 50 miles away from the blast; there was not a pane of glass in Dartmouth or Halifax left intact. The shock wave could even be felt in Sydney, Cape Breton, an astounding 270 miles away from ground zero.

The rescue response for such a disastrous event began quickly. The government of Canada along with other countries began to assist the devastated city. Despite the commendable efforts of all, the damage was severe and scarred the minds of all who survived the fatal explosion.

The Blast Area

explosion map

explosion picture
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