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The Halifax Explosion: How the Ego of Two Captains Made One of the Largest Man-made Explosions

Before the atomic blasts, the explosion was the greatest ever recorded in man-made history
Before the atomic blasts, the explosion was the greatest ever recorded in man-made history

The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of December 6, 1917, when the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. The Mont-Blanc caught fire and detonated, causing widespread destruction in the Richmond neighborhood of Halifax because of the powerful explosives it was carrying.

The bomb, debris, flames, and fallen buildings killed 1,782 people, mainly in Halifax and Dartmouth, and wounded an estimated 9000. The explosion, which released the energy of around 2.9 kilotons of TNT (12 TJ), was the most significant artificial explosion ever recorded at the time.

The French government had ordered Mont-Blanc to transport her cargo from New York City to Bordeaux, France, via Halifax. She was traveling very slowly when, at about 8:45 a.m., she collided with the unladen Imo, which had been chartered by the Belgian Commission for Relief to pick up a load of relief goods in New York.

The fire aboard the Mont-Blanc was started when sparks from the accident ignited vapors escaping from damaged benzol barrels placed on deck. The Mont-Blanc went off at 9:04:35 a.m., around 20 minutes after the collision.

The whole city of Richmond and much of the surrounding area were destroyed.

Trees were shattered, iron rails were twisted, houses were leveled, ships were stranded (including Imo, which was swept ashore by the accompanying tsunami), and pieces of Mont-Blanc were strewn over the landscape for miles as a result of the pressure wave.

Buildings destroyed in the Halifax explosion

Damage was extensive across the harbor in neighboring Dartmouth. The Mi’kmaq First Nation, who had inhabited the Tufts Cove region for millennia, was obliterated when a tsunami triggered by the explosion washed away their village.

Almost immediately, people started working to provide aid, and hospitals soon reached full capacity. Trains carrying rescue workers from all around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick began to roll on the day of the explosion. Still, snowstorms delayed trains from central Canada and the northeastern United States.

Right after the tragedy, the construction of makeshift shelters to accommodate the resulting influx of homeless individuals began. After an initial investigation, the court ruled that Mont-Blanc was to blame for the accident, but an appeal found both ships to be at fault. Several tributes to the victims may be seen throughout the North End of Halifax.

A Prelude to a Tragedy

Dartmouth is on the eastern side of Halifax Harbour, whereas the city of Halifax can be found on the western side. Halifax’s inner harbor had become the central gathering point for trade convoys departing for Britain and France by 1917. Halifax and Dartmouth’s heyday was during the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812.

The harbor was one of the British Royal Navy’s most significant bases in North America, a hub for wartime commerce, and a haven for privateers who terrorized the enemies of the British Empire.

Increased steamship traffic and rapid port area expansion followed the 1880 opening of the Intercolonial Railway’s Deep-Water Terminal. Still, in the 1890s, local companies struggled to compete with firms in central Canada, and Halifax experienced economic decline.

SS Imo before the accident

In late 1905 and early 1906, the British troops evacuated the city.

The Canadian government nationalized the Royal Navy’s Halifax Dockyard in It is currently known as CFB Halifax.

After the Royal Canadian Navy was established in 1910, this dockyard served as its headquarters. The Canadian government made a concerted, expensive effort to improve the harbor and waterfront areas just before World War One.

Halifax in World War One

Halifax regained its significance after the war broke out. With almost no operational ships, the Royal Canadian Navy asked the British Navy to protect Atlantic trade routes by reestablishing Halifax as its North American center. The Royal Canadian Navy took over harbor operations in 1915, and by 1917, the city of Halifax was home to an expanding naval force consisting of patrol ships, tugboats, and minesweepers.

By 1917, 60,000 to 65,000 people lived in the Halifax and Dartmouth areas.

The European theatre of battle was supplied and staffed thanks to convoys. Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, and Halifax, the provincial capital, were the two primary places of departure in Nova Scotia. A new military hospital was built in the city because of the influx of injured soldiers carried there by hospital ships.

SS Mont Blanc in 1899

A convoy system was put into place by the Allies to lessen the impact of German U-boat assaults on ships carrying supplies and troops across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bedford Basin, located at the northwest end of the harbor and covered by two sets of anti-submarine nets and monitored by patrol ships of the Royal Canadian Navy, is where most of the harbor’s merchant ships congregate.

A fleet of British cruisers and destroyers guarded the convoys as they set sail.

Forts, gun batteries, and anti-submarine nets were all in place to safeguard the city and the enormous army garrison stationed there. As a result, the city saw significant growth in its military, industrial, and residential sectors, and the volume of trade via the harbor surged by approximately a factor of nine.

Neutral ships en route to North American ports were also ordered to report to Halifax for inspection.

How the Incident Transpired

With relief supplies for Belgium in tow, the Norwegian ship SS Imo set off from the Netherlands bound for New York. Her Norwegian captain, Haakon From, was in charge of the voyage. After docking in Halifax on December 3 for a neutral examination, the ship stayed for two days in Bedford Basin to refuel.

Imo’s departure from the harbor was delayed on December 5 despite receiving approval. This was because her coal shipment arrived late that afternoon. Once the anti-submarine nets were up for the night, the fueling process concluded. As a result, the ship could only set sail the following day.

Late on December 5th, under the direction of Captain Aimé Le Medec, the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc sailed from New York and landed at Marseille. TNT, picric acid, benzol, guncotton, and other explosives were all aboard the ship.

A detailed map of the explosion and the ensuing tsunami

A detailed map of the explosion and the ensuing tsunami

She had hoped to join the sluggish convoy that had gathered in Bedford Basin in preparation for a departure to Europe, but she arrived too late to enter the harbor before the nets were hoisted for the night.

There had been strict laws against letting ships carry potentially hazardous goods into the harbor before the war, but they had been relaxed in light of the threat presented by German submarines.

To enter or leave Bedford Basin by ship, you had to go via a narrow passageway known as the Narrows. Ships were to stick to their starboard (or “right”) side of the channel and pass opposing ships “port to port” or on their “left.” Seas within the harbor were capped at a speed of 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph).

Collision and flames

Before 7:30 on the morning of December 6, Imo, with Pilot William Hayes aboard, received authorization to depart Bedford Basin through signals from the guard ship HMCS Acadia. To make up for the delay she had encountered while loading her coal, the ship sailed into the Narrows at a pace that exceeded the harbor’s speed restriction.

The American tramp ship SS Clara, which was encountered, steered up the port’s incorrect (western) side. They decided to switch places from starboard to starboard. After passing the tug Stella Maris, which was making its way up the harbor to Bedford Basin in mid-channel, Imo was compelled to create a more westerly course, this time toward the Dartmouth coast.

To prevent a collision with Imo, Stella Maris’ skipper Horatio Brannen moved his ship closer to the west coast when he saw its rapid approach.

Coming to Mont Blanc, on the evening of December 5, 1917, an experienced harbor pilot named Francis Mackey boarded the Mont-Blanc and inquired about “extra safeguards” like a guard ship, be given the Mont Blanc due to her cargo. However, no such measures were put in place.

The explosion was felt more than 120 miles away

The explosion was felt more than 120 miles away

When the anti-submarine net between Georges Island and Pier 21 opened at 7:30 a.m. on December 6, Mont-Blanc was the second ship to enter the harbor. At this point, Mont-Blanc was making his way to Bedford Basin on the Dartmouth side of the port.

Mackey monitored the nearby small boats and the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth. When he observed Imo for the first time, she was approximately 1.21 kilometers (0.75 mi) away, and he was worried since her course seemed like it was coming towards the starboard side of his ship.

When Mackey blew his signal whistle to show that he was in the right of way, Imo responded with two quick blasts of her own to show that she would not give up her position.

When they got to the Dartmouth side of the Narrows, the skipper stopped Mont-Blanc and had her tilt slightly to starboard. He blew his whistle again, hoping the other ship would follow suit and go towards starboard but was greeted with another double blow.

After hearing the string of signals, sailors from adjacent ships gathered to watch as Imo steamed straight toward Mont-Blanc.

Both vessels had turned down their engines at this time, but their forward momentum was still carrying them toward each other. Mackey gave Mont-Blanc orders to steer hard to port (starboard helm) and crossed the bow of Imo in a desperate attempt to avoid a collision, but he was unable to do so for fear of grounding his ship and detonating his explosive payload.

When the two ships were almost perpendicular to one another, Imo abruptly sent off three signal blasts to let the other ship know it was reversing its engines. Because of her elevated position in the ocean and the transverse push of her right-hand propeller, the cargo-free ship’s bow swung into Mont-Blanc. The bow of Imo pressed against the top hold of Mont Blanc on the starboard side.

It was 8:45 a.m. when the collision happened.

Although Mont Blanc was not severely damaged, several cargo barrels on the deck were knocked over and opened. This caused a torrent of benzol to pour across the deck before draining away into the hold. She disengaged as Imo’s engines revived, sending sparks flying into Mont Blanc’s hull.

Dartmouth after the explosion

Dartmouth after the explosion

Blanc’s benzol fumes caught fire thanks to the sudden disengagement, and steel scrapped against steel. The ship’s side caught fire around the waterline and swiftly spread upwards. The captain gave the order to abandon the ship because it was engulfed in a cloud of black smoke, and he was afraid it might explode at any moment.

People from all over Halifax flocked to the streets and the windows of their houses and businesses to take a good look at the dazzling blaze. Desperate, the Mont-crew Blanc’s tried to warn other ships from the safety of their two lifeboats that a massive explosion was about to take place, but their cries were lost in the cacophony.

The abandoned ship drifted to Pier 6 at the bottom of Richmond Street while the lifeboats crossed the harbor to the Dartmouth side.

Stella Maris, towing two scows at the time of the collision, quickly reacted to the fire by mooring the barges and steaming back towards Pier 6 to spray the blazing ship with their fire hose.

Horatio H. Brannen, captain of the tug, and his crew saw that the blaze atop the burning Mont Blanc was too large for their single hose and retreated. Whalers from HMS Highflyer and HMCS Niobe’s steam pinnace came up to them.

To prevent the French vessel from catching fire, Niobe’s Captain Brannen and Albert Mattison decided to tie a rope to the ship’s stern and draw it away from the dock. However, the original five-inch (125 mm) hawser was too tiny. Therefore, demand dropped for the larger ten-inch (250 mm) version.

That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.

The Halifax Explosion

The heavy explosives aboard the burning Mont-Blanc went detonated at 9:04:35 a.m.

The ship was entirely disintegrated, and an initial blast wave traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) per second in all directions. At the time of detonation, the center of the explosion was subjected to temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,000 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres. Broken, molten iron rained down on Halifax and Dartmouth.

The shank of Mont-anchor, Blanc’s weighing half a tonne, fell 3.2 kilometers (2.0 mi) south at Armdale. In comparison, the front 90-mm cannon landed around 5.6 kilometers (3.5 mi) north of the explosion site at Albro Lake in Dartmouth, with its barrel twisted and partially ripped away.

The height of the white smoke cloud was estimated to be 11,800 feet (3,600 meters).

People on Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton (129 miles/207 kilometers distant) reported feeling the impact of the explosion (180 kilometers or 110 miles).

SS Imo on the shores of Halifax, after the explosion

SS Imo on the shores of Halifax, after the explosion

More than 1.6 square kilometers (400 acres) were obliterated in the blast, and the water released temporarily revealed the harbor bottom. To fill the vacuum, water rushed in and created a tsunami that reached heights of up to 18 meters (60 feet) over the high-water mark on the Halifax side of the harbor.

The Dartmouth coastline was where the tsunami deposited SS Imo. Twenty-one of Stella Maris’s twenty-six crew members were killed in the explosion, and the ship was severely damaged before washing up on Dartmouth beach. First Mate Walter Brannen, the captain’s son, and four others were propelled into the hold but managed to escape the explosion. Mont-Blanc’s crew of sixty-three individuals made it out alive.

There were about 1,600 immediate fatalities, and an additional 9,000 people were wounded, of whom over 300 would subsequently succumb to their wounds.

Over 12,000 buildings were demolished or severely damaged within a 2.6-kilometer (1.6-mile) radius.

As the blast wave destroyed the windows in front of them, hundreds of individuals watching the fire from inside their houses were rendered blind.

All around Halifax, notably in the North End, whole city blocks burnt, trapping inhabitants inside their homes. Billy Wells, a firefighter who was blown away and had his clothing ripped from him, recounted the carnage that the survivors encountered.

“Seeing corpses dangling from window ledges was a horrifying sight. Several had their heads chopped off, and others had been tossed into the telegraph wires.” Out of the eight-man crew of the fire engine Patricia, he was the only one to make it out alive.

The snowy remains of a destroyed Halifax. There used to be busy cityblocks here

The snowy remains of a destroyed Halifax. There used to be busy city blocks here

Large brick and stone enterprises, such as the Acadia Sugar Refinery, located close to Pier 6, were reduced to unrecognizable debris mounds, killing most of their employees.

Fire and the collapse of the concrete floors of the Nova Scotia cotton mill caused by the explosion destroyed the building, which was positioned 1.5 km (0.93 miles) away.

Many students and faculty members were injured, and the Royal Naval College of Canada building was severely damaged.

Over 500 railroad trains were burned or damaged, and 55 railroad personnel were killed when the explosion hit the Richmond Railway Yards and station. One of Canada’s busiest stations, North Street, was severely damaged.

At the railyard approximately 230 meters (750 ft) from Pier 6, where the explosion happened, an Intercolonial Railway dispatcher named Patrick Vincent (Vince) Coleman made the ultimate sacrifice, saving the lives of many others. After hearing from a sailor that Mont-Blanc was carrying explosives, he and his coworker William Lovett made preparations to abandon the station.

Coleman recalled that any moment now, a passenger train would arrive at the railyard from Saint John, New Brunswick. He returned to his position by himself and kept sending out telegraph signals to halt the train.

There have been reports of the message, including one from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic: “Put a stop to the train! Explosive ammunition on board a ship that caught fire in the water and is headed towards Pier 6. Chance of imminent explosion. I suppose this will be my final message for a while; lads, farewell.”

All trains approaching Halifax were stopped because of Coleman’s warning. The other stations along the Intercolonial Railway could hear it, allowing for speedier action by railway authorities. About 300 passengers on Passenger Train No. 10, an overnight train from Saint John, were likely spared by the explosion since they stopped safely away from it after hearing the warning. Officer Coleman was killed while on duty.

The Destruction of Halifax

The number of fatalities caused by the catastrophe is yet unclear. The Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management’s official database, the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, lists 1,782 casualties. Between the explosion, the wave, and the fall of structures, as many as 1,600 people may have been killed instantly. It wasn’t until the summer of 1919 that the last corpse of a groundskeeper who had died on the Exhibition Grounds was found.

In addition to the fatalities, there were also 9,000 injuries.  The blast and flames destroyed 1,630 houses and damaged another 12,000; the explosion and fires displaced around 6,000 people and left another 25,000 without adequate shelter. The dockyard was severely destroyed, and many employees were killed, meaning the city’s industrial sector had been wiped out.

The morning following the accident, Alderman R. B. Coldwell swiftly created a mortuary committee at Halifax City Hall. The central morgue in Halifax is located at the former Chebucto Road School, which is now the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts.

The remains of the sugar refinery in Halifax

The remains of the sugar refinery in Halifax

The Halifax coroner’s offices and morgue were relocated to the school after a crew from the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) renovated the building. The trucks and carts carrying the dead soon started to show up. The mortuary opened following the Titanic disaster in 1912, when Arthur S. Barnstead took over from Coldwell and instituted a body-tracking system similar to that created by his father, John Henry Barnstead.

Many injuries sustained in the explosion, from shattered glass to blindness from the light, were catastrophic. Thousands of onlookers, many of whom were inside buildings, had gathered to see the blazing ship in the harbor, putting them in the line of flying glass. About 5,900 eye injury cases were documented, and 41 persons had lifelong blindness.

Investigations into the Tragedy

At first, many in Halifax blamed the Germans for the explosion. The Halifax Herald spread this myth for a while, saying, “Germans had ridiculed victims of the explosion.” John Johansen, the Norwegian captain of the Imo, was seriously injured in the explosion, and it was reported to the military police that he had been acting strangely while receiving medical care.

A search of Johansen’s personal belonging revealed a letter, purportedly written in German, leading to his detention on suspicion of being a German spy. The letter’s language turned out to be Norwegian. Most of the Germans in Halifax were arrested soon after the explosion. Although rumors of German participation continued, people’s fears subsided when the actual cause of the explosion was discovered.

The Wreck Commissioner’s Probe was established as a judicial inquiry to determine what led to the collision. On December 13, 1917, Justice Arthur Drysdale presided over the opening of proceedings in Halifax. Those at fault for the collision were found to be Captain Aimé Le Médec of the Mont-Blanc, Pilot Francis Mackey, and Commander F. Evan Wyatt of the Royal Canadian Navy, who was in charge of inspecting the harbor, gates and anti-submarine defenses.

This was all detailed in a report issued on February 4, 1918. Since her cargo was so heavy, Drysdale agreed with Dominion Wreck Commissioner L. A. Demers’ assessment that “it was the Mont Blanc’s responsibility to ensure that she avoided a collision at all costs.” This conclusion was likely influenced by local opinion, which was strongly anti-French, and by the “street fighter” style of argumentation used by Imo lawyer Charles Burchell.

The remains of the sugar refinery in Halifax after the Halifax Explosion

The remains of the Mont Blanc’s armor that was found 2.5 miles away from the ship

This came as “a huge surprise to most people,” Crown attorney W. A. Henry said since everyone assumed the Imo would be held responsible for being on the wrong side of the canal.

In a preliminary hearing before Stipendiary Magistrate Richard A. McLeod, all three men were bound for trial on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence. Benjamin Russell, a Supreme Court of Nova Scotia judge, ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict the defendant.

Mackey’s case was dismissed, and he was released from jail after filing a habeas corpus petition. The allegations against Le Médec were dropped with those against the pilot and captain, who were detained on the same warrant. After a short trial on April 17, 1918, the jury found Wyatt not guilty.

RIP Victims

Next, check out the case of Annabelle: The Doll that Went on A Murder Spree and also the Story of Petar Blagojević, the Serbian Vampire

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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