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It was 100 years ago today ... Printer friendly page Print This
By Barbara Beck, The World in 2017
Tuesday, Dec 6, 2016

Halifax’s explosive history
Lessons of a blast from the past

On December 6th 2017 at 9.05am, Halifax, the capital of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, will hold a ceremony in a local park to mark the 100th anniversary of what at the time was the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever known. On a combination of measures such as scale of devastation and number of victims, its record remained unsurpassed until Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reduced to rubble in 1945 by atomic bombs (the design of which had benefited from studies of the blast effects of the Halifax detonation). Yet although the Canadian inferno also took place in wartime, it was only indirectly related to the conflict. Its direct cause was tragic human error.

During the first world war Halifax, which has one of the world’s best natural harbours, was used as a base to assemble large Allied convoys taking supplies and troops across the Atlantic. On the morning of December 6th 1917 a French ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, fully laden with enormous quantities of high explosives, had arrived to join a convoy headed for Europe. In a narrow part of the crowded harbour it tried to pass a Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo, but after a series of manoeuvres the two ships collided at low speed. The Mont-Blanc immediately caught fire. Unaware of the nature of the cargo, everyone watched the spectacle.

Twenty minutes later, shortly after 9am, the Mont-Blanc blew up, instantly killing and injuring thousands of people and flattening almost everything within a radius of several kilometres. The explosion set off an 18-metre-high tsunami that caused further mayhem; white-hot debris falling from the sky caused fires all over the city. The eventual toll was nearly 2,000 dead and about 9,000 injured. About 12,000 houses were badly damaged and 6,000 people were left homeless. Not a pane of glass in the city remained intact.

Yet for all the horror, the response was swift, competent and heartening. Well-organised relief work got under way almost immediately. Generous help soon arrived from other parts of Canada as well as from the United States.

Identification of the dead was aided by a system devised five years earlier when many of the victims of the Titanic disaster had been brought ashore in Halifax. Temporary housing started to go up within weeks, and eventually the city was rebuilt on new plans with an improved layout. Harbour regulations, marine laws and disaster planning were all tightened, and medical advances that came about from the treatment of the victims, especially those who suffered damage to their eyes from flying glass, were made widely available.

So when the bells ring to commemorate the centenary, those present will not just be mourning the victims. They will also be celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over appalling adversity.

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