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The Halifax Disaster

Article #109 • Written by Alan Bellows

▼ Scroll to Continue ▼

On the morning of December 6, 1917, two passenger trains en route to the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia were stopped in response to a brief, cryptic telegraph message sent from Halifax station: "Munition ships on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye." The ship described in the message was the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which was adrift in Halifax harbor, burning, and loaded with almost 2,700 tonnes of explosives intended for use in the first world war which was then raging in Europe.

On both sides of the harbor, hundreds of onlookers who were unaware of the danger had gathered on the shores to watch the spectacular fire. The burning ship slowly drifted into the pier on the west side, where its flames spread onto land. The fire department arrived in their first motorized fire engine, and began rolling out the hoses in an attempt to douse the flames, but their efforts proved futile. Within minutes, the Mont-Blanc's highly explosive cargo of TNT, picric acid, and benzol fuel finally reached a tipping point, and the ship exploded in a ball of fire and energy more powerful than any man-made explosion before it.

The morning had started like so many others, with ships beginning to move in and out of the harbor through the narrows after the antisubmarine nets were opened for the day. The Mont-Blanc, captained by Aimé Le Médec, was entering by way of the right channel at a leisurely four knots when another ship, the Norwegian Relief ship Imo, was spotted approaching from the opposite direction in the path of Mont-Blanc. The Imo was traveling the wrong direction for the channel it was in, and moving at almost seven knots, which was exceeding the speed limit of the harbor. The narrows left little room for maneuvering.

Mont-Blanc blew its whistle once, the standard signal to assert right-of-way, essentially ordering the Imo to move into the proper channel. The Imo's whistle sang out twice in response, signaling that the Imo's captain intended to maintain its course. Both captains refused to yield as the whistles blew hurried signals at one another through the morning haze, until at the last minute both captains ordered actions to attempt to avoid collision. The Mont-Blanc turned hard to the left, and the Imo put all engines in full reverse, which caused it to drift towards the center. Imo's prow struck the starboard side of the other ship, and as the steel hulls scraped across one another, a shower of sparks flew which ignited the vapors from the barrels of benzol fuel on the deck of the Mont-Blanc.

Her crew, aware of the danger posed by their cargo, quickly abandoned ship as the flames rapidly grew, feeding on the benzol. As they rowed to shore they cried warnings at the people gathered there to watch the bright flames and oily black smoke erupting from the Mont-Blanc. But none of the Frenchmen spoke English, so their warnings were not understood.

The people watched as the blazing ship slowly drifted up the shoreline until it came to rest at pier 6, setting the pier's wooden pilings ablaze. A nearby tugboat, which had earlier dodged the Imo to avoid collision, trained its fire hose on the flames, and attempted to tow the Mont-Blanc away from the pier without success. Fire crews from the city also began to arrive to fight the inferno.

The harbor staff, aware of the ship's explosive cargo and the danger it posed to the city, attempted to organize an evacuation. Workers in waterfront business were ordered to leave, and the workers for the Intercolonial Railway of Canada were warned away as well. One man, a train dispatcher named Vincent Coleman, realized that two passenger trains were still inbound from Bedford, and returned to the telegraph office to signal Rockingham Station to hold any trains inbound for Halifax. He sent the warning successfully, but it was the last thing he ever did.

At 9:04 AM, after having weathered the inferno for twenty minutes, Mont-Blanc's massive and unstable cargo finally exploded. The resulting blast was enormous. A cubic mile of air was consumed by the terrific explosion, whose force was sufficient to annihilate the Mont-Blanc and push the sea away, exposing the harbor floor for an instant. An estimated 1,000 people were killed instantly by the blast, which tore buildings to pieces and shattered every window within fifty miles. Flying glass and splintered wood caused numerous gruesome injuries throughout the city as the pressure wave shredded many of the city's wooden structures. Doors were blasted open, and wood stoves were toppled, touching off fires throughout the city. The intense heat of the explosion caused cyclones around the harbor, wreaking further destruction.

Immediately after the initial blast, the twisted, red-hot remains of the Mont-Blanc began to rain upon Halifax, as well as the city of Dartmouth across the harbor. People blown off their feet by the explosion were soon clinging to whatever they could as a tsunami of water rushed over the shoreline and through the dockyard. The sea was brought to eighteen meters above the high water mark, toppling smokestacks and wrenching buildings from their foundations as a mushroom cloud hung overhead.

Two and a half square kilometers of Halifax was completely flattened by the blast. Many thought that the city had been attacked by Germany, but there was little time to consider the cause of the destruction. Entire city blocks were afire, and countless people were injured or trapped in the rubble. The area of Halifax along the shoreline-- what had been known as Richmond-- made up the majority of what would soon come to be known as the Devastated Area.

As black, oily soot rained down from the mushroom cloud, survivors found the streets of Halifax were littered with severed arms, legs, heads, and mutilated torsos. A huge number of people had received injuries from flying debris and glass, particularly to the face and eyes due to the large number of people who had been watching the fire through their windows. Hospitals were rapidly filled beyond capacity, where doctors began to use triage methods, sending the people with non-life-threatening injuries away from the hospitals to aid stations. Medical facilities were packed so tight that it was difficult to move about, and some battered survivors awoke only to find themselves left for dead in back rooms. Local doctors performed surgeries on their own kitchen tables, using ordinary cotton thread for sutures and their own torn-up shirts for bandaging.

Two American ships which had just left Halifax returned when they saw the explosion and mushroom cloud, and offered the assistance of their medical nurses and orderlies. Firefighters from neighboring cities arrived before nightfall to help in the effort to put out the burning structures, but many of their fire hoses were of different sizes, and unable to connect to the Halifax taps and hydrants.

The rescue effort was not an easy one. Most of the utilities had been knocked out of commission by the blast, and many of the people working to save their fellow citizens were injured themselves. A panic was stirred up after rumors of second impending explosion, sending many rescue workers retreating to higher ground. The second explosion never came, but the distraction was a significant setback to rescue efforts. The following day, the already battered city was hit by a brutal blizzard which caused further complications. But American medical teams began arriving 48 hours after the explosion, offering relief for exhausted doctors, nurses, and rescue workers.

All told, about 2,000 men, women, and children were killed that day, and some 9,000 injured. Makeshift mortuaries were left with the grim duty of processing bodies, which arrived by the dozens. Trains came and went from the city, bringing in men and women to help in the rescue efforts, and hauling away the dead, injured, and homeless. Dartmouth was less hard-hit, but far from spared. Approximately one hundred souls died there, and many of its buildings were damaged by the blast.

Halifax's Exhibition Building.
Halifax's Exhibition Building.

On that day, the Halifax explosion was the most powerful explosion that had ever been created by man. As a result of the blast, the Imo was found beached on the Dartmouth shore, lifted there by the massive tidal wave. One of the Mont-Blanc's cannon barrels was thrown three and a half miles, and her 1/2 ton anchor was later found two miles in the opposite direction. The event would hold the record as the most powerful man-made explosion for the next twenty-eight years, when it was bested by the the first atomic bomb test explosion in 1945.

The story of the Halifax explosion and the relief efforts which followed are further detailed in the books Curse of the Narrows and Barometer Rising.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 04 February 2006. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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44 Comments
psyOtic
Posted 05 February 2006 at 12:06 am

Oh my god i have heard about this several times but never in this detail thank you for the infomation.
Its interesting to know that things ike this can happen just because some one was to stuborn to obey the rules.
In school i hated history but i still cant find a boring story on this site.


MaddMan
Posted 05 February 2006 at 12:16 am

It's great how little I was taught when I actually took history at school.


Chad Cloman
Posted 05 February 2006 at 01:35 am

This is reminiscent of the disaster in Port Chicago, California in 1944, where a WWII munitions ship blew up. The explosion was so big that it generated a mushroom cloud, leading some modern conspiracy theorists to believe an atomic weapon had detonated.

Some interesting statistics:

-- Sporadic damage to structural members of buildings was proven up to 13 miles; plate glass was broken up to 35.5 miles; and a legitimate claim for plaster damage was reported at 48 miles.

-- Death count: 320 dead, 81 bodies recovered, of which 30 were positively identified.

-- A pilot flying at 9000 feet saw pieces of white-hot metal rise above his altitude.


cspariah
Posted 05 February 2006 at 03:16 am

If I remember correctly, the city of Boston sent a great deal of aid after the disaster, and Halifax sends Boston a Christmas tree every year as a thank you.

Ah, yes, here's a link:
http://www.gov.ns.ca/natr/extension/christmastrees/bostontree.htm


maerk
Posted 05 February 2006 at 03:51 am

Both captains refused to yield...

Do you think those two captains were just being proud, or was it some sort of protocol they were following?


chrislewis
Posted 05 February 2006 at 04:39 am

No, the article does point out that the Imo was not following shipping rules, and that the captain indicated his intent to continue as he was.

Fantastic story, good read about what happens when people become arrogant.


PDLagasse
Posted 05 February 2006 at 06:55 am

I'm curious to know what happened to the captain of the Imo, assuming he survived. Time to go read the linked sources at the end of the story.

Well written account!


Marius
Posted 05 February 2006 at 07:13 am

I cannot help but wonder if any lives would have been spared if the captain of the Mont Blanc had dropped anchor before abandoning his ship. Of course, that's with 20/20 hindsight, and no knowledge of what it takes to drop an anchor on a WWI vintage cargo ship.


Pascal Leduc
Posted 05 February 2006 at 08:44 am

We often see "A Canadian Minute" about Vincent Coleman, who is portraid as a greath hero having staid to send that message knowing full well that if he did he could never escape in time.

ah here it is http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?id=10203

I kinda miss these things


Alan Bellows
Posted 05 February 2006 at 11:37 am

Thanks for the additional links, guys... good stuff.


mikepurvis
Posted 05 February 2006 at 03:46 pm

cspariah said: "If I remember correctly, the city of Boston sent a great deal of aid after the disaster, and Halifax sends Boston a Christmas tree every year as a thank you."

Yeah, there was some hubbub about it this year, because the Boston mayor wanted to call it a "Holiday Tree."


mHagarty
Posted 05 February 2006 at 07:28 pm

Pascal Leduc said: "We often see "A Canadian Minute" about Vincent Coleman, who is portraid as a greath hero having staid to send that message knowing full well that if he did he could never escape in time.

ah here it is http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?id=10203

I kinda miss these things"

They're still being played on television, I remember seeing some just this Christmas.

mikepurvis said: "Yeah, there was some hubbub about it this year, because the Boston mayor wanted to call it a "Holiday Tree.""

I know this is unrelated, but as a sidenote, I just wish people would stop putting up a hubbub. Christmas Tree, Holiday Tree...does it really matter either way?


Berkana
Posted 06 February 2006 at 02:20 am

Chad Cloman said: "This is reminiscent of the disaster in Port Chicago, California in 1944, where a WWII munitions ship blew up. The explosion was so big that it generated a mushroom cloud, leading some modern conspiracy theorists to believe an atomic weapon had detonated.

Explosions don't have to be big to generate mushroom clouds; that is a common misconception. Mushrom clouds can be as tiny as a few inches. If you've ever noticed pyrotechnics in movie stunts, they often result in small mushroom clouds. In fact, anything that results in an airborne fireball and smoke will result in a mushroom cloud for the following reasons:

The gasses at the center of the fireball are the hottest, so these gases rise due to bouyancy and their lower density. Meanwhile, the gasses along the perimeter (blown against the cool air around the fireball during the explosion) cool the most, and descend relative to the hot air inside; in combination, the rising center and descending perimeter causes a rolling effect as the fireball rises, flattens out into a donut shape, and widens out. The rising fireball donut leaves behind a partial vacuum, which sucks the cooling air and rising smoke (from anything burning on the ground) into the wake of the fireball, resulting in the massive plume that makes up the stem of the mushroom cloud.

Any sufficiently hot and smokey fireball will have the same effect, even if it's from a small greasy firecracker or butane filled baloon set on fire. The prerequisite is that there be enough fuel to sustain a fireball in the air that lasts for more than a few seconds and smoke produced so you can see the dramatic effect.


Dave
Posted 06 February 2006 at 10:40 am

From:

http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mma/AtoZ/HalExpl.html

" The captain, pilot and five Imo crew members were killed. All from the Mont-Blanc survived, apart from one man who later died from his wounds."

Dave


alipardiwala
Posted 08 February 2006 at 10:07 am

Well the Imo captain was being an ass.
He was probably still on his ship when it got lifted by the tidal wave and dumped at Dartmouth. That's probably what killed him.


Dementia
Posted 26 March 2006 at 11:41 am

That's just amazing, both in how tragic it was and the sheer scope of it... Someone should make a movie of it.


ronangel
Posted 18 April 2006 at 03:31 pm

This is a similar situation waiting to happen & there is a movie all it needs is funding!

The Liberty ship ss richard montgomery is a time-bomb waiting for a terrorist to give Britain its first real tsunami and, maybe, worse. This film shows what can happen when a government conceals something very dangerous from its own people.

Fact: The US explosives carrier Richard Montgomery sank in the Thames Estuary in August 1944. It was loaded with 1500 tons of explosive munitions. The Admiralty decided to leave the wreck and its dangerous cargo undisturbed. The wreck lies just a few hundred yards offshore between an oil refinery and the several towns. Southend on Sea is just a couple of miles away on the other side of the Thames estuary. Rumours about the ship and its cargo have circulated in these towns ever since. Denials have been issued by ministers in the House of Commons in response to MPs questions about the presence on board of biological, chemical and gas warheads. Nevertheless, rumours persist that the real reason the wreck was not made safe was because of the existence of ‘dirty weapons’ on board.


Cori
Posted 01 May 2006 at 11:38 am

I'm Nova Scotian, so of course I've been learning about this since I was very young. It's still very interesting, though. :)


Rachel
Posted 16 May 2006 at 06:04 am

I'm presently living in Halifax, and so I can visualize where the ships were when the accident took place. The anchor that was tossed kilometers away is actually still where it landed, they've built a monument out of it in the south end of the city. It's pretty incredible to see, since it's a massive piece of metal.


Rachel
Posted 16 May 2006 at 06:07 am

And as an aside, I think there has been a Canadian made-for-tv movie about it. At the very least, I've seen one of those Canadian History snippits featuring it between programs on the CBC.


frenchsnake
Posted 10 July 2006 at 08:42 pm

What I find most incredible is that the Imo didn't respect the rules of boating. I'm a certified seafaring pleasure craft operator, and while I admit that a 25-foot sailboat isn't exactly an ocean-going cargo ship, I can remember all the rigorous testing involved in getting that certification. One of the most important rules we learned is where we should be on the water and how to deal with encounters with other ships, because one mistake could mean serious property damage and injury. You don't mess around on the water. The Imo was a smaller ship, correct? It would seem common sense for the smaller ship to take more measures to avoid a collision, since they would take more damage. This just doens't make sense to me, stubbornness or not.


Carl Helsing
Posted 19 July 2006 at 07:21 am

I have a 1974 Railroad magazine with an article on the Halifax event.Pages 38 and 39,3 photos,mostly of the near by railroad yards,as they were pretty well destroyed.I also have a Railroad magazine of the middle 1940's with photos of the destroyer Solarz after it exploded at a dockside railyard while unloading ammunition after WWII about 1945 or 6.There rail cars on the dock filled with ammunition also,they going off as well,leaving nothing on the rails after it was all over.The ship was propelled 400 feet ahead of where it was docked.I think that was the Port Chicago incident.I need to find my old magazine to check the details.I have over 400 rail magazines of various publishers,and I easily misplace items.


detrater
Posted 30 September 2006 at 07:46 am

Damn Interesting. (c:{


leooel
Posted 30 September 2006 at 09:05 pm

Anyone know where I can see a photo of that anchor monument? Thanks


leooel
Posted 30 September 2006 at 09:15 pm

sorry, I answered my own question, wasn't too hard to find on Google Images

http://halifax.ca/community/PublicArt/montb.html


Drakvil
Posted 01 October 2006 at 10:12 am

Good Job Alan, this article is DI in every sense of the word!

I can recall seeing re-creations on some cable channel about several large ships in the WWII era that had collisions due to simlar "differences in opionion of which ship should yield" by ship captains in areas where it is very explicit about where ships should be. One incident involved a passenger ship struck by the bow of another ship, and a young child who was sleeping in bed at the time of the incident was feared lost to the sea when the cabin she was in was destroyed. They later found her, still asleep, but in the bow of the other ship!

I guess the world will stay in danger from officious, self-important blowhard ship captains (Exxon Valdez, anyone?) until they either institute something like an air-traffic system for all ports - or even better yet, one that is automated and ships would have to go to great lengths to turn off the system and not obey the rules of the port they are approaching.


Samsquanch
Posted 02 October 2006 at 02:13 am

There is a movie about it. It's called "Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion.

http://www.cbc.ca/halifaxexplosion/


johnny0
Posted 02 October 2006 at 03:11 am

"Barometer Rising" is a novel set in Halifax around the time of the explosion. It was written by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan in 1941.

http://www.amazon.com/Barometer-Rising-New-Canadian-Library/dp/0771099916

It covers the week before the explosion and a few days afterwards, focusing on a soldier returning from WWI to clear his name with his family and lover, and his rescue efforts after the explosion. The characters are well done -- in fact, the city of Halifax and the countdown to the explosion itself are characters in their own right. It's a very good read (as are MacLennan's other works). The countdown to the explosion is rather nervewracking and the description of Halifax after the explosion is sobering.

MacLennan lived in Halifax as a child and witnessed the explosion at the age of 10.

(He also wrote "The Watch That Ends The Night", another excellent book -- it helped inspire the Tragically Hip song "Courage" on their album Fully Completely.)


dterry
Posted 02 October 2006 at 05:11 pm

My wife and I visited Halifax a few years ago and were fascinated by this story. There's quite an interesting display in the downtown Maritime Museum. We also learned that Halifax was the first land reached by many survivors of the Titanic disaster, and that quite a few whose bodies were recovered are buried in Halifax cemeteries.


Shandooga
Posted 02 October 2006 at 06:28 pm

MaddMan said: "It's great how little I was taught when I actually took history at school."

American history (as taught in schools) is full of lies and glaring ommisions. No mention of the 2 genocides of which the european brood is guilty. It's not different today; nothing but lies.


another viewpoint
Posted 03 October 2006 at 04:55 am

...c'mon down to the harbor ma...there's gonna be one helluva bang today!


Gary Goldfinch
Posted 04 October 2006 at 05:41 am

Shandooga said: "American history (as taught in schools) is full of lies and glaring ommisions. No mention of the 2 genocides of which the european brood is guilty. "

Only two?

:)

Out of interest, which two were you referring too?

Great article, I was only dimly aware of it, thanks.


mfilip62
Posted 11 October 2006 at 01:02 pm

ronangel
Posted 17 December 2006 at 11:43 pm

program COAST BBC2 (uk) (repeat) 19:00-20:00 weds 20 dec 2006 has interesting piece about ss richard montgomery (in last 10 mins of program)

for those of you that missed the program, or not it uk. link to small (5MB)
4m 14secs clip from program below just part about the ship.

http://www.ssrichardmontgomery.com/download/movies/montbbccoast8.wmv

(copy and paste into your browser)


Entropy462
Posted 25 January 2007 at 12:25 pm

mfilip62 said: "2,700 tons is not much;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaPTTVRavoc"

uhh ... 2,700 tonnes = 5,952,481.08 pounds

your little eod video ... while fantastic as it is = 350,000 pounds

so take about 18 of those explosions ... and mash 'em all together


ronangel
Posted 27 January 2007 at 02:01 pm

Entropy462 said: "uhh … 2,700 tonnes = 5,952,481.08 pounds

your little eod video … while fantastic as it is = 350,000 pounds

so take about 18 of those explosions … and mash 'em all together"

Here is another underwater explosion of a barge full of ww2 explosives which they did not know about when
blowing up something else. I think the shaking at the end is the seaquake shock wave from below hitting them
notice no disturbance to surface water yet....
http://www.ssrichardmontgomery.com/download/movies/underwater_explosion.wmv
(copy and paste into your browser)


Jatt
Posted 09 February 2007 at 09:14 am

That explosion's pretty cool, especially the water plume and the black cloud that shoots out after the main explosion.

It's also funny how those sailors go running for shelter at the end from the water coming...what did they think would happen? :)


Rachelita
Posted 21 May 2008 at 01:01 pm

I hope the captain of the offending ship was shot for that... seriously. :(
All of that because he wasn't following the rules.


BenKinsey
Posted 29 September 2008 at 06:59 am

Playing chicken. I've seen it played in old movies but I had no idea it was a watersport. I think that it is hilarious that someone could be SO stupid, I mean come on.


hat_eater
Posted 16 December 2008 at 08:04 am

I discovered recently this site and while digging in the archive I noticed that people here voiced outrage concerning actions of Haakon From, the captain of Imo. I bothered to read the full story on http://www.halifaxexplosion.org/ and as usual, it isn't as clear cut as it seems on the surface. While entering the Narrows, the captain of Imo was forced to proceed down the wrong side of the channel because American tramp steamer piloted by Edward Renner decided to pass it on the wrong side and did not yield. Later, Mr From was unable to return his ship to the proper lane because it was passing tug Stella Maris with two barges in tow. And then it was too late - perhaps knowing the effect that the huge 20 foot screw had on the maneuvreability of his vessel the captain figured that the smaller Mont Blanc had bigger chance to evade.
Of course he should have had proceeded more slowly, especially knowing that he goes essentially into the traffic.


Dr.B.
Posted 06 July 2009 at 09:51 pm

There are some curious similarities between the Halifax Disaster of 1917 and the Texas City Texas Disaster of 1947. The Mont-Blanc in Halifax and the Grand Camp in Texas City were both French registered. The HMS Highflyer was involved in Halifax and the SS High Flyer was involved in Texas City. Both explosions involved ships carrying ammonium nitrate. Both explosions propelled debris miles away from the site of the explosion killing and injuring victims in the process. In both cases a tsunami was generated following the initial explosion. Very little had been learned in the 30 years between these disasters.


ronangel
Posted 28 August 2011 at 02:46 pm

A similar incident is waiting to happen in the uk see below petition and sign if you agree:

Please have a look at & sign my petition
Only the government can see details of signers.
Render safe, or remove wreck of liberty ship SS Richard
Montgomery of the coast sheerness Kent England. The ship sunk 67 years ago 20 august 1944 containing 1400 tons of high explosive some still in primed condition and libel to explode without warning. The wreck also may contain mustard gas or other chemical agents the existence of which cannot be confirmed or denied under a freedom of information enquiry.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/13021


Mjolnir
Posted 06 December 2012 at 02:51 pm

For a dramatized version of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oaRr6A-gkA


Karl
Posted 22 February 2013 at 10:49 pm

If you are ever in Halifax and want to find the best viewing plane of where the accident happened you need to go to the monument at Fort Needham park in the North end. From there you can picture everything, and behind you is the Hydrostone, the first federally funded housing project to house displaced residents form the halifax explosion. Today the Hydrostone is one of the most coveted neighbourhoods in the city.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hydrostone


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