For Whom the Bells Toll

Today marks the 94th anniversary of the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in history: the Halifax Explosion. On December 6th, 1917 the Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with wartime explosives, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship, in The Narrows of the harbour. Despite being loaded with 2,653 tons of explosives, the Mont Blanc was not flying the standard flags to warn of its dangerous cargo, in order to avoid enemy attention on the journey from New York to Halifax.

The Mont Blanc’s cargo was valued at US$3,601,290 or approximately US$60,000,000+ today. It included:

  • 233,188 kg benzol
  • 56,301 kg guncotton
  • 1,602,519 kg wet picric acid
  • 544,311 kg dry picric acid
  • 226,797 kg TNT

Immediately after the collision the Mont Blanc caught fire, the fuel stored on its decks spilled by the collision and ignited by the sparks generated. While the crew of the Mont Blanc abandoned ship, no one else was aware of the danger due to the warning flags not being flown. Hundreds gathered along the waterfront and in windows to watch the burning spectacle in the harbour. Others rushed to help combat the blaze. The ship drifted until it collided into Pier 6, setting it ablaze as well. The Halifax Fire Department, in the first motorized fire engine in Canada, the Patricia, rushed to contain the new fires.

At 9:04:35 AM, the Mont Blanc exploded with a force equivalent to 3 kilotons of TNT (the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13 kilotons). A fireball rose 1.6 km over the city, creating a mushroom cloud.

The mushroom cloud 15-20 seconds after the explosion, as seen from the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbour (21 km away).

The blast produced a tsunami, rising 18 m, which in turn caused a pressure wave of air which downed more trees and buildings. The Mont Blanc was instantly destroyed; a portion of the anchor shaft, weighing 517 kilograms (1,140 lb) was thrown 3.8 km west of the blast on the far side of the Northwest Arm, while a gun barrel landed in Dartmouth, over 5.5 km east. Shards of hot metal and coal rained down on the city for approximately 10 minutes, covering everything with soot.

Buildings were damaged and windows broken in the towns of Sackville and Windsor Junction (16 km away). Buildings shook and the explosion was heard in Truro (100 km away), New Glasgow (125 km away), Northern Cape Breton Island (360 km away) and Charlottetown, PEI (215 km away).

Since the explosion took place in winter, stoves, lamps and furnaces were loaded with fuel and spilled during the explosion, causing more fires to break out throughout the city. Many survivors were trapped in these fires. Later that evening, a snowstorm started and lasted into the following day.

The Toll:

  • 1,950 died
  • 9,000 were injured (6,000 of them seriously)
  • 6,000 people left homeless
  • 25,000 without adequate shelter
  • 600 eye injuries (from the flash and flying glass)
  • 38 permanently blinded
  • Roughly $35 million Canadian in damages (about CAD$500 million in 2007)

The Halifax Sugar Refinery before the explosion...

...and after.

Several monuments can now be found around the HRM to the victims of the explosion. The most prominent is the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower which sits atop the ruins of Fort Needham (which was completely destroyed during the explosion). At 9:00 AM every December 6th, the tower’s bells are rung in remembrance of the disaster that struck the city years before.

The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower

If you stand in the space between the 2 concrete sections of the memorial, you will be gazing over the area of the harbour in which the actual explosion occurred. Coincidentally, you will also be staring at my apartment building, sitting on the Dartmouth waterfront…