Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Memory Lives On

It was 90 years ago today.

90 years ago today that a massive explosion ripped through the north end of Halifax, killing more than 1,500 people.

The explosion — the largest man-made blast before the advent of the atomic bomb — was triggered after the Imo, a Belgian relief vessel, collided in the harbour with the Mont Blanc, a French freighter laden with munitions, including 200,000 kilograms of TNT.

At 9:04 a.m., about 20 minutes after the impact caused a fire aboard the Mont Blanc, the morning’s calm was shattered by a violent,deafening blast.

Hundreds of people, including bystanders who had gathered to watch the vessels burn, were killed instantly. Another 9,000 were injured or blinded by shattered window glass or scalding hunks of jagged metal that fell from the sky.

The explosion levelled everything within two kilometres of harbour’s edge and hurled the Mont Blanc’s anchor more than three kilometres inland.

Some 1,600 homes were destroyed, and in the days after the blast, hundreds of badly maimed people would succumb to their injuries.

The final death toll reached 1,951.
You can't live in Nova Scotia without reliving the horror, year after year, in the form of first hand and third person stories in local newspapers.

Although this is the first year that I've read about the heroism of the Canadian and British soldiers on that fateful day, both before and after the devastating explosion. The HMCS Niobe was an obsolete RCN cruiser, permanently moored in the dockyard. After fire broke out on the Mont Blanc, Niobe's captain sent his steam pinnace with six volunteers to help the Mont Blanc. At the same time, the captain of the RN cruiser HMS Highflyer sent his whaler to see if anything could be done.

When Triggs got to Mont Blanc, now engulfed in 30-metre-high flames, he boarded the tug Stella Maris and conferred with her captain.

Leaving the crews of the tug and Niobe's pinnace to get a line to the burning ship, Triggs returned to the whaler.

As the whaler was pulling toward Imo, about 275 metres away, Mont Blanc exploded. The force of the explosion blew Niobe's pinnace and its crew to pieces, while the only person to survive on the whaler was Able Seaman William Becker.

He was later found on the Dartmouth shore.
The explosion also set the minesweeper Musquash on fire. When the crew of a nearby tug were unwilling to board the disabled vessel to take it in tow, two British sailors volunteered to go aboard and secured a line so that the tug could tow Musquash into the middle of the harbour. They then pulled the badly scorched ammunition away from the flames and threw it overboard before it could explode.

When the W.H. Lee arrived , the two British soldiers broke down doors to allow Lee's fire hoses to put out the fire. Their actions subdued the fire and prevented further damage and loss of life, as the ammunition could have exploded at any time. These six individuals received the Albert Medal - in memory of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband - which was awarded to those who, "in saving or endeavouring to save the lives of others from shipwreck or other peril of the sea, endangered their own lives."

Meanwhile, two navy divers had been about to work underwater off the Dockyard pier and when the Mont Blanc blew up, one diver was already in the water, with the other descending a ladder. Although the explosion killed five of the six sailors manning the pumps, both divers and the Master Chief-at-Arms survived. Realizing that he had to get air to the divers immediately and that although the pump was undamaged, the pump-house roof had collapsed onto it, the surviving sailor squeezed between the fallen roof and the pump and managed to move bits of wreckage off the pump wheels and, with one hand holding up the collapsed roof, start the pump with the other.

It usually took six men working in relays to work the pump, but somehow this sailor managed single-handedly to start a trickle of air going to the divers. At the same time, the Master Chief rushed to the ladder to get the divers up and their face masks open. For their quick actions, the sailor received the Meritorious Service Medal (Naval) and the Master Chief was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

But now the fear of the few remaining survivors is that one of the worst disasters in Canadian history will soon be forgotten. The survivors are quite old and it is believed that there are only about 10 left in the Halifax area. A decade ago, upwards of 50 came out to memorial events.

One positive legacy of the explosion continues to live on, however.

Not surprisingly, hospitals were unable to cope with so many wounded. There was also a desperate need for housing, and the misery was compounded by the blizzard that struck the city the following day, dumping 16 inches of snow over the ruins and their sooty, oily covering.

With astounding speed, relief efforts were set in motion. Money poured in from as far away as China and New Zealand. The Canadian government gave $18 million, the British government almost $5 million, but most Haligonians remember the generosity of the state of Massachusetts, which donated $750,000 in money and goods and gave unstintingly in volunteer assistance through the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee. To this day, Halifax sends an annual Christmas tree to the city of Boston in gratitude.
Yep, to this day Halifax sends an annual Christmas tree to the city of Boston in gratitude. This year's latest in the 36-year-old tradition is a 14-metre white spruce from Granville Centre, Annapolis County.


Kris, in New England said...

Michelle - I had never heard about this before today. My god what an horrific tragedy for Canada. Brought tears to my eyes, reading about the amazing courage of so many. But what really got me going was the actions of the City of Boston - and the fact that Halifax still sends that Christmas Tree every year.

How can anyone forget this? The annual Tree alone will ensure it isn't forgotten.

***sending hugs and warm thoughts to our Canadian brethren today***

Reflections by Kris

MMC said...

Thank you, Kris.
That's very sweet. And very much appreciated. The whole Halifax-Boston-tree thing, I think that's pretty neat, too. Its actually an honour each year for the tree farmer picked to provide a tree.