On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the harbor of the Canadian province of Halifax in Nova Scotia resulting in a massive explosion that ultimately killed 2,000 people and injured thousands more. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic age.
During WWI, the port at Halifax was a beehive of activity. Ships loaded with troops, munitions, and supplies sailed in and out of Halifax harbor to support Allied war efforts. The morning of December 6th, the French freighter Mont Blanc prepared to join a military convoy that would escort it across the Atlantic. The ship was filled with tons of highly explosive materials including TNT, gasoline, picric acid, and gun cotton.
At the same time, another ship, the Norwegian relief vessel SS Imo, left its mooring headed for the open sea, and eventually New York. In an area known as the Narrows, the two ships collided, sparking a fire on the Mont Blanc. Realizing the danger, the crew of the Mont Blanc evacuated into lifeboats and began to row furiously toward the shore. Their burning ship drifted until it eventually brushed up against a pier, setting the pier on fire.
The flames attracted curious onlookers who came down to the shore or watched the tragedy unfold from their windows. At 9:04 a.m., the flames ignited the Mont Blanc‘s cargo resulting in a massive explosion. The ship was instantly obliterated and a super-heated shock wave flattened 300 acres, including most of the north end of Halifax. The detonation also caused a tsunami to roll over the waterfront.
One survivor described a scene worse than any battlefield. “I saw people lying around under timbers, stones, and other debris; some battered beyond recognition and others groaning in their last agonies…I groped about assisting some of the poor mothers and little ones who were running about screaming and searching vainly for lost ones, in many instances never to be seen by them again.”
The explosion blew down doors and shattered windows, sending shards of glass flying. Nearly 1000 people were blinded when exploding windows turned glass slivers into projectiles as they watched the fire from their homes. The disaster led to medical innovations to treat eye injuries and resulted in the formation of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind the following year. Reconstruction of the devastated area took more than a year, but urban planners replaced the ruins with a design consisting of homes, businesses, and green space.
Investigations into the cause of the collision and subsequent explosion determined that both vessels were to blame. If you would like to learn more about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, or read more first-hand accounts, search Newspapers.com today!
Like this post? Try one of these!