Monday, December 06, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Halifax Explosion of 1917


Halifax is one of Canada's loveliest cities, but its picturesque harbour, with a quaint blend of old and new, was once the scene of the greatest man-made devastation prior to the atomic age...

On this day in 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian ship Imo laden with relief supplies for Belgium in Halifax Harbour; the ensuing fire on board the Mont-Blanc ignited 2.6 million kilos of explosives in her hold, which just after 9 AM exploded.

The fireball from the explosion rose 1.6 km into the air, raining both hot shrapnel and carbon soot on the city. The force of the explosion swamped the waterfront under an 18m wave, and the force of the blast flattened buildings in every direction in a 1.6 km radius. The blast was felt and heard as far as 360 km away, in Cape Breton, and debris from the Mont-Blanc flew as far as 5.5 km into neighbouring Dartmouth.

The official death toll was 1,950 but could have been much lower; the day after the explosion the area was hit by a rare December blizzard, which brought 40 cm of snow. Untold numbers of people who survived the blast buried under rubble likely perished due to the harsh weather; in all, more Nova Scotians died in this blast than in the combat of World War I. 9,000 people were injured, 6,000 of them seriously - the majority of the injuries were caused by flying debris, and resulted in 600 incidences of partial blindness.

Hugh MacLennan's 1941 novel Barometer Rising is among the first depictions of the disaster in popular culture; a miniseries, entitled Shattered City (2003), has also been made. Of a slew of books written about the Halifax Explosion the best is probably the latest - Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, by Laura M. MacDonald.
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