Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mystique of the Halifax Explosion

The Mystique of the Halifax Explosion

By Furano Yukihira
The Daily Magi
November 20, 2059


The Halifax Explosion occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of December 6, 1917. SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship fully loaded with wartime explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. Approximately twenty minutes later, a fire on board the French ship ignited her explosive cargo, causing a cataclysmic explosion that devastated the Richmond District of Halifax. Approximately 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, and collapsed buildings, and it is estimated that nearly 9,000 others were injured. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, with an equivalent force of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT. In a meeting of the Royal Society of Canada in May 1918, Dalhousie University's Professor Howard L. Bronson estimated the blast at some 2400 metric tons of high explosive.

Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry her highly explosive cargo overseas to Bordeaux, France. At roughly 8:45 am, she collided at slow speed (one to one and a half miles per hour) with the 'in-ballast' (without cargo) Imo, chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of relief supplies in New York. The resultant fire aboard the French ship quickly grew out of control. Without adequate and accessible firefighting equipment, the captain, pilot, officers and men were forced to abandon her within a few minutes following the accident. Approximately 20 minutes later (at 9:04:35 am), Mont-Blanc exploded with tremendous force. Nearly all structures within a half-mile (800 m) radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were completely obliterated. A pressure wave of air snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Hardly a window in the city proper survived the concussion. Across the harbour, in Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the physical community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people that had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations. There were a number of casualties including five children who drowned when the tsunami came ashore at Nevin's Cove.

While the exact number killed by the disaster is unknown, a common estimate is 2,000. The Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, an official database compiled in 2002 by the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management identified 1,950 victims. As many as 1,600 people died immediately in the blast, the tsunami, and collapse of buildings. The last body, a caretaker killed at the Exhibition Grounds, was not recovered until the summer of 1919. An additional 9,000 were injured, 6,000 of them seriously; 1,630 homes were destroyed in the explosion and fires, with 12,000 more houses damaged. This disaster left roughly 6,000 people homeless and without shelter and 25,000 without adequate housing. The city's industrial sector was in large part gone, with many workers among the casualties and the dockyard heavily damaged.

The explosion was responsible for the vast majority of Canada's World War I-related civilian deaths and injuries, and killed more Nova Scotian residents than were killed in combat. Detailed estimates showed that among those killed, 600 were under the age of 15, 166 were labourers, 134 were soldiers and sailors, 125 were craftsmen, and 39 were workers for the railway.

Many of the wounds inflicted by the blast were permanently debilitating, with many people partially blinded by flying glass or by the flash of the explosion. Thousands of people had stopped to watch the ship burning in the harbour, with many people watching from inside buildings, leaving them directly in the path of flying glass from shattered windows. Roughly 600 people suffered eye injuries, and 38 of those lost their sight permanently. The large number of eye injuries led to better understanding on the part of physicians, and with the recently formed Canadian National Institute for the Blind, they managed to greatly improve the treatment of damaged eyes. The significant advances in eye care as a result of this disaster are often compared to the huge increase in burn care knowledge after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston. Halifax became internationally known as a centre for care for the blind, accounting for a large proportion of patients.

According to estimates, roughly $35 million Canadian dollars in damages resulted (in 1917 dollars; adjusted for inflation, this is about $531 million Canadian dollars today). For many years afterward, the Halifax Explosion was the standard by which all large blasts were measured. For instance, in its report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Time wrote that the explosive power of the Little Boy bomb was seven times that of the Halifax Explosion.

The Halifax North Memorial Library was built in 1966 to commemorate the victims of the explosion. The library entrance featured the first monument built to mark the explosion, the Halifax Explosion Memorial Sculpture, created by artist Jordi Bonet. However, the sculpture was dismantled by the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2004 and some parts have been scattered and lost. The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells were built in 1985, relocating memorial carillon bells from a nearby church to a large concrete sculpture on Fort Needham Hill, facing the "ground zero" area of the explosion, to serve as a memorial to the lives lost or changed forever by the Halifax Explosion. The Bell Tower is the location of an annual civic ceremony at 9:00 am every December 6. A memorial at the Halifax Fire Station on Lady Hammond Road honours the firefighters killed in their response to the explosion. Fragments of Mont-Blanc have been mounted as neighbourhood monuments to the explosion at Albro Lake Drive in Dartmouth, Regatta Point in Armdale, and the Convoy Place Park in the North End of Halifax. Simple monuments mark the mass graves of explosion victims at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the Bayers Road Cemetery. A Memorial Book listing the names of all the known victims was created in 2001. Copies of the book are displayed at the Halifax North Memorial Library and at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has a large permanent exhibit about the Halifax Explosion.

The canonical novel Barometer Rising (1941) by the Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan is set in Halifax at the time of the explosion and includes a carefully researched description of its impact on the city. Following in MacLennan's footsteps, journalist Robert MacNeil penned Burden of Desire (1992) and used the explosion as a metaphor for the societal and cultural changes of the day. MacLennan and MacNeil exploit the romance genre to fictionalize the explosion, similar to the first attempt by Lieutenant-Colonel Frank McKelvey Bell, a medical officer who penned a short novella on the Halifax explosion shortly after the catastrophic event. His romance was A Romance of the Halifax Disaster (1918), a melodramatic piece that follows the love affair of a young woman and an injured soldier. There is also a young adult fictional story in the Dear Canada series, named No Safe Harbour, whose narrator tries to find the other members of her family after the blast.

More recently, the novel Black Snow (2009) by Halifax journalist Jon Tattrie followed an explosion victim's search for his wife in the ruined city, and A Wedding in December (2005) by Anita Shreve has a story-within-the-story set in Halifax at the time of the explosion. The explosion is also referred to in some detail in John Irving's novel Until I Find You (2005) as well as Ami McKay's The Birth House (2006) in which protagonist Dora Rare travels to Halifax to offer her midwifery skills to mothers who go into labour after the explosion. In the 2009 novel, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, the shadowy schooner Golden Fang is revealed as a reoutfitted Preserved, a vessel said to have survived the explosion. In 2011, Halifax writer Jennie Marsland published her historical romance Shattered, which is set before the explosion and in its aftermath. An award-winning play entitled "Shatter" by Trina Davies is set in the explosion and explores the racial profiling of German-speaking citizens after the event.

Keith Ross Leckie scripted a miniseries entitled Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion (2003), which took the title but has no relationship to Janet Kitz's acclaimed non-fiction book Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery (1989). The miniseries follows soldier Charlie Collins through a romantic affair and his recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder. The movie exploited computer technology in order to achieve impressive special effects on a budget. However, the film was panned by critics and criticized by historians for distortions and inaccuracies. Aspects criticized were the representation of German spies in the city and countless other distortions of historical fact. Jim Lotz's The Sixth of December (1981) also toys with the fictional idea that Halifax was home to a network of enemy spies during the war.

In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks and remembrance for the help that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided immediately after the disaster. That gift was revived in 1971 by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, who began an annual donation of a large tree to promote Christmas tree exports as well as acknowledge Boston's support after the explosion. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia Government to continue the goodwill gesture as well as to promote trade and tourism. The tree is Boston's official Christmas tree and is lit on Boston Common throughout the holiday season. Knowing its symbolic importance to both cities, the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources has specific guidelines for selecting the tree.

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