The Halifax Explosion
March 21, 2005 8:19 AM   Subscribe

The seismic event rang church bells 60 miles away. Yet all of the crew (except one) of the exploding ship survived. Why? They knew what they were carrying and abandoned ship early. There were about 20 minutes between the collision and the explosion at 9:05. It was enough time for spectators, including many children, to run to the waterfront to watch the ship burning. An audio and video re-creation. Historical photographs and other media and related clips (Windows Media Files). Survivors recall the day. It was a bad day to be in the same harbor. The explosion is followed by a tsunami. The next morning, a blizzard descends upon the city hampering the recovery efforts and besieging the homeless. Somebody should make a movie.
posted by spock at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2005

This is a great, great story. Halifax still bears some scars but, at least when I was up there several years ago, I don't recall seeing any great monuments or anything though I was curious because I'd just read a book about it.
I could be wrong...
posted by etaoin at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2005

Amazing story, thanks, spock.
posted by saladin at 8:33 AM on March 21, 2005

And, every year, Bostonians appreciate the Christmas tree which adorns the Prudential Center in Boston's Back Bay.

"For more than 30 years, Nova Scotia has donated a giant the people of Boston as a thank you for their assistance following the 1917 Halifax Explosion."
posted by ericb at 8:39 AM on March 21, 2005

I remember reading a book on this in high school about seventeen thousand years ago, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was called.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 8:40 AM on March 21, 2005

I live in Halifax, and yes, we do have a memorial. The Bell Tower.
posted by debralee at 8:42 AM on March 21, 2005

Gasp, no historical story is complete without a link to the Wikipedia article! This is good.
posted by Plutor at 8:46 AM on March 21, 2005

Not to be confused with the Halifax Pop Explosion...
posted by hamfisted at 8:50 AM on March 21, 2005

Correction ... these days the annual Christmas tree from Nova Scotia is displayed on the Boston Common.
posted by ericb at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2005

Aha! It was Barometer Rising, a novel written in 1941, studied back-to-back with Walter Lord's A Night To Remember. It must have been the disaster semester of the Ontario high school English curriculum.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 8:59 AM on March 21, 2005

Spock, nice post. You beat me to it. I was thinking about posting this after seeing the recent post about the explosion in Texas. Someone did a great documentary about this which I saw on either the History Channel or PBS. The stories of the orphans it created were among the most poignant.
posted by caddis at 9:03 AM on March 21, 2005

Also... Not to be confused with the Halifax Explosions.
posted by seanyboy at 9:03 AM on March 21, 2005


1917: The largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in history and yet (outside of Canada) a largely unknown disaster - The Halifax Explosion

Sir, I believe you misspelled nuculer
posted by kcds at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2005

Armitage Shanks - possibly Barometer Rising, or Who's a Scaredy-Cat?
posted by fish tick at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2005

Never mind.
posted by fish tick at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2005

fish_tick, that second link is awesome.

"Despite the damage caused by the explosion, despite Mr. Morton's disappearance, the children are able to enjoy Christmas, Rex the dog, and each other."
posted by Armitage Shanks at 9:19 AM on March 21, 2005

Apologies. The movie link in first comment above should go here.
posted by spock at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2005

a largely unknown disaster - The Halifax Explosion

One of the cable networks did a show on it a few years ago. Once it gets to that level of "pop history", I don't know that I would call it an "unknown" event. Them's are some amazing links, though.
posted by Doohickie at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2005

Don't forget the Heritage Minute about Vince Coleman, the telegraph operator who warned the trains bound for Halifax of the imminent explosion.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:45 AM on March 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

For me, the saddest part is waking up every December 6th, knowing full well there will be a picture on the front page of the Herald and the Daily News of some explosion survivor and their "story" of that day. I'm sure at one time they were fairly poignant, but now...

"Well, they tell me there was this big horrific explosion and glass and debris everywhere, but since I was 4 freakin' months old at the time my recollection is a mite foggy, don'cha know."

It's bad enough to have your life defined by such a moment, but when you think that anyone older than a teenager at the time of the explosion would be over 100 now, that means virtually every living witness would have absolutely no memory of the event. Yet they still get trotted out every year.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:50 AM on March 21, 2005

This has always been very interesting to me, and I had always assumed it had been posted once already. good thing someone didn't assume that.
posted by blacklite at 9:53 AM on March 21, 2005

GhostintheMachine: I'm sure you won't have to tolerate survivor stories for too many more years. Chin up.
posted by fish tick at 10:15 AM on March 21, 2005

Amazing silent movie film reel of the aftermath (REAL format).

If the above link does not work for you, fire up RealPlayer and choose "Open Location" from the File menu. Paste the following URL rtsp:// (Since that is a stream it will probably not work well with too slow of an internet connection.
posted by spock at 10:25 AM on March 21, 2005

Also interesting: Francis Mackey was an experienced harbour pilot. A judicial inquiry put much of the blame for the disaster on him, and he was even charged with manslaughter.

Other courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada disagreed, saying no one person was responsible. Mackey lived in Halifax for the rest of his life.

In 1958, the 86-year-old Mackey gave an interview to CBC Radio: Real Audio Here (6:41)
posted by spock at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2005

Good post, good links. The Explosion's an interesting story. I lived in Halifax for three years, and it's interesting the effect it still has on the city. For example, any old tree in the explosion area is really quite amazing, as it lived through the explosion. However, during Hurricane Juan lots of them were uprooted, which was really sad.

The Maritime Museum in Halifax has a great exhibit on the explosion, if you're ever in town.
posted by livii at 11:51 AM on March 21, 2005

fish tick: But that's my point. If they actually were survivor stories, they would be interesting and compelling. But instead we get to put some 90 year old woman on the front page and ask her about the explosion. But since she was all of 2 years old at the time, her story is limited to what other people have told her happened, which really doesn't get us that much father ahead now, does it?

Is there a living survivor with an actual remembrance of the event? Highly, highly doubtful. The few who "remember" being knocked about in their crib or seeing a big flash or hearing the boom have likely invented those memories from having gone over the story year after year around the anniversary. And what of the rest of their lives? Nobody wants to hear of the rest of the 90+ years of their post-explosion life. All they want to hear is the vague recollection of an event that happened outside their conscious memory. And that's the sad part.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:57 PM on March 21, 2005

I'm from NS, so I've heard my share of Explosionisms, but my favorite part was always that Historica Heritage moment on TV depicting Vince Coleman, railway despatcher, in his last frantic attempts to save lives before the explosion.

Man, I love those Heritage Moments. I think there's few Canadians who can't quote a handful of 'em verbatim.
posted by stray at 1:18 PM on March 21, 2005

Shattered City is the movie, btw.
posted by stray at 1:21 PM on March 21, 2005

GhostintheMachine: I know a few pretty alert 95-year-olds myself, and it seems to me that a traumatic event such as that when you were 7 would remain a 'true' memory, at least to some extent. Dare one suggest that you not read the paper that day?

*Waves to stray from NS.*
posted by fish tick at 1:39 PM on March 21, 2005

What language was the original write up of the story done in since it reads extremely choppy with some sentences just repeated?

An amazing story really. As for culpability, I'd think the captain of the Mont Blanc would be at least partially responsible for not having flown the correct flag to denote all of the explosives on board. Woops, says charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.

The aftermath write up is pretty wild as well, "A total of twenty-five limbs ended up having to be amputated and more than 250 eyes had to be removed. Only 37 people were left completely blind. " Only 37.
posted by fenriq at 2:02 PM on March 21, 2005

I thought I had seen this before (not really a double post, but definitely related).
posted by costas at 2:46 PM on March 21, 2005

Yep. Had not read that thread, but GhostintheMachine hit it with a comment. Hopefully still worth a FPP to most.
posted by spock at 3:21 PM on March 21, 2005

Heritage Moments rock. I don't think you're a real Canadian if you don't know "Doc-tor, I smell burnt toast!" You'd be surprised how often that can be relevant to a conversation.

The Vince Coleman one actually makes me sort of teary-eyed.

And spock, still worth an FPP to me (*had same thing happen to me yesterday...*)
posted by livii at 3:49 PM on March 21, 2005

I saw a documentary on the explosion a year or two ago. It surprised me that the crew of the ship just jumped overboard and didn't try to put the fire out or scuttle the craft. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but it the documentary made it sound as if the fire was quite small at start.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:14 PM on March 21, 2005

The jury's still out on if it was man-made (many think it was a secret nuclear bomb--the first), but a far larger explosion was in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1909.
posted by zardoz at 5:25 PM on March 21, 2005

The Tunguska event was June 30, 1908. Very few think it was man-made. Even fewer than that think it was a secret nuclear bomb. But other than that you are spot on.
posted by spock at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2005 [2 favorites]

Heritage Moments rock, agreed, agreed!

22 Minutes spoofs of same also rocked, but not quite so hard.

re: the xmas tree -- is there any likewise cross-border gifting from the US?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:02 PM on March 21, 2005

Heritage Moments rock, agreed, agreed!

22 Minutes spoofs of same also rocked, but not quite so hard.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:03 PM on March 21, 2005

re: the xmas tree -- is there any likewise cross-border gifting from the US?

I imagine the closest parallels are the gestures of gratitude toward the citizens of Gander, and Gambo, Newfoundland, whose airports housed many grounded aircraft after September 11. Halifax itself housed 40 planes. Additionally, the intervention of Canada's embassy in Iran when ours was taken over in 1979 inspired many broad gestures (there were MERCI CANADA signs everywhere for weeks) and a long period of heightened mutual trust among the two governments.

Though some say there's a lot that Canada does, without getting so much as a pat on the back in return.
posted by dhartung at 9:38 PM on March 21, 2005

It's great that the Heritage Moments spots actually do bring Canadians together in their awareness of common cultural events we might otherwise not have been aware of. I can think of a handful I know off by heart, as well as a few assorted animated shorts and such which are always on television.
When I went back home for vacation this year, after a 2-3 year absence, I was pleased to see the Log Driver's Waltz was still being shown. I always liked that one, for some peculiar reason.
posted by nightchrome at 9:38 PM on March 21, 2005

fish tick: Don't mind my grousing. Last year's coverage was pretty much as I indicated earlier. My memory's a little foggy, but I think the Herald interviewed two women in their late 80s, early 90s, who could only tell the reporter what others had told them happened. And I could just picture these poor girls, hearing year after year about this event they didn't remember or had only the vaguest remembrance of, wondering why their entire lives that they do remember was insignificant. Give it five more years and you'll likely understand my point better as the numbers dwindle further.

*waves back, glad to see the Haligonian MeFites are well represented*
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:42 AM on March 22, 2005

Glad to hear Gander/Gambo &c are getting props. They really deserve it.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:26 AM on March 22, 2005

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