Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 6

At about 8:45 a.m. on 6 December 1917, two ships collided just off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the time, the harbor provided the livelihood for two thriving communities, each bursting with commercial and naval activity that only accelerated as a result of World War I. The population of Halifax had swelled to more than 50,000, with a smaller community of roughly 10,000 living in neighboring Dartmouth, a short ferry ride across the harbor. The economic bustle of Halifax generated no small degree of confusion, however, as civilian vessels jostled for right-of-way with ships from the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy; collisions were not infrequent.

When the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc and the Belgian relief vessel Imo struck each other on the morning of December 6, a spectacular fire erupted on the Mont-Blanc, whose starboard hull was punctured by the prow of its accidental adversary. Witnesses described an enormous plume of black smoke that coughed from the French ship, rising up into the morning sky, punctuated with short explosive bursts that resembled a fireworks display. The French crew, gibbering incoherently, abandoned the Mont-Blanc as it cruised slowly toward Pier 6. After attempting to no avail to extinguish the fire, a tugboat and several smaller craft from nearby British and Canadian naval vessels tried to nudge the Mont-Blanc back into the harbor. These efforts failed as well. More than a dozen fire trucks and wagons arrived at the pier to contend with the blaze. The people of Halifax were drawn to the spectacle as well. Hundreds gathered along the docks; hundreds more watched from the windows and porches of their waterside homes in the Richmond neighborhood. For nearly 20 minutes, Halifax buzzed with excitement.

No one -- aside from the French crew desperately rowing their way toward Dartmouth -- knew that the Mont-Blanc was stuffed like a Christmas turkey, loaded down with 226,000 kilograms of TNT; more than two million kilograms of picric acid; 56,000 kilograms of guncotton; and 223,000 kilograms of benzol. On its way to meet up with a trans-Atlantic convoy bound for war-stricken Europe, the captain of the Mont-Blanc was understandably reluctant to fly the usual warning flags, lest German U-Boats seize the opportunity to attack such an appealing target. At that moment, the Mont-Blanc was not only a ship in great distress, but it was also the largest bomb in human history.

hfxWhen it exploded at 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc took the entire neighborhood of Richmond with it. The force of the blast propelled part of the anchor 4 kilometers; a section of a gun barrel was found 5 kilometers away at Dartmouth. Within a radius of two kilometers, homes, churches and businesses were destroyed by the thousands, instantly reduced to splinters and ash. More than 1500 people were immolated within seconds, including a Mi'kmak village that was completely annihilated. Over the next few days, hundreds more would perish from their injuries, which were too numerous for local institutions to manage. Thousands of survivors suffered horrific cuts from glass windows that shattered as they watched the Mont-Blanc smolder. For nearly 40 people who survived, the explosion of the Mont-Blanc was the last thing they ever saw. In subsequent years, Halifax would earn an outstanding reputation for its services to the blind.

The explosion -- which still ranks among the largest non-nuclear, man-made explosions ever -- triggered an 18-foot tsunami, which was followed by a series of fires caused by overturned stoves and leaking fuel oil. That night, a blizzard struck the town, killing dozens of people trapped alive inside the rubble of Halifax.