Thursday, December 3, 2009

Halifax Explosion - 92 years go

On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax harbour, one packed with high explosives destined for the war in Europe. Curious people watched the burning ship from their parlours and verandas as it drifted towards shore. A few minutes later there was such a powerful explosion that 500 acres of homes and businesses were instantly obliterated. The ship vapourized into a mushroom cloud that dropped shards of hot metal and soot onto the city and neighbouring Dartmouth. A tsunami wave, triggered by the explosion, reached 60 ft. above the high water mark and dragged victims into the sea as it receded. Some actually survived to tell their tales.

And they were harrowing ones, expertly and grippingly recounted in The Curse of The Narrows by Laura MacDonald. Some had all their clothes ripped off and found themselves sitting naked on the ground a mile from where they had stood only an instant before. Others lived while the people right next to them had been decapitated or crushed. Decades later, people were still digging shards of glass or metal from their bodies as these worked their way out.

About 2000 were killed and over 9000, injured, many blinded and cut by flying glass. The blast shook buildings 100 km away and was heard over 300 km away in Cape Breton. It also upset stoves and lamps, causing entire streets to catch on fire and trapping survivors in their ruined homes.

Rescue trains filled with medical personnel and supplies were quickly dispatched from Boston as well as Canadian cities, but were hampered in their journey by the largest blizzard of the decade - snow and bitter cold, which also further complicated rescue operations. The wounded were now freezing to death.

This catastrophe was the largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and is still the largest accidental one. There were more casualties than those sustained in the 103 air raids on Britain. Although the Canadian troops had been involved in the Great War since the outset, those at home had now also become victims.

The Halifax explosion figures in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

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