CBC Digital Archives

Halifax Explosion: Surviving the disaster

On Dec. 6, 1917, a collision in Halifax Harbour led to the biggest man-made explosion in the world before the era of the atomic bomb. The blast levelled most of the city and sent shards of glass and burning debris flying for miles. It left thousands dead, blinded or homeless. Although the explosion occurred before the creation of the CBC, the Canadian radio and TV network has retold the story throughout the years to ensure that this crucial event in Canadian history is not forgotten.

The real tragedy of the Halifax explosion lies with the number of victims. Eyewitnesses recall horrific images of bodies being hurled in the air, people being decapitated and victims being peppered by flying glass. Eric Davison, who was two-and-a-half years old at the time of the blast, tells CBC's J. Frank Willis, himself a survivor, how the explosion was the last thing he ever saw. He, along with 600 others, suffered serious eye injury from the shattering glass.

A housewife who gave birth 23 days after the explosion tells the CBC about the hysteria following the blast as people frantically searched for their family. Many firefighters are killed in the blast including members of the Patricia crew. The sole surviving member, Billy Wells, is knocked unconscious and blown from the truck.

Wells remembers waking up still clutching on to the engine's steering wheel. The blast blew off all his toes as well as a huge chunk of his arm. He quietly reflects on the day saying "I guess there wasn't room in hell for me." 
• CBC's J. Frank Willis was inside a candy store with his friend Hugh MacLennan at the time of the explosion. Willis, who was then eight, said the store owner risked her life to protect him from the crashing glass.

• J. Frank Willis was a veteran CBC reporter and host. He later hosted Close-Up, a CBC Television current affairs program, for over a decade until his retirement in 1963.

• Hugh MacLennan later wrote about the 1917 explosion in his historical fiction novel Barometer Rising. It was published in 1941.

• According to the Halifax Relief Commission a total of 1963 people were killed in the explosion. Some 250 bodies were never identified and many more went missing. More than 250 eyes were surgically removed; 38 people were left completely and permanently blind and 25 limbs were amputated.

• Robert MacNeil, whose family survived the 1917 blast, talked to CBC's Valerie Pringle about setting his first novel, Burden of Desire, against the backdrop of the Halifax explosion. MacNeil was one half of PBS's highly acclaimed The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

• Albert Wood, who was a young boy at the time of the explosion, described the long-lasting impact of the flying glass to CBC Radio. "A cousin of mine...20 years after, had a piece of glass come out of her neck. It was a common thing for years afterwards, you'd scratch your face, your head or the back of your neck and you'd feel something sharp...and it would be a piece of glass."
Medium: Television
Program: Close-Up
Broadcast Date: Dec. 1, 1957
Guest(s): Eric Davidson
Host: J. Frank Willis
Duration: 8:54

Last updated: August 31, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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