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Collision Course

At around 7:30 am on December 6 the navy opened the gate in the nets at the entrance to the harbour.

Mont-Blanc was the second of several vessels headed up the harbour, travelling at about four knots[?], well within the harbour speed limit of five knots. It still raised no warning flag: the rules didn’t seem to require it.

Around the same time, Imo raised anchor in Bedford Basin. Then it headed toward the Narrows.

The Basin was crowded with vessels waiting to join convoys. Imo approached the Narrows, increasing its speed to almost seven knots as it cleared the ships in the Basin.

Imo encountered the first ship coming up the harbour. The two ships agreed to pass on each other's "wrong" sides. This was contrary to the rules of the road at sea; it was like driving in the left-hand lane on the street. But it made docking on the Halifax side easier for the incoming ship.

At 8:15 the tugboat Stella Maris pulled away from shore towing two barges. Stella Maris was headed for Bedford Basin when its captain saw Imo. The tug's captain thought Imo was going too fast for the Narrows.

The tug veered back in toward Halifax to avoid Imo, and Imo stayed to port[?] --in the "wrong" channel--to avoid Stella Maris.

Then, through the morning haze, Imo faced Mont-Blanc moving up the Narrows.

Mont-Blanc blew its whistle once, to say it had right of way and would maintain its course: Imo should move to the right. But Imo blew its whistle twice in reply--translation: I am staying where I am.

There was a flurry of whistles between the two ships. Then, almost at the last minute, Mont-Blanc turned hard to the left…and Imo reversed its engines--hard astern.

If only one of these moves had been made, the two ships would have avoided a collision - barely.

But the combination of last-ditch efforts made a collision inevitable.

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Fire on Mont-Blanc

At about 8:45, Imo's prow struck the starboard bow of Mont-Blanc. It missed the hold carrying TNT but hit areas carrying the benzol fuel…and the highly unstable picric acid. As the two steel vessels ground into each other, sparks flew.

Witnesses said that at first, they saw a tendril of smoke coming out of a gash in the Mont-Blanc's hull. The fire started almost immediately and grew rapidly. A huge cloud of oily black smoke enveloped the deck.

Mont-Blanc's crew abandoned ship. They thought the ship would blow up in minutes and that there was nothing they could do.

The French crew spoke no English. No one understood their shouts as they rowed furiously for the Dartmouth shore. A column of gray-black smoke, with bursts of flame like fireworks inside it, rose high into the sky.

The blazing ship drifted in to the Halifax shoreline, up to Pier 6, and the fire spread to the pier's wooden pilings.

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Elsewhere on the harbour

The Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy had more than two dozen vessels in the harbour. After the collision, HMCS Niobe and HMS Highflyer sent crews in small boats to investigate and help.

Already close to the scene, the tugboat Stella Maris trained its fire hose on the burning ship. It made no difference. Then the tug's skipper and a Royal Navy officer decided to try towing Mont-Blanc away from the pier. But after two difficult and dangerous attempts, Mont-Blanc hadn't budged.

They pondered what to do next, unaware that they were almost out of time.

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On Land

On land, the collision and the spectacular fire drew crowds of spectators on both sides of the harbour.

In the heart of Richmond, 14-year-old Barbara Orr was home from school for the day. She saw the collision from the dining room window.

James Pattison, 13, was supposed to be on his way to school with his brother, but nothing would keep him from getting a look at all the to-do on the waterfront.

They were just two of the thousands of people--office, factory and dock workers, delivery boys and naval cadets, housewives and schoolchildren--drawn to windows and lookoffs.

Almost no one realized the danger...not even the fire department.

Calls and alarms flooded in at the Halifax Fire Department Will open a new window . Firemen rushed to the scene as Mont-Blanc drifted towards shore. Some rode on the city's first motorized fire truck, called the Patricia.

The truck and wagons--13 vehicles in all-- headed to Pier 6, where the blazing Mont-Blanc had come to rest.

The Patricia arrived first, along with a car carrying the fire chief and his deputy. The firemen began rolling out the hoses. Continue >

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Interactive Features
Collision Timeline, interactive feature The Ships, interactive feature Historical Docu-Comic, Tribute to the Halifax Fire Department
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Galleries

Continue to Media Gallery Continue to Image Gallery
View Halifax map in 1917  Francis Mackey
Francis Mackey
Listen to a CBC radio interview with Mackey in1958.
  Stella Maris Stella Maris
Read about the heroes of the tugboat Stella Maris.
Black silhouette of a man Did you Know

First Ship: Today's reporting systems keep track of the tiniest detail…but that wasn't the case in 1917. Even though it played a major role in the day's events, the first ship into the harbour that day is not named in the records. Some accounts call it an American "tramp steamer."

In his naval history of the Explosion, historian John Griffith Armstrong says it may have been an American merchant marine ship, SS Clara. But there is no record of what happened to it that day after its exchange with Imo.


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