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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Calls and alarms flooded in at the Halifax
Fire Department .
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.