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Countdown to Catastrophe

The voyage that would wreck a city began earlier that week in New York.

Dockworkers loaded the French vessel Mont-Blanc with its doomsday cargo of picric acid, TNT, guncotton and benzol. It was all headed for the war in France, but Mont-Blanc couldn't cross the U-boat-ridden Atlantic alone.

The freight manifest for Mont-Blanc is a recipe for a giant bomb.

Explosives
Quantity
Value in 1917 US$
     
TNT[?] 226,797 kg $240,750
     
Wet picric acid[?] 1,602,519 kg $2,230,999
     
Dry picric acid 544,311 kg $960,000
     
Guncotton[?] 56,301 kg $65,165
     
Benzol[?] 223,188 kg $104,376
     
Totals 2653,115 kg $3,601,290
     
Source: Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour

On the night of December 1, Mont-Blanc slipped out of New York harbour by night and headed to Halifax to join a convoy. It flew no flags warning of its cargo: ship laden with explosives would be a prime target for German attack.

A Halifax pilot boarded the ship outside the harbour around 4:00 pm on Wednesday, December 5. Francis Mackey was an experienced harbour pilot.

But it was too late to enter: the anti-submarine nets had been closed for the night. Mont-Blanc's captain Aimé Le Médec had to stay at sea for one more night.

Inside the nets, in Bedford Basin, the Belgian relief ship Imo waited to head out in the morning. Coal for its boilers had arrived too late for it to leave that day. Now, Captain Haakon From was behind schedule.

Imo had no cargo on board. It was heading to New York to collect emergency supplies for civilians in war-torn Belgium. It carried a large sign on its side: "BELGIAN RELIEF." The sign was supposed to discourage German submarines, or U-boats, from sinking it as a military target. Continue>

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Efforts to keep the harbour safe in wartime.

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  The Imo
The Imo
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Black silhouette of a women Did you know

Red Cross: In 1917, the entire membership of the Red Cross's Halifax branch were women.


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