They were everywhere.
More than 1500 people were dead…only some from the force of the blast itself. Most died as buildings collapsed and burned around them. Shattered windows flew like showers of knives at those who had been watching the fire. Some people, trapped by rubble, died of exposure in the blizzard that began on the night of December 6 and continued through the next day.
A doctor coming into the Devastated Area that first day saw "bodies stacked like cordwood" along the road. Many were so horribly mutilated as to be unidentifiable.
By nightfall, the city set up a central morgue in the basement of Chebucto Road School. Drawing on the work done in the Titanic tragedy just five years earlier, the mortuary committee established procedures to number and identify the dead as best they could, and to support the survivors who came looking for loved ones.
Military teams kept searching for bodies for more than a month, and remains were still being found in the late spring.
Lost at school, work, home
In December of 1917, some school classes didn't start until 9:30. Two children died in Richmond School, but 87 of their schoolmates died on their way there or at home.
The schools tended to be sturdier than houses; if more children had been in class, fewer might have died.
The Acadia Sugar Refinery’s seven storeys of concrete and brick collapsed on the day shift. James Pattison’s father was one of those lost.
At Richmond Printing Company, more than thirty people died, including Barbara Orr’s father. He was one of the owners.
At Hillis & Sons Foundry, 41 workers died.
In Dartmouth, the Oland’s brewery was left in ruins, with seven workers dead.
Churches too, counted their losses. In Richmond, buildings and stained-glass windows were the least of it: Kaye Street Methodist Church lost 91 parishioners; Grove Presbyterian, 148; St. Mark’s Anglican, about 200; and St. Joseph’s, the heart of the Irish Catholic community, lost 404 members of its parish.
The grim lessons of the Titanic tragedy came back. Halifax knew about dealing with large numbers of dead. In fact, the man in charge of the Explosion's mortuary committee, Arthur Barnstead, was the son of the man who had done the same job when the Titanic victims came to Halifax.
The city’s private funeral homes couldn’t begin to deal with everyone, and one central location would make it easier on people searching for lost loved ones.
The mortuary committee set up a makeshift morgue in the basement of Chebucto Road School.
Workers labelled and laid out bodies, cataloguing any personal effects carefully. The effects would help in identification. Failing that, they might give some hint of the deceased’s religion, which would dictate funeral rites.
The morgue saw a steady stream of ambulances, wagons and private cars arrive at its doors.
The first night, a young boy named Thomas Raddall watched soldiers set up the morgue in the basement of his school. He stood quietly as the bodies began to come in. He grew up to be a novelist, and his memoirs tell his own story.