The Halifax Explosion
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The Halifax Explosion
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The Halifax Explosion
The largest explosion the world has ever known destroys much of the city
On the morning of December 6 1917, Halifax harbour was bustling with wartime activity.
The Halifax explosion on December 6, 1917 wiped out six square kilometres of the city.  It was the largest manmade explosion the world had known. (National Archives of Canada)
The Halifax explosion on December 6, 1917 wiped out six square kilometres of the city. It was the largest manmade explosion the world had known. (National Archives of Canada)

Ships carrying soldiers, munitions and supplies headed for Europe while the wounded returned to Canada from the frontlines.

The people of Halifax were well-acquainted with the battles raging overseas. But on this clear morning WWI would deal them a direct and deadly blow.

That morning, the Norwegian ship Imo was leaving the Halifax harbour carrying much-needed war supplies. The Mont-Blanc, a French vessel was approaching from the opposite direction.

A small craft forced the Imo to change course, putting it in the path of the Mont-Blanc. Both ships blasted their horns in warning. At 8:45 A.M., they collided.

Initially, there was no explosion, just sparks, black smoke and flames, which drew the excited curiousity of children, who ran towards the harbour. In schools, factories and houses, people gathered at the windows to observe the extraordinary fire.

No one knew that the Mont-Blanc was carrying 3,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives.

The crew of the Mont-Blanc jumped into the lifeboats and paddled madly for the shore, trying to warn onlookers to flee. Meanwhile, sparks set fire to barrels of gas lashed to the deck of the Mont-Blanc, and fire spread slowly inside the hold.

Thirteen-year-old James Pattison was walking to Richmond School with his two brothers when the ships collided. Twenty-one minutes later he remembered when the fire reached the explosives.
On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided and caught fire in Halifax harbour, igniting 3,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives. Pictured here, Halifax after the explosion, looking south. (National Archives of Canada, C-019953)
On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided and caught fire in Halifax harbour, igniting 3,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives. Pictured here, Halifax after the explosion, looking south. (National Archives of Canada, C-019953)

"We didnt hear the explosion, we felt the concussion. Knocked us unconscious. It did come into my mind - is this the end of the world? You couldnt hear a sound. Then of course things cleared off a little and you could hear noises - people screaming and of course you could hear the places burning."

Windows were broken 75 kilometres away and the shock waves felt more than 300 kilometres away. The shaft of the ship's anchor, weighing a half-tonne, was recovered three kilometres away. Shards of iron, wood and steel flew in all directions.

People standing close to the shore were propelled through the air, sucked up in a strange whirlwind and dropped ten metres away. Some people were vapourized by the force of the explosion. Others lost eyes when windows shattered.

Six square kilometres of Halifax was simply wiped out. The explosion killed 2,000 people, and wounded another 9,000.

James Pattison lost half of his family.
The Halifax explosion killed 2,000 people, and wounded another 9,000. Pictured here, soldiers engaged in rescue work. (National Archives of Canada, PA-022744)
The Halifax explosion killed 2,000 people, and wounded another 9,000. Pictured here, soldiers engaged in rescue work. (National Archives of Canada, PA-022744)

His little brother, Alan, died on the way to school. His ten-year old sister Catherine was killed instantly at home. It was four months before his father's body was pulled from the wreckage of the sugar refinery where he worked.

The search for the missing continued for months; bodies were still being recovered the following spring.

The Jacksons all lived close together next to the port, in the working-class district of Richmond. Forty-six of 66 in the Jacksons extended family died. Among the survivors was Mary Jean Jackson, a 40-year-old mother who lost her ten children, her husband, her mother, four brothers, two sisters and many nephews and nieces.

Mary Jean later remarried and bore another child, James, who remembered his mother's deep sadness, especially during the anniversary of the explosion.

"Sometimes, at the time, when I came back from school, I could see that she had been crying. But I didnt know why. When I grew up, I understood that she must have visited a place dear to her heart and closed to everyone except herself."

The Halifax explosion was the most devastating disaster on Canadian soil. It was the largest manmade explosion the world had known (it would be 28 years before a larger one was seen at Hiroshima.)

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