Nova Scotia

A century after the Halifax Explosion, Beirut tragedy hits close to home

More than 100 years ago, the city of Halifax went through the worst human-caused explosion of its time. Now, some are asking Nova Scotians to support Beirut through its own tragedy.

'It's horrifying for Beirut, but I was also horrified to think back on that time of 1917'

The explosion in Beirut Tuesday next to a historical image of the Halifax Explosion. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images/Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

Beirut has forged a grim connection with Halifax — two port cities linked together in tragedy by catastrophic explosions a century apart.

Videos and images of the blast in Beirut on Tuesday, which killed at least 135 people and left 5,000 wounded, have been widely circulated throughout international media and social media.

For James Boxall, who teaches geography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, the imagery of the heavy cloud of thick, grey smoke brought to mind another terrible explosion.

"Looking at it, I thought, 'This is exactly what citizens of Halifax must have seen,'" said Boxall, referring to the Halifax Explosion, which killed nearly 2,000 people and injured 9,000 more.

"It's horrifying for Beirut, but I was also horrified to think back on that time of 1917. So there was a connection and that hits close to home."

The site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Lebanon said the Beirut explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate — which was stored unsafely in a warehouse after being confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014 — being ignited.

The 1917 Halifax Explosion, which levelled two square kilometres of the city and shattered windows within an 80-kilometre radius, was the largest human-caused explosion prior to the atomic age.

It happened in Halifax harbour when the SS Mont Blanc, heavy with explosives destined for the war in Europe, and the SS IMO collided. It resulted in a fire aboard the Mont Blanc. About 20 minutes later, the ship exploded.

A view of Halifax after the disaster, looking south, on Dec. 6, 1917. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

In the wake of the disaster, the relief response from other parts of Canada and the U.S. was swift, most notably from Boston, where Halifax sends a Christmas tree each year as thanks for their aid.

In a Twitter thread Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Museum urged Canadians to donate to the Lebanese Red Cross.

"Our province knows the devastating consequences of catastrophic accidents in our cities … Please show Beirut the same kindness we received over 100 years ago," the thread said.

Now, Boxall said it's appropriate for Nova Scotians and Haligonians to come together to help Beirut.

He said those who want to donate should ensure their money is going to a reputable charity, such as the Red Cross, noting that Lebanon has been in a state of financial and social crisis for years.

Boxall also said it would be good for Halifax to have some sort of visual reminder of the tragedy in Beirut to further honour the connection between the two devastating events, pointing to Toronto dimming its sign Tuesday night as an example.

"We may not be able to do like Boston in 1917 and send hundreds of doctors and nurses and supplies, but we can at least say we're connected to you because of what happened here in 1917 and what you have experienced," he said.

'Strong ties' between Canada, Lebanon

Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday that the country will provide up to $5 million in humanitarian assistance to help Lebanon and its people recover from the explosion. An initial $1.5 million of that funding will go to the Lebanese Red Cross to provide emergency medical services, shelter and food for those affected.

The city of Halifax confirmed in an email that it has no plans for financial support at this time. A provincial spokesperson said Nova Scotia is "monitoring developments and will work with the federal government on its national response."

Dalhousie University geography professor James Boxall says the explosion in Beirut 'hits close to home' in Halifax. (Submitted by James Boxall)

Wadih Fares, the Lebanese consul for the Maritimes, told CBC News on Wednesday that Canada is known for being "always there for the needy," and estimated there are more than half a million Canadians of Lebanese origin living in Canada.

"So there [are] strong ties between Lebanon and Canada and this is the time when we want our country, Canada, to help our home country, Lebanon," he said.

David Flemming, a former curator and director at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and the author of Explosion in Halifax Harbour: The Illustrated Account of a Disaster That Shook the World, said there are numerous similarities between the 1917 and 2020 explosions.

Flemming said both had fires that drew people to the scenes where the explosions would happen. As well, both explosions devastated the ports, an important economic driver for both cities. 

"The fact that [Beirut's] port has been pretty much destroyed, it's going to be a real blow to their economy because their port was a fairly major source of revenue," he said. "I think in Halifax, certainly, getting the port facilities back in shape was a big priority."

Another big priority for Halifax following the explosion, he said, was finding homes for the 25,000 people left homeless by the blast.

Wadih Fares, the Lebanese consul for the Maritimes, estimated there are more than half a million Canadians of Lebanese origin living in Canada. (CBC)

In the much more densely populated Beirut, it's estimated that up to 300,000 people have been left homeless after Tuesday's disaster.

"It's going to be a major, major undertaking, I think, and they're going to need support from other countries," said Flemming.

"And I think the fact that Canada has been there and we've experienced that probably would lend a bit more sympathy to their plight."

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About the Author

Alex Cooke

Reporter/editor

Alex is a reporter living in Halifax. Send her story ideas at alex.cooke@cbc.ca.

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