Nova Scotia

Halifax Explosion documentary to tell untold survival story of deaf students

Two novice documentary filmmakers are hoping to spread the word about the Halifax School for the Deaf and its students who miraculously all survived the Halifax Explosion in December 1917.

School's survival story never documented before through film or book

The Halifax School for the Deaf was a boarding school, attended by about 90 students from all over the region. It was located on Gottingen Street where the George Dixon community centre stands today. (Facebook)

Two novice documentary filmmakers are hoping to spread the word about the Halifax School for the Deaf and its students who miraculously all survived the Halifax Explosion on Dec. 6, 1917.

Linda Campbell and Jim McDermott, who are both professors in Halifax and are both deaf, say the story of the school during that time is well-known in the deaf community but has not been shared more broadly.

"Many deaf individuals, especially older deaf individuals, who have been passing away have told me these stories," said McDermott. "There's no book that's been written on that — no movies, no documentation at all."

None of the survivors of the school at the time of the explosion are alive today.

Hundreds dead, thousands injured

Twenty minutes after ships Mont Blanc and Imo collided in Halifax harbour in 1917, the Mont-Blanc — which was loaded with explosives — blew up, killing about 1,500 people immediately. Hundreds more later died of their injuries. More than 9,000 were injured. It was the largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen.

Patricia Krueger prepares some gory makeup with broken glass on the arm of one of the actors in the documentary. Flying glass during the explosion injured many in 1917. (Facebook)

McDermott and Campbell are in the process of filming their documentary, which will be released in time for the 100th anniversary next year. 

The Halifax School for the Deaf was a boarding school, attended by about 90 students from all over the region. It was located on Gottingen Street where the George Dixon Centre stands today. It was about one kilometre from the blast site. 

Campbell teaches environmental science at Saint Mary's University. In 2013, she and McDermott, who teaches in the deaf studies department at the Nova Scotia Community College, attended a workshop offered by the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival. That's where the idea for the film was born.

'Before people had the concept of explosions'

Campbell explains that all the students were in the assembly hall for their morning prayers at the time of the explosion — one of the safest rooms in the building.

"There were windows, unfortunately, so they did get hurt when the windows were blown out and doors flew off from the impact of the explosion," said Campbell. "But many of the children were situated away from the buildings and the windows."

Confusion ensued and the principal took charge of the situation immediately, adds Campbell. 

"It was before Hollywood movies. It was before people had the concept of explosions. They had no idea what had even occurred. A lot of people were hurt or injured in the school. They were cut by the glass and bleeding. There was shock and panic and stress."

Everyone was ushered to the basement. Because it was a boarding school, they had all the supplies they needed, including a nurse. They were able to weather the winter storm that blanketed the city the next day.

"They had the resources there at their disposal and they were able to bring them in. They had the community to help each other," said Campbell.

The Norwegian steamship Imo is shown beached on the Dartmouth shore after the 1917 Halifax explosion. Its collision with the munitions ship Mont-Blanc sparked the fire that set off the explosion. (Nova Scotia Archives & Record Management/Canadian Press)

The film is based on stories that have been shared in the deaf community through the years by families of survivors. Campbell and McDermott also researched original documents.

"The Nova Scotia Archives has an excellent deaf collection. There are pictures there, reports and so forth. So we went through those archives," said Campbell.

They even found a handwritten log book by the chair of the board, describing the events of the explosion.

The film will be narrated by McDermott through sign language and it will include English subtitles. The filmmakers received $25,000 through various grants, including $10,000 through the Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Commemorative Fund.

now