Nova Scotia

This firefighter was metres from the Mont-Blanc when it exploded. He survived

'I guess there wasn’t room in hell for me,' said pumper driver Billy Wells, who somehow survived the Halifax Explosion.

'I guess there wasn’t room in hell for me,' pumper driver Billy Wells said years after the Halifax Explosion

Billy Wells drove the fire pumper Patricia to Pier 6 on Dec. 6, 1917. (Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee)

Billy Wells, or Willy as his family called him, was the driver of Canada's first motorized pumper truck.

He would also become the lone survivor of its crew after the explosion that ripped through Halifax nearly 100 years ago on Dec. 6, 1917.

"All the rest of the other firemen died, perished on that horrible day," said his niece Colleen Burgess, who remembers her uncle quivering as he told her the story what happened in the Halifax Explosion.

"He always wondered why he was the one that was left to survive," she said. "It was just something unbelievable to him."

When the fire alarm sounded that day, Halifax's only motorized pumper truck, the Patricia, was among the first to respond. Fire calls to the dockyards were common, but this would be one like no other.

In the harbour, the French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc was ablaze after the Norwegian steamship SS Imo had rammed into its side moments before.

Mont-Blanc's crew had abandoned ship and was rowing for the Dartmouth shore, fleeing as quickly as possible. They knew of the explosive cargo on board, which included tonnes of picric acid, TNT, guncotton and benzol.

Colleen Burgess said her uncle did not want people to forget the Halifax Explosion. (CBC )

Wells and five other firefighters raced to Pier 6 on the Patricia, which was faster than Halifax's horse-drawn fire wagons and carts. When the crew arrived, the heat from Mont-Blanc was so intense they could not look at the fire.

"Oh, I'll tell you it was some blaze. I guess it was going up five or six hundred feet in the air," Wells recounted in a CBC interview broadcast in 1957.

The crew of the Patricia was metres from the fire, hooking up hose lines, when Mont-Blanc exploded.

Wells was ripped from the driver's seat and blown a distance away, part of the Patricia's smashed driving wheel still clutched in his hands.

His clothes ripped off, he suffered burns, and the force of the blast tore muscles from his right arm. A tidal wave caused by the explosion carried him away, and he got tangled in telephone wires and almost drowned.

"It blew the toes all off me, but I wasn't so badly hurt. Only it took a hunk out of me arm, that's all," Wells said. "I guess there wasn't room in hell for me."

The charred shell of Halifax's only motorized pumper truck, the Patricia, after the Halifax Explosion. (Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee)

Burgess said her uncle wandered around aimlessly after the explosion: "He said that when he looked up, men and children were hanging off the telegraph wires, and people hanging out the windows with their heads off."

Patricia's five other crew members died in the blast.

"They didn't know what hit them," said firefighter historian Don Snider. "Some of them were killed instantly."

Many other firefighters in the city survived. Thirty firemen and 120 volunteers pushed themselves in the aftermath of the explosion to douse fires all over the city.

"All these houses were burning coal and, you know, wood and so on, so as they exploded furnaces and everything just ignited," Snider said. "It was just fire after fire after fire."

Firefighters from around the province came to help, but many of their hose couplings could not connect to Halifax fire hydrants.

Part of the steering wheel of the Patricia. (Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee)

Wells spent months recovering at Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax. He died in 1971. Today, there is a street in Halifax named in his honour.

Burgess said Wells did not want people to forget the Halifax Explosion.

"You could see that, just when he used to talk that, you know, what it meant to him through his eyes and his voice … that it must have been a horrible, horrible thing to be there."

A monument dedicated to the members of the Halifax fire department who died while fighting the fire on the Mont-Blanc is located on Duffus Street. It lists the names of other firefighters who have died in the line of duty since the Halifax Explosion.

On Wednesday, on the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a memorial service will be held at the monument at 10:30 a.m.

About the Author

Katy Parsons

Associate Producer

Katy Parsons has been a journalist with CBC in Nova Scotia for more than 10 years. She's worked on news, current affairs and lifestyle programming. Contact her with story ideas at katy.parsons@cbc.ca.