A Page in History

As a writer I’m constantly absorbing information; I never know when something might come in handy!  It may inform my scene with more realism, or infuse a character with a quirk or a background that gives them depth.  History is full of oddities and amazing events that can spark our imaginations; the event below is one such event:  If you ever need to write a scene about an explosion, or the effects of wrong decisions gone awry, look to history to teach you how it’s done (or in this case, how it should not be done).  This story shows the importance of decisions, and begs the question, “What if?”  What if one of those factors had changed?  What if the captain of the SS Imo had given way to the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc?  We’ll never know, but as writers we can use our greatest tool:  Imagination.

This day in history:  The Halifax Explosion

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the Nuclear Age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives
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8 Comments

Filed under Articles, History, Plot Thots & Profiles, Quotes, Research, Translations

8 responses to “A Page in History

  1. Carol Ferenc

    I’ve never heard of this before ~ what a terrible event for those people. I remember stories of the citizens of Nova Scotia when, after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, some airline flights were diverted to Nova Scotia. The stranded passengers on those flights were shown true kindness and hospitality during their unplanned stay.

    • It’s true – they took very good care of those strangers, which is amazing, considering the townsfolk was suddenly inundated with 40 aircraft and 8,000 irritable and confused passengers to comfort, clothe, feed and accommodate!
      My first writing mentor, Charles Strohmer, was returning home from a speaking engagement in England on 9/11, and was one of those airline refugees taken care of in Halifax. I believe he was there 8 days, and spoke highly of the way he was cared for. He said that on the plane, the TVs and radio had sudden blackout, and the captain apologized – it was a harmless technical malfunction; but soon he noticed the plane veering off course. That was all they knew until after they’d landed and disembarked…

  2. I had heard about the great kindnesses extended by the good people of Halifax after 9/11 before. What I had not heard was the death and destruction visited upon this city in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Devastating doesn’t adequately describe the event. I have always been fascinated by history as well, and sadly it seems, a lot of the history that fascinates is the kind that surrounds tragic events. Maybe it is because of how hard it is to believe that something like that could happen. Or maybe, it is because of how these terrible events extract so much from humanity. Either way, history involves the human condition, something we all can relate to.

  3. What an amazing and horrific page from history! I had never heard of this event before. Thank you for visiting me today and for sharing a bit of history. Your visit has enlightened me this morning.

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