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.
To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.