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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Rare Video of Aftermath Greatest Man-Made Explosion in Its Time

Rare video of Halifax harbour explosion depicts fiery aftermath of 1917 blast

    The equivalent of 5,000 tonnes of TNT sent shockwaves through Halifax in a historic explosion
    99 years ago in Canada. CTV's Bruce Frisko reports.  3:40

CTVNews.ca Staff 

The Halifax harbour explosion of 1917 remains one of the most devastating disasters in Canadian history. Nearly 2,000 people died when a ship loaded with explosives bumped into another vessel and detonated.

Actually, after the collision the ship caught on fire and rather than put out the fire or scuttle the ship, the French crew abandoned it. The ship slowly drifted across the harbour to the Halifax docks before it suddenly exploded flattening half of the city. 

See below for more history...

Ninety-nine years later, rare archival video of the day is being publicly displayed at the Army Museum Halifax Citadel.

The black-and-white images are some of the only moving depictions of Halifax in the hours after the blast. Fires can be seen burning across town, windows are blown out and countless buildings are reduced to rubble. The scenes were shot by W. G. MacLaughlan, a photographer who had a studio in town.

“At the time, the population was a little more than 50,000 people, so half of this city was directly and devastatingly affected by the explosion,” Ken Hynes, a curator at the museum, told CTV Atlantic.

A view of the pyrocumulus cloud
The explosion unfolded on Dec. 6, 1917 when a French ship filled with explosives equivalent to 5,000 tons of TNT accidentally hit a ship from Norway in the waters off Halifax. The collision sparked a massive shockwave that rocked Halifax, levelled entire neighbourhoods and altered the course of Atlantic Canadian history.

Nearly a century later, historians are still learning more about the catastrophe. A researcher who extrapolated figures from the explosion says modern-day Halifax would be hit even harder by the blast.

“If the Halifax explosion were to occur today, we would immediately have 9,600 dead, over 43,000 wounded and 120,000 without adequate shelter,” said historian and author John Boileau.

Historians have spent decades poring over materials from the days after the blast in an effort to learn more about how the community responded to the crisis.

“It can be as little as somebody writing a postcard or a letter saying, ‘I was in Halifax and I saw the devastation,’” said historian Blair Beed.

For documentary filmmaker John Versteege, the harbour explosion was so fascinating that he compiled hours of never-before-seen footage and interviews with survivors to piece together what happened. He produced the film in “Thunder in the Sky,” a 97-minute documentary released in 1993 on the 75th anniversary of the disaster.

“Big pictures are made out of millions of small events,” Versteege said.

The priceless moving pictures are among a trove of other artifacts on display at the Halifax museum, including a watchman’s clock recovered from beneath a dock in the harbour. Its face is permanently frozen at 9:04 a.m. -- the same minute the explosives went off.

   Looking north from a grain elevator towards Acadia Sugar Refinery, circa 1900, showing the
   area later devastated by the 1917 explosion

The Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion was a maritime disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of 6 December 1917. SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. A fire on board the French ship ignited her cargo, causing a large explosion that devastated the Richmond district of Halifax. Approximately 2,000 people were killed by blast, debris, fires and collapsed buildings, and an estimated 9,000 others were injured.

Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry her cargo of high explosives from New York via Halifax to Bordeaux, France. At roughly 8:45 am, she collided at low speed – approximately one knot (1 to 1.5 miles per hour or 1.6 to 2.4 kilometres per hour) – with the unladen Imo, chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of relief supplies in New York. The resulting fire aboard the French ship quickly grew out of control. Approximately 20 minutes later at 9:04:35 am, Mont-Blanc exploded. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT.

    Map of present-day Halifax and Dartmouth. Bedford Basin is top left and the Narrows between
    Dartmouth and Halifax leads towards the Atlantic off the bottom on the right.

Nearly all structures within an 800-metre (2,600 ft) radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were obliterated. A pressure wave snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and scattered fragments of Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Hardly a window in the city proper survived the blast. Across the harbour, in Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people who had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations.

Thousands of people were injured because they were standing at their windows watching the burning ship when it exploded. Most of the injuries were shards of glass in people eyes. When I was growing up in Nova Scotia I knew people who were blind, or blind in one eye because of the explosion. And as if the explosion wasn't enough a blizzard struck Nova Scotia that night and temperatures dropped well below freezing for the next several days.

Relief efforts began almost immediately, and hospitals quickly became full. Rescue trains began arriving from across eastern Canada and the north-eastern United States, but were impeded by a blizzard. Construction of temporary shelters to house the many people left homeless began soon after the disaster. The initial judicial inquiry found Mont-Blanc to have been responsible for the disaster, but a later appeal determined that both vessels were to blame. There are several memorials to the victims of the explosion in the North End.

99 years later Nova Scotia still sends a huge Christmas Tree to Boston every year in appreciation for the extraordinarily benevolent response from Bostonians.

    Halifax Regional District, Nova Scotia