Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
The worst disaster in pre-atom bomb history may have been an event you never heard of: The Halifax Explosion of 1917. Why haven't you heard of it? While it wasn't war-related, it took place during WWI and got lost in the madness of the time and slipped from history. Despite the event being shrouded in a mass of violence and devastation, this event alone killed 1,800 people, injured 9,000, blinded 200, and destroyed a city.
On December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc was sailing to France from Canada carrying munitions in support of WWI. The ship was carrying 2,300 tons of pictric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton. Needless to say, the ship owners were nervous. Usually, ships carrying munitions added other cargo so the ship wasn't completely filled with explosive cargo; however, it was a desperate time. They couldn't sail with a red flag, for fear of submarines taking the ship down, so it was very incognito. No one other than the crew knew what the ship was holding.
The ship owners took great precautions because of this. A few weeks prior, the owner had wood added as a lining with copper nails to prevent sparks. Wooden partitions were added to separate the cargo. The crew was banned from smoking, carrying matches, or having liquor on the boat.
None of that mattered when the ship called Imo came along. Imo was running behind and quickly turned into the Narrows that the Mont-Blanc was occupying. The captain of the Mont-Blanc saw the Imo coming and blew the whistle once, indicating that the Mont-Blanc had the channel and the Imo should go another way. The Imo captain blew his whistle twice, which indicated that he would continue his course. If something didn't change, the boats would barrel into each other.
At the last minute, both ships tried to veer away from each other, but the Imo, ultimately, struck the Mont-Blanc, cascading sparks along the deck. It wasn't a bad crash by any means, but it did spark what came next.
Almost as soon as the Imo hit the Mont-Blanc, the spray of sparks ignited fuel that was being transported on the deck. The fire drew a crowd at the harbor, just off the bustling business district in Nova Scotia. They watched as the ship burned. Soon, barrels ignited and exploded, shooting into the air and raining shrapnel down on the crowd.
The captain of the Mont-Blanc had to think quickly. He ordered the crew to abandon ship. They did and tried to warn the crowd. However, they were speaking French and the crowd spoke English. No one understood their warning. The crew gave up and, knowing what could happen, hid in the woods.
A local general store owner called the fire department, which arrived at the scene just in time for the explosion. At 9:05am, the heat from the fire ignited the fuel on the ship and a massive explosion blew the ship to pieces. The explosion caused an immediate shock wave that produced over 5,000C of heat and was equivalent to 2,989 tons of TNT. It travelled at 1,500 meters per second. The heat and pressure pushed a fireball of hot gases and debris everywhere. The explosion had such pressure it started a tidal wave 16 meters high that ran through 3 city blocks. Immediately, 1,600 people were killed. More were to join.
The shrapnel from the explosion rained on the community. It killed, maimed, and injured people who were gathered in the area. While approximately 200 died of their wounds later, 1,600 were killed that day. Another 9,000 were injured. Ships and buildings were reduced to rubble. The entire area of Richmond was destroyed. The city needed to be completely rebuilt.
Almost immediately, the citizens of Richmond were calling for answers. Who was to blame for this devastation? The case went in front of a judge no less than four times. The first time, the Mont-Blanc was determined to be solely responsible due to "violations of the rules of navigation." The Mont-Blanc disagreed and appealed. In the second case, they had the same judge and lost again. The Mont-Blanc appealed again. This time, five judges were present: two determined it was the fault of Mont-Blanc; two determined it was the fault of the Imo; and one said both ships were at fault. The Mont-Blanc appealed one more time. In the final court case, it was determined both ships were at fault and equally to blame because of "violations of the rules of navigation" and "gross negligence."