December 9, 2018

A Tale of Terror Told Terribly Well

Author John U. Bacon to bring his latest, "The Great Halifax Explosion" to City Opera House
By Clark Miller | Nov. 24, 2018

An explosion of nearly unimaginable size and force obliterated much of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia on December 6, 1917, killing 2,000 victims and wounding 9,000 others. It remained the largest man-made explosion in history until the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. For days, the catastrophe pushed aside news from Europe of the bloody fighting in the trenches of World War I.
 
Author Visits Traverse City Nov. 29
Written in an engaging, cinematic style, the new book of bestselling Michigan author John U. Bacon, “The Great Halifax Explosion (Harper Collins),” injects new life into this all-but-forgotten event. Bacon will discuss the accident and its aftermath when he visits the National Writers Series at 7pm Thursday, Nov. 29.

The Accident
At first glance, “The Great Halifax Explosion” is a straightforward disaster tale. The outbound Norwegian freighter, Imo, was traveling too fast toward open waters. Inexplicably, the ship’s hard-charging captain, Haakon From, remained in the left “passing lane” in a narrow section of the harbor, bumping into an inbound French freighter, Mont-Blanc, captained byAimé Le Médec. The collision knocked loose some of the 400 barrels of airplane fuel lashed together on the Mont-Blanc’s forward main deck. A spark set the spilled fuel afire. That, in turn, ignited highly volatile munitions stored below in the Mont-Blanc’s holds.
 
Busy Wartime Port
But there was more to the story. Halifax had become the main North American refueling stop and shipping point for men and “materiel”bound for the Great War (which only later would be called World War I). Not surprisingly, there had been accidents in the harbor before.
 
But this accident was different. The Mont-Blanc carried a very special payload: six million pounds of high explosives.
 
When the deck fire broke out, many Haligonians, as the residents of Halifax are called, huddled at the windows of their hillside homes to watch the action in the harbor below and track a dense plume of smoke as it rose two miles into the morning sky.
 
They had no idea what was about to happen.
 
Eighteen minutes later, they found out.
 
Concentrated Fury
The Mont-Blanc’s deadly cargo exploded with immense, concentrated fury. The resulting shock wave traveled across the harbor and through the town at 3,400 miles per hour — more than four times the speed of sound. It turned the Mont-Blanc into a gigantic pipe bomb, created a powerful tsunami that tossed the 435-foot-long Imo a half-mile from the scene, flattened 6,000 of the city’s homes and businesses, and in an instant made 25,000 people homeless. The 90-mm gun mounted on the bow of the Mont-Blanc was found two miles away, twisted like a pretzel from the 9,000º heat (roughly six times the temperature of molten lava).
 
The catastrophe killed an estimated 1,600 Haligonians outright. Another 400 victims later died from their injuries, often from oil, fuel, and small pieces of the Mont-Blanc that had rained down from the sky. Others were crushed when buildings collapsed, or they were burned to death when their homes caught fire. Many of the 9,000 injured were blinded or severely scarred by flying glass as they looked out their windows to watch the initial fire aboard the Mont-Blanc. In a two-week period, doctors in Halifax performed 25 amputations and 250 eye removals.
 
A Many-Sided Story
Bacon offers much more than just the numbers of victims and the pounds of TNT. His empathetic, detailed description of victims and heroes are some of the book’s most memorable passages. 
 
There are portrayals of Ian Orr and Noble Driscoll, boys whose innocent hobby involved watching and carefully recording the comings and goings of the ships down the hill from their homes.
 
We learn about selfless acts. Many Haligonians wept openly, for example, when, without being asked for help, two trainloads of Boston doctors and nurses arrived on the scene to support local medical staff. Suddenly, there was hope. (Many of today’s Bostonians are probably unaware that their city’s gigantic Christmas tree is a gift each year from grateful Nova Scotians.)
 
The experience changed many lives. Tending to survivors set wounded veteran Ernest Barss on the path to becoming a surgeon. (Interestingly, Barss later helped establish the hockey program while a student at the University of Michigan).
 
A Cascade of Contributing Factors
One of the most damning realizations is that the disaster could have been avoided. Bacon spoke to the Northern Expressof a “cascade” of factors big and small that, if handled differently, might have prevented the disaster.
 
Most obvious is the simple fact that Captain From was pushing too hard to get the Imo out of the harbor and on its way New York City, where relief supplies for Belgium waited. After passing numerous other ships on the left, he stubbornly refused to steer back to the right side of the channel.
 
Other causes of the explosion can be attributed to pressures created by the war. Halifax experienced an eightfold increase in ship traffic and became the busiest port in North America. That contributed to harbor congestion and frequent close calls.  
 
All of this played out against a grinding war in which an Allied victory was still far from assured. The sense of urgency was palpable.  Americans, who had entered the war just six months earlier, were only starting to arrive in the trenches overseas and were badly needed. The war chewed up soldiers and munitions at an alarming rate. Consider the First Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, which resulted in 150,000 dead and wounded French and British soldiers (as well as those from British Dominion countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India). In return, the Allies’ only gain was 500 yards of strategically unimportant, bombed-out land.
 
It’s logical to ask why an old, slow ship like the Mont-Blanc was selected for such a mission when a faster ship would have reached the harbor one or even two days earlier, thereby avoiding the collision. The answer is that the Mont-Blanc was available, and it still floated. (At that point in the war, German U-boats had already sunk 3,000 Allied ships.) In that context, overloading an old, slow, poorly maintained ship like the Mont-Blanc with 6 million pounds of high explosives can be seen as a desperate, wartime gambit, a way of possibly moving the needle in a war bogged down in a muddy, murderous stalemate. The Halifax Explosion put an end to that.
 
It’s not hard to pick the downright dumbest factor contributing to the accident; it’s the story of the Halifax harbormaster. On Dec. 5, the evening before the collision, the Mont-Blanc was ready to enter Halifax’s protected waters. That couldn’t happen, though, because the harbormaster closed the anti-submarine nets earlier than usual so he could attend a party.
If he had stayed at his post, the Mont-Blanc would have been safely anchored in Halifax harbor when the Imo passed the next day.
 
Tickets
National Writers Series presentations take place at 7pm at City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6pm. For tickets, go to www.cityoperahouse.org; call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday through Friday; or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St.
 

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