For all you history buffs, 6 December 2017 marks the 100th year anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. If you’re wondering how this ties in with Christian Apologetics, it doesn’t other than to demonstrate the unintended consequences of war and how quickly our fragile lives can be extinguished. The Halifax Explosion took place during the First World War of 1914-1918.
The Halifax Explosion was a maritime disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of 6 December 1917. The population of Halifax/Dartmouth had increased to between 60,000 and 65,000 people by 1917. Convoys carried soldiers, men, animals and supplies to the European theatre of war. 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 or collapsed buildings, and an estimated 9,000 others were injured. 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(12,000 GJ).
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, of approximately one knot (1.2 mph or 1.9 km/h), 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 on board the French ship quickly grew out of control. Approximately 20 minutes later at 9:04:35 am, the SS Mont-Blanc exploded.
The collision occurred at 8:45 am. While the damage to Mont Blanc was not severe, it toppled barrels that broke open and flooded the deck with benzol that quickly flowed into the hold. As Imo‘s engines kicked in, she quickly disengaged, which created sparks inside Mont-Blanc‘s hull. These ignited the vapours from the benzol. A fire started at the water line and travelled quickly up the side of the ship as the benzol spewed out from crushed drums on Mont-Blanc‘s decks. The fire quickly became uncontrollable. Surrounded by thick black smoke, and fearing she would explode almost immediately, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. A growing number of Halifax citizens gathered on the street or stood at the windows of their homes or businesses to watch the spectacular fire. The frantic crew of Mont-Blanc shouted from their two lifeboats to some of the other vessels that their ship was about to explode, but they could not be heard above the noise and confusion. As the lifeboats made their way across the harbour to the Dartmouth shore, the abandoned ship continued to drift and beached herself at Pier 6 near the foot of Richmond street.
At 9:04:35 am, the out-of-control fire on board Mont-Blanc finally set off her highly explosive cargo. The ship was completely blown apart and a powerful blast wave radiated away from the explosion at more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) per second. Temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,030 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion. White-hot shards of iron fell down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. Mont-Blanc‘s forward 90 mm gun, its barrel melted away, landed approximately 5.6 kilometres (3.5 miles) north of the explosion site near Albro Lake in Dartmouth, while the shank of her anchor, weighing half a ton, landed 3.2 kilometres (2.0 miles) south at Armdale.
A cloud of white smoke rose to over 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). The shock wave from the blast travelled through the earth at nearly 23 times the speed of sound and was felt as far away as Cape Breton (207 kilometres or 129 miles) and Prince Edward Island (180 kilometres or 110 miles). An area of over 160 hectares (400 acres) was completely destroyed by the explosion, while the harbour floor was momentarily exposed by the volume of water that vaporized. A tsunami was formed by water surging in to fill the void; it rose as high as 18 metres (60 ft) above the high-water mark on the Halifax side of the harbour. Imo was carried onto the shore at Dartmouth by the tsunami.
In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks and remembrance for the help that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided immediately after the disaster. That gift was revived in 1971 by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, which began an annual donation of a large tree to promote Christmas tree exports as well as acknowledge Boston’s support after the explosion. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia Government to continue the goodwill gesture as well as to promote trade and tourism. The tree is Boston’s official Christmas tree and is lit on Boston Common throughout the holiday season.
If you would like to view a fuller account of this maritime disaster click on this link.