The Halifax Explosion
Wednesday December 06th 2006, 10:51 am

Eighty-nine years ago today on December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, killing 2,000 people and injuring over 9,000, in one of the worst man-made disasters of our time. It was the biggest man-made explosion in the world until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshimo in 1945. It happened when the French munitions ship Mont Blanc collided with the Imo, a Belgian relief vessel, in Halifax Harbour at about 9:00 a.m. and flattened the north end of the city of Halifax. The blast could be felt hundreds of kilometers away. It was during World War I so many people thought the Germans had bombed the city.

There are still survivors alive, who are in their 90’s, who can recount the day that changed their lives forever, and can still remember that day in vivid detail. My grandfather was overseas fighting in the war but my grandmother lived in Dartmouth and was fortunate that she had only broken dishes, windows and cracked plaster on the walls. Most homes in Halifax and Dartmouth were damaged, some beyond repair with over 25,000 people homeless out of a population of 50,000. The north end of Halifax was reduced to matchsticks with fires burning for days. There were many children who lost their parents and entire families who were killed or badly injured.

People from many areas responded to the disaster and especially the people of Boston, who sent trainloads of provisions and medical workers to help the people of Halifax. There were close ties between Boston and Halifax because many Nova Scotians had either moved there or had relatives there. The city of Halifax sends a huge Christmas tree to the city of Boston every year in thanks for their generosity. The tree is donated by someone in Nova Scotia and is sent by truck to Boston in November for their tree lighting ceremony.

The day of the disaster was a bright sunny day, but the following day, a blizzard hit the city, which made the recovery of the injured more difficult. Many of the dead were laid out in Chebucto Road School which became a temporary morgue. The bodies were laid in the basement of the school until they were identified by their family. I went to this school from grade primary to grade 9 and was aware of the stories about the morgue in the basement forty years before. That school didn’t have a gymnasium so we used the basement for our gym classes and all the lavatories were also located in the basement. When I was child, I believed in ghosts and that the school was haunted by the people killed in the explosion. I remember running to the bathroom, when I was the only person in the basement, and hurriedly trying to finish and wash my hands, so I could get out of there as soon as possible. My imagination was playing tricks on me in that old building with creaky floors.

There is a monument honouring the explosion victims at Fort Needham park in the north end of Halifax that includes a set of memorial bells. The city holds a memorial ceremony every year on December 6 to mark the explosion. Most of the victims are buried in Mount Olivet, St. John’s and Fairview Lawn cemeteries, in the same place as as the graves of the some of the Titanic victims. Interest in the explosion has been gaining momentum since 9/11. For several generations there was very little memorial aspect to the explosion, but recently the city has put up signs at the graves of the unidentifed dead at the cemeteries. This year there is a photographic exhibit on permanent display at Fort Needham park of the city in the days following the explosion.