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Mont Blanc disaster links two cities

Nov 14, 2003

For more than 250 years, the histories of the port cities of Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia, have been irrevocably linked and intertwined. But one shared bit of history that may not be as well known as it should links the annual lighting of a giant Christmas tree at Boston's Prudential Center with a marine collision that occurred more than eight decades ago, in the Narrows of Halifax Harbor.

A crisp, clear morning greeted Halifax dockworkers as they made their way to work on Dec. 6, 1917. Because of the war still raging in Europe, the port found itself extremely busy handling ships, war materiel and men, just as it always had during any of the Empire's wars since the fall of Quebec. Few Haligonians with a view of the Harbor that morning would have taken much notice of the unmooring, just after 0800, of a neutral Norwegian ship, the former whaler SS Imo with Capt. Hakkon From in command. Imo was sailing for New York to pick up humanitarian supplies for civilian victims of the war in Europe. Large letters on Imo's topsides proclaimed the words "Belgium Relief," to keep prowling German U-boats from sinking the ship.

Farther up the Harbor, another vessel, a Marseilles-registered munitions ship, Mont Blanc, Capt. A. Le Medec on the bridge, was proceeding in the opposite direction, having arrived earlier from New York. Mont Blanc's cargo was the complete opposite of the beneficent freight Imo had been recently carrying: 35 tons of benzene, 10 tons of gun cotton, 2,300 tons of picric acid, ammunition for its own guns, and the unthinkable &mdash 200 tons of trinitrotoluene, also known as TNT. Mont Blanc was little more than a floating bomb.

Image Credit: J. Gregory Dill
This 1,140-lb piece of Mont Blanc's anchor shank was hurled 2.35 miles from the explosion site.

As Imo steered into the natural constriction of Halifax Harbor called the Narrows, it kept a course tight to the Dartmouth side of the passage. The two ships on opposing tracks soon confronted each other, and in the first of a series of signals exchanged between the ships' bridges, Imo's captain indicated his intention to keep his course more to port (shoreward). A further flurry of signals followed until the vessels were dangerously close to each other. Both captains decided to take evasive action simultaneously, virtually insuring a collision. Le Medec turned Mont Blanc hard to port, intending to pass Imo starboard-to-starboard, rather than the customary port-to-port. At the same instant, From called for full astern on Imo's engine telegraph, causing its bow to swing out across Mont Blanc's track.

There was a sickening scraping noise as the two ships' bows came together, yet neither ship sustained major damage in the ensuing low-speed impact, but sparks from the collision quickly ignited damaged and leaking drums stored on Mont Blanc's deck. As the fire spread, the entire crew of Mont Blanc abandoned ship, rowing for their lives toward the Dartmouth shore. The blazing, crewless Mont Blanc drifted lazily across the Narrows toward the Halifax piers, passing near enough to one to set its tarred surface ablaze. At 0905, as a city fire brigade tried to bring the pier blaze under control, the fire aboard Mont Blanc reached the deadly store of TNT in the holds. The resulting explosion would later go down in history as the greatest man-made explosion, until the atom-bombing of Hiroshima.

The effect was immediate and devastating. Sixteen-hundred citizens of Halifax were killed outright. Injured amounted to just under 10,000, while the northern part of the city had been reduced to a smoldering, blackened wasteland. Mont Blanc had disintegrated into steel splinters that rained down for miles around. One of its anchor shanks, weighing 1,140 pounds, was thrown more than two miles to the opposite side of the city's peninsula, passing over the graveyard where victims of another marine collision, Titanic, had been buried five years earlier.

Word of the tragedy was relayed quickly up and down the Atlantic seaboard by railway telegraph. The first major humanitarian response to news of the disaster came from Halifax's old maritime nemesis, Boston. By chance, the governor of Massachusetts was in a telegraph office when the news arrived. Only nine hours after the explosion, the state government and citizens of Boston organized a massive relief operation, sending north the first of a series of trains carrying food, building materials, medical supplies and doctors to battered Halifax. The trains also included special railway cars outfitted with electric generators and operating rooms to treat the thousands of wounded swamping Halifax hospitals.

Many in Halifax blamed German agents for the explosion, although no evidence of a plot has ever been uncovered. That rumor has subsided with the passage of time, but not forgotten is the timely and generous assistance provided by Boston and the State of Massachusetts. Each year since the disaster, Halifax has sent a special Christmas thank you to the citizens of Boston &mdash a giant Nova Scotia fir tree to act as the centerpiece of Boston's annual Christmas celebrations.

J. Gregory Dill

dill.jg@ns.sympatico.ca