On the morning of December 6, 1917, residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia began a day like any other. The city was busy. Halifax had been a wartime port since 1914, when Canada’s legal status as a British Dominion had brought the country into the Great War alongside Britain. As Canada’s largest Atlantic port, Halifax had become a hub of the Canadian war effort. Tens of thousands of troops passed through the city on their way to and from Europe, as did tons of supplies. A bustling harbor was nothing new.
That morning, the French steamship Mont-Blanc, inbound from the Atlantic carrying munitions for France, entered the Halifax Harbor Narrows. At the same time, the Norwegian ship Imo, carrying relief supplies for the people of occupied Belgium, steamed into the same constricted channel, hitting the Mont-Blanc’s bow and starting a fire onboard. On the Halifax side of the harbor, people stopped to watch as the damaged Mont-Blanc drifted toward Pier 6. The captain and crew of the ship knew better: they manned their lifeboats and rowed frantically toward the harbor’s opposite shore.
Twenty minutes after impact, the Mont-Blanc exploded, killing nearly 2000 people, injuring approximately 9000 more, and flattening the Richmond district of the city. Across the harbor in Dartmouth, a tsunami created by the blast destroyed the community of Mi’kmaq First Nation. To this day, the Halifax explosion remains the largest accidental blast in history, the equivalent of nearly three kilotons of TNT.
While there is no shortage of graphic, statistical information about the Halifax Explosion, I’m always drawn to the human stories. There’s Vincent Coleman, a railway dispatcher who stayed at his post to warn incoming trains away from the danger. His last telegraph before he died became one of the outside world’s first alerts about the explosion. There’s Frank Baker, a Royal Navy sailor whose diary, found almost one hundred years after the Imo and Mont-Blanc collided, offers the only known first-hand account written on the day of the blast. There are stories from people who regained consciousness nowhere near where they last remembered standing, unaware that a shock wave had sent them careening several miles through the air. There are oral histories told by surviving children, whose voices faded away as they did. (The last known survivor, five at the time of the explosion, died at the age of 107 in 2020.) As with every historical event, impact dulls when the generations that experienced them leave this earth.
I knew nothing about the Halifax Explosion until I visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. Of course, it’s impossible to know about every single disaster that has occurred throughout history. None of us possesses the brain or heart space. But I don’t need a list of catastrophes at my fingertips to recognize that tragedy happens to individuals, not to unnamed masses. Each victim of every devastation has a name, a gift, people who love them.
History is ongoing in nature: the present is always destined to become the past. We weave our legacy every day, never knowing when our turn will end. How we process current events and a constant barrage of information is entirely our choice. But I think we more truthfully honor the lives of those who have walked before us when we do our best to understand our world –both past and present–through a lens of compassion.