Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Curse of the Narrows: the Halifax Explosion, 1917

On 6 December 1917, the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship collided with the Imo, a Belgian relief ship in the narrow channel of Halifax Harbour. The TNT and picric acid aboard the Mont Blanc caused the worst death toll by an explosion in history: two thousand dead, ten thousand injured and six thousand left homeless. The explosion had always fascinated me as a child, as I had first read about it in the Guinness Book of World Records in its Worst Accidents and Disasters in the World chart, yet, oddly, never heard about it anywhere else. I didn't research the explosion until prior to my first visit to Halifax ten years ago, and I made it a priority to visit the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower and to see the permanent exhibit, entitled Halifax Wrecked, at the Marine Museum of the Atlantic. I have since read many books on the topic before I started writing book reviews in 2010. Curse of the Narrows: the Halifax Explosion, 1917 by Laura Mac Donald ranks among the best of the explosion histories.

Mac Donald used her access to court documents, survivor testimonials, news articles and public archive finds to create a chronological story from just before the explosion to the inevitable court cases that followed it. She profiled several families who were devastated by the explosion and created real-life suspenseful narratives of horror. We followed family members as they dug through their collapsed houses, looking for family members, their children and babies, and finding only body parts and decapitated corpses. The explosion flew people in all directions, and Mac Donald's descriptions of corpses impaled on lampposts and literally faceless people walking around dazed and confused will make you feel the magnitude of the sudden horror that befell the city. That Mac Donald drew upon eyewitness accounts and strung them together to create a respectful story means that what she was telling was not a fabricated dramatization but a true story.

We followed several families, some almost wiped out by the disaster and some who suffered only surface injuries. The Duggans, for example, lost four households with the remaining members of three families living in one house. Mac Donald fleshed out her biographies of those she profiled so the reader got to know about those who perished as well as those who survived the explosion. Billy Duggan was one of Canada's champion rowers and Ned Hanlan was one of his predecessors. Mac Donald however unfortunately misspelled the surname as Hanlon three times on a single page, which was a glaring error to anyone from the Toronto area.

The blast, which occurred at the time of World War I, was not a totally unexpected phenomenon. As long as ships were transporting munitions in and out of Halifax Harbour, they were considered possible targets. Thus, in spite of the collision which was witnessed by hundreds of people who lined the harbour:

"But the first reaction to the devastation--even by those who watched the Mont Blanc's barrels explode and crash onto the deck, who watched the flames turn the sky strange colors--was to search for the German plane that had dropped the first bomb on North American soil. Even the military was unsure of the cause for the first hour, and sought to establish whether they were under attack before sending their men out on rescue missions. The city was so conditioned to believe that the Germans could strike Halifax that they did not make the connection between the burning ship and the explosion."

The devastation flattened the city, and the accompanying photos do not exaggerate. Houses were blown apart, stoves toppled and fires started. The city was not only levelled but set ablaze. When rescue parties started the search for survivors, they found:

"...Tilted, windowless, and doorless houses stared at them like shell-shocked soldiers. Despite this introduction, Cox was still unprepared for what he would see when his party rounded the hill. Richmond [the area of the Halifax peninsula immediately across the harbour from the explosion] was gone. And the detritus that replaced it no more resembled the neighborhood than a pile of unraveled wool resembled a sweater."

Doctors and nurses came by train from the neighbouring provinces and states, most notably Massachusetts. Any large building not blown apart was converted into a hospital, and medical staff worked nonstop for days, literally days, without a break. The damage caused to eyes took the greatest toll on doctors' time. There were hundreds of witnesses standing inside on that December day who watched the Mont Blanc and the Imo collide. The smoke and fire had them all glued to the windows, and the explosion that followed blew those windows into their eye sockets. Glass daggers pierced eyes, faces and cut glass panes became flying guillotines. Doctors worked through the endless lineups of people injured by flying glass. I read of buckets overflowing with excised eyeballs, and of the horror of the volunteers when they were asked to empty them. In many cases, however, no operations could be performed as minuscule glass shards embedded themselved deep into the skin. Doctors advised these patients to let nature take its course:

"Like many survivors, Lottie continued to remove pieces of glass and wood from her face and neck for the rest of her life. It would start as a bump or a black spot and slowly work its way to the surface, until it expelled itself."

Confusion reigned for days as families searched hospitals and shelters for loved ones:

"Displaced children proved to be a particular challenge for social workers because they could neither register themselves nor provide much more than their names and, if lucky, former addresses. Plus children were scattered all over the city and, in some cases, the countryside without anyone to supervise them."

Many of the cases will bring a tear to the eye. Fathers who were serving in the war overseas came home to no one, as their entire families had perished. In some cases, only a baby was the sole survivor, and when the authorities could find no next of kin, not even a relative, the infant was adopted out while the father was still serving in the war. Some fathers never saw their infant children again:

"Others were haunted by missing children and continued to look for them for the rest of their lives."

The end of the book deals with the court cases and appeals that followed. Had the explosion occurred today, the cases and appeals would take years, perhaps a decade, to resolve. A century ago due process was meted out at a far more accelerated pace and even the appeals were resolved within a couple years. The blame game provided an extremely interesting read, with one crew--the only surviving crew, that of the Mont Blanc--laying blame on the deceased crew of the Imo.

The only time I really laughed during Curse of the Narrows was over a case of mistaken identity:

"Life on the wards at the Victoria General was starting to return to normal as well, although Dr. Puttner had collapsed on the floor Saturday afternoon. They put him in the same room as the chief surgeon, Dr. Murdoch Chilsholm, whose condition had improved since Pharmacist Bertha Archibald had helped him up the stairs after the explosion. When she entered the room, he was sitting up and reading the paper. 'There, in striking headlines, was the notice of the death of Dr. Murdoch Chisholm--the old gentleman was reading his own obituary.' His blue eyes peeked at her out from behind his glasses and he smiled with some satisfaction.
"'That man Chisholm. He was quite a man.'"

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, one couldn't even be sure who was alive and who had died. Canadian history is alive with a multitude of books about the Halifax explosion, and no doubt there will be a surge in new editions and reprints of older accounts upon the explosion's centenary in three years time. For one of the most detailed and accurate accounts of the Halifax explosion of 1917, I highly recommend Curse of the Narrows by Laura Mac Donald.

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