Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

One of my side interests is reading about disasters.  It's always fascinated me that such horrible destruction happened in fairly modern history, yet remains largely unknown in today's world. Oftentimes people are completely oblivious about something that was in all the newspapers and largely known by everyone at the time, and seemed utterly unforgettable. 

The Sultana, a river boat carrying Civil War soldiers back home after the war, exploded on the Mississippi River with 1,800 killed.  The Eastland, a passenger ship that capsized next to a dock in the Chicago River in 1915, killing 848 people.  The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston, where 21 people were killed by yes--a flood of maple syrup racing down the streets.  There are so many, sadly, and I think the only one I have yet to read about is the Lusitania.  

I had heard about the Halifax explosion, but this was the first book I read about it, and it was fascinating.  It reminded me of Erik Larson's book Isaac's Storm about the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which wiped out the whole city, with thousands dead and nothing left standing.  John Bacon uses the same storytelling style of Erik Larson to create a history book that brings Halifax alive, and sets the stage for the explosion on December 6, 1917.  World War I was raging, and Halifax was an important harbor where ships loaded with supplies for soldiers came and went.  It was a hopping town, with a large population and many new industries.  The Mont-Blanc, a freighter pressed into service, had arrived from New York loaded with six million pounds of explosives, destined for Europe.  It was a risky undertaking, but the supplies were needed so badly by the forces fighting in Europe, it was deemed worth the risk.  The captain and crew were very aware they were sitting on a potential bomb, and any sudden movement would cause the ship to blow; not to mention the potential for u-boats to torpedo the ship once it was out to sea.  

On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc was waiting to leave Halifax.  Another ship, The Imo, was also waiting impatiently to leave Halifax harbor.  Through miscommunication, grandstanding, and important people not knowing just what the Mont-Blanc carried, the inevitable happened: the two ships collided.  The Mont-Blanc crew, realizing the ship was going to blow, got off and rowed away, neglecting to warn the people of Halifax what was probably going to happen.  The Mont-Blanc drifted into a dock, where it burned, and drew curious citizens to see the flames and smoke. Yes, I know. I was horrified.  School kids, dock workers, Moms and Dads all drifted down to the dock to see what was going on.  People could see the burning ship for miles around, on the hills leading down to the harbor.  

And then, in an instant, the ship exploded, sending a mushroom cloud upwards, and obliterating the Mont-Blanc, the dock, and hundreds of people. They were vaporized. This was the largest man-made explosion until World War 2. The shockwave blew out windows for miles around, flattened buildings and homes, and created a tsunami in the harbor.  An estimated 2,000 people were killed, 9,000 injured, and 25,000 left homeless. Fires, flood, and a blizzard the next day (which dropped 16 inches of snow on Halifax) created even more barriers for help to arrive, and provide shelter for the injured and homeless.  

But what is most interesting about this book is the resilience of the people, and how so many came together so quickly to provide medical assistance, shelter, food, clothing, and anything else that was needed.  People didn't mess around.  They took action, freely gave money and supplies without thought of compensation, and opened their homes to so many who had lost everything.  It was amazing to read.  The word "hero" is so overused today that for me it's lost a lot of meaning and impact.  These everyday folks all were heroes, and expected nothing in return.  There was no social media; reporters came to town, and got out the stories; telephones were cut off or barely worked; yet the story got out, and the response was to send help, not profit off of it.  

Anyone who is a fan of World War I history, or just plain history would love this book.  There are some photos in the book, and I'm sure there are even more online.  If you visit Halifax, there is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, along with the mass grave at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where unidentified victims were buried. 

Rating:  5/6 for a thorough look at the causes of the Great Halifax Explosion; the resilience and hard work of the citizens who worked tirelessly to recover, and the survivors who remained forever affected by that horrible December day.  

Available in hardcover, and ebook. 

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