Collision in the Narrows: Halifax Explosion

SS Imo Courtesy Wikipedia

The French crewed, slow moving SS Mont Blanc was carrying dangerous explosives to war torn Europe. She was to meet her convoy in Halifax. When the Mont Blanc arrived in Halifax on December 5, 1917, it was too late in the day to enter the Inner Harbor as anti-sub nets had been implemented (before the war it wasn’t customary for a ship carrying dangerous explosives to be allowed in the Inner Harbor. When carrying explosives the ships also flew red flags, but with U-boats lurking this was understandably not ideal). They would have to wait till the next morning. In the Inner Harbor, the SS Imo, a former White Star liner crewed mainly by Norwegians, was also faced with the same problem. There had been delays and she could no longer leave due to the nets. Labeled “Belgian Relief” this ship was to pick up supplies in New York and carry them to Europe. Without cargo she sat high in the water and proved difficult to steer.

The Imo, commanded by Hakron From, took its pilot, William Hayes, aboard around 7:30 AM on the December 6. The Mont Blanc had started out earlier than the Imo and was headed into the Inner Harbour, piloted by Francis Mackey. This was Mont Blanc Captain Aime Le Medec’s first time carrying explosives, which were destined for France. He had heard that the TNT was especially dangerous and that a sudden bump could cause them to explode.

As the Imo pushed through the Narrows she encountered the stalwart tug Stella Maris. The tug noticed the quickly approaching Imo bearing down and had to ‘hug’ the shore. The Imo was in turn forced into the wrong shipping lane (for oncoming traffic). The Mont Blanc soon appeared and signaled to the Imo that she had the right-of-way. The Imo signaled back. When all was said and done the two ships had negotiated the Narrows and appeared to be on their respective ways. But then the Imo reversed her engines and collided with the Mont Blanc. The collision caused sparks to fly inside of the Mont Blanc’s hull igniting explosive vapors. Le Medec had managed to avoid a collision with the hold that held the TNT.  This would later buy time for the crew to get away before the ship exploded. When the Imo yanked free of the Mont Blanc, the French vessel was sent drifting towards the pier. On the ship, fires had broken out and were proving impossible to put out. With the blaze quickly spreading and the ship able to blow up at any moment, Le Medec gave the order to abandon ship. Mackey had to convince Le Medec to leave his ship. The Stella Maris had detached her cargo and went to lend a hand to the Mont Blanc. The tug would be destroyed in the explosion while trying to tow the ship away.

Mont Blanc Explodes Courtesy Wikipedia

Other ships in the harbor had been carefully monitoring the development with curiosity. One sailor even theorized on whether or not the Mont Blanc might blow up as she was carrying explosives.  As the Mont Blanc’s crew pulled for the shore, Mackey yelled to those in the harbor that the ship was going to explode, but his shouts went unheard. The crew managed to get to shelter among trees. Meanwhile crews worked to put the fire out aboard the Mont Blanc, but it was impossible. Explosions had begun and were becoming more powerful with each one. Disaster was imminent. At 9:04 AM an explosion rocked Halifax. Homes were demolished or collapsed, windows shattered, trees snapped. For people their wounds and deaths were horrifying. Eyesight was damaged, sometimes permanently. Many eardrums were busted.  A massive cloud of smoke rose high above where the Mont Blanc had been and the blast could be heard from miles around. And then a tsunami hit sweeping hundreds of people out to sea.

Traumatized survivors emerged from the wreckage of Halifax, the North End being the more badly damaged. The dead and dying were all around. For survivors one of their first thoughts was that the Germans had bombed Halifax. Schoolchildren, who had not been killed when their schools collapsed on them, rushed home to their families. Families tried pulling their loved ones out of the wreckage of their homes.  Already, fires were starting all over the place. Le Medec and his crew as well as Mackey came out alive, the two having crawled out from under a fallen tree. On the Imo, Hayes and From were both counted among the dead.

With fires spreading, there were fears the magazine would explode. As a result police and soldiers worked to evacuate civilians causing a panic as people fled the area. Fortunately, they were able to save the magazine.

In Halifax efforts were being made to help the dead and dying. A central morgue was set up and the wounded began pouring into the hospitals. The constant stream of wounded kept doctors busy for long periods at a time. Because of so many, supplies were being quickly eaten away. When it was learned that they were low on morphine, some of the patients refused it preferring it go to someone who need it more.

Homes in the Aftermath of the Explosion Courtesy Library of Congress

To compound the absolute disaster, a blizzard move in the next morning and would not end until evening. In spite of this, recovery and support efforts continued. By the end of the day the blizzard had done its deed.

In the end, Halifax rebuilt and tried to return to some sense of normalcy. A later inquiry claimed that Le Medec and Mackey were to blame for the collision, but in 1919 both the Mont Blanc and Imo were blamed. The Imo ran aground in 1921 and lost.

Source: MacDonald, Laura M. Curse of the Narrows