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20# The Halifax Christmas Disaster of 1917

4 min read

The northern seaport city of Halifax, Nova Scotia on the eastern Canadian sea board, was recently in the news for the commemorative events surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Halifax was in fact the city of rescue for the Titanic, and more than 100 victims from the sinking are buried there, forever making the city a tourist destination for Titanic’s story enthusiasts.
But there is another story, happened just five short years after the so famous sinking of the Titanic.
December 1917. All we know the horrors of World War I, and the prospects of a merry Christmas were subdued for people across the world as men and women left the safety of home to engage in the world’s first truly modern war.
In Halifax the cares of the world felt a bit distant. Only its busy seaport could see how the world outside was changing, with its lot of ships and cargo of a world in conflict.
But for regular people, the world was largely unchanged when they hung their Christmas decorations, stockpiled the fuel for the cold Canadian winter, and prepared for their first snows of their traditional white Christmas.
It was a normal December morning when two ships, the Norwegian Imo, which was a relief ship running empty, and the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, both part of the war effort in Europe where World War I was raging, passed each other in the narrowest part of the harbor.
Somehow the two ships collided, sparking a fire about the munitions ship. The Imo attempted to reverse its engines, pushing the prow of the ship into the bow of the Mont-Blanc, setting fire to munitions stored on deck as the steel hulls scraped together in a brilliant fountain of sparks.

In the busy port hundreds of spectators pressed their faces against the glass windows of shops, businesses and homes, yes, the fire was a spectacle, but they had no way of knowing that the ship on fire contained a full cargo hold of explosives.
The crew of the Mont-Blanc, knowing the nature of their cargo, abandoned ship and attempted to row ashore, calling to the gathered crowds of the impending danger. Their cries in French were not understood by the mostly English-speaking spectators.
Within minutes the highly explosive cargo of TNT, picric acid and benzol fuel ignited exploded, and nothing within 2 miles of the explosion was unaffected.
Modern estimates place the force of the blast equivalent to 3 kilotons of TNT, a far cry from the 15 kilotons estimated for the atomic bomb in the future dropped on Hiroshima, but the largest man-made explosion ever recorded at that time.
The explosion was so large it immediately emptied the harbor completely of all its water, briefly exposing the sea floor for the first time ever.

The explosion shattered every window within 50 miles and instantly killed 1000 people in the immediate vicinity. As the sky rained down burning pieces of the two ships the water of a mini-tsunami flooded the shoreline for miles around, creating a mess almost impossible to navigate once rescue crews arrived.
Flying glass and splintered wood caused numerous other injuries throughout the city as the pressure wave shredded many of the city’s wooden structures. Doors were blasted open, and wood stoves were toppled, touching off fires throughout the city.
In the wake of all this disaster and series of devastating events, 2000 people died and another 9000 were severely injured.
Moreover, Halifax was under a storm and it was in this moment of desperation that the news of the event rocked the world, and town, cities and villages up and down the Atlantic coast sprang into action to provide aid.

Also the nearest large popular center, Boston, Massachusetts, responded: by 10pm the day of the explosing a large relief train filled with medical supplies, food, emergency essentials and rescue personnel was on the way, and the train literally had to dig its way through the snow to reach Halifax.
Boston sent lot of trains in the days leading up to Christmas, bringing relief and necessary supplies and as the cleanup continued they sent Christmas itself to a city population suddenly destitute of means for winter survival. As can be imagined, there was little hope for celebration amidst such devastation in 1917.
By Christmas 1918, a year later, the trains stopped coming because Halifax was on the road to recovery, thanks to the continual efforts of the good people and many churches in Boston. In a token of thanks, the city of Halifax in 1918 sent a beautiful, giant Halifax fir to serve as the city of Boston’s Christmas tree. And this is a tradition that continues to this day as both Boston and Halifax remember: every December the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia sends a Christmas tree to the City of Boston, Massachusetts.

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