After 100 years the biggest explosion in Canadian history is becoming harder to imagine; but if it happened in Kempenfelt Bay we may remember just a little more.
The Halifax Explosion took place 100 years ago on Wednesday and forever changed the landscape of Nova Scotia’s capital city. Some will recall the famous Heritage Minute commercial from the mid 1990’s re-enacting Intercolonial Railway dispatcher Vincent Coleman sending a wire-telegraph to a passenger train with 300 people on board headed to town.
Instead of fleeing to safety, Coleman saved those lives but lost his own along with 1,949 others. Nova Scotia will be full of memorial services today and those who were lost will be honoured as the dark event turns a century old.
The story is famous as the Mont-Blanc, full of war-time explosives heading for France, collided with the Norwegian steamship Imo in the harbour. The Mont-Blanc coasted to shore as workers abandoned ship knowing the fires which had started were likely to trigger the ship’s cargo. At 9:05 a.m. the ship exploded and the result was the largest man-made explosion at the time.
While we can’t imagine how bad it was in Halifax 100 years ago, we can try to relate through the fact that we, like the Haligonians to the east, have a bay in the centre of our city. What if the explosion that levelled all structures within a half a mile, momentarily exposed the harbour floor and created a tsunami were to happen to the city of Barrie?
Barrie Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Weber believes that for something of that magnitude you would have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. While the chances of a ship loaded with explosives in Kempenfelt Bay is not something that seems at all possible, Weber admits that the Barrie emergency personnel are ready for all events.
“Certainly we are talking about a much different time with the conflict of World War 1 happening,” said Weber. “But, we have to be ready for everything and we would have an all hazards approach in effect that allows us to handle every aspect that would come from our organization. We do training drills for pretty much anything you can imagine so as to be prepared to save lives when the time is needed.”
A 25-year veteran of the fire and emergency services, Weber knows that some catastrophes are bigger than others and a system needs to be in place to handle things smoothly and as efficiently as possible; and that if the Barrie personnel are in need of help, that call is made sooner than later.
“You might think at first that if there’s an explosion that the fire department will just have to put out a fire,” said Weber. “There would be so much more to deal with though and looking back at Halifax I can only imagine what they were going through. Injuries involving glass shards, burn victims, excessive bleeding, security issues, mass patient care are all variables in a situation like that and I would predict our hospital like any other would be overflowing and our staff overwhelmed. A call would be made to the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre and municipalities around us would be sending help; as rescuers we are obviously trained to do what’s needed, but even the most trained body would need help too.”
The Halifax Explosion was the largest man-made explosion prior to the detonation of the atomic bombs in 1945. Had it happened in Kempenfelt Bay, the blast would be felt just south of North Bay. The destruction was so chaotic that the last body retrieved from the horrific day was found two years later and 9,000 people were injured.
As you can imagine, a ship on fire in the harbour would attract many curious onlookers; when the blast occurred 5,900 eye injuries were reported and 41 people lost their eyesight completely. At the time, $35 million in damage was caused, which would translate to $569 million today. The 1,140 lb anchor from the Mont-Blanc was thrown 2.3 kilometres; that would be from Centennial Beach to the YMCA on Grove Street. The population of Halifax in 1917 was 50,000, just over the 40,000+ that inhabited Barrie in 1985 during the destructive F4 tornado that ripped through the area claiming eight lives.
“I can’t even imagine what that blast would have been like,” said. “That said, Barrie in 1985 also had to go through a monumental disaster that changed the way we respond in this city; if either event happened nowadays it would be far more catastrophic as populations have grown so much. The tornado that came through here still haunts many as I’m sure ships that went through the Halifax harbour worried some for years after the blast. You never want to be in the middle of something so ominous, but you do have to be ready in case it ever happens.”