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Halifax Explosion: Ninety-Fifth Anniversary

 

Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, I also rise today to remind all of us of what transpired 95 years ago on this day in the city of Halifax.

On an early wintery, sunny morning in Nova Scotia, people were going about and getting ready for their daily business, oblivious to what was about to happen and how their lives would be changed forever.

Halifax was an important port in the Allied war effort during the First World War. A French munition ship, the SS Mont Blanc, was in the harbour that morning laden with explosives for the war effort in Europe. She carried 2,300 tonnes of picric acid, a key ingredient for artillery shells at that time; 200 tonnes of TNT; 35 tonnes of benzol; and 10 tonnes of gun cotton. In short, the Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

The other actor in this dramatic event was the SS Imo, a chartered steamship for the Commission for Relief in Belgium. She was heading to New York City, sailing empty. She was simply refueling with coal in Halifax to finish her journey from the Netherlands.

Just before nine o'clock in the morning, whether it was miscommunication, carelessness or difficult navigation, these two freighters were on a collision course in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour. The initial collision caused little damage to either ship, but the crew of the Mont Blanc knew they had a problem. Sparks from the collision caused a fire to break out. The fire quickly spread from the deck to its volatile cargo, and the Port of Halifax's fate was sealed.

At 9:04 in the morning, the Mont Blanc exploded, flattening over 400 acres of the city. It was an event of unparalleled destruction. The 3,000-tonne Mont Blanc splintered and disintegrated, with shards, shrapnel and debris propelled in all directions. The explosion was so violent that one of the Mont Blanc's guns flew 5 kilometres and was later found in Dartmouth. Its half-tonne anchor was found 3 kilometres away in Armdale, on the Halifax side of the harbour.

Devastation is an understatement. An 18-metre tsunami ensued, with the shock of the blast being felt as far away as Prince Edward Island and even Cape Breton Island. The shockwave travelled at nearly 23 times the speed of sound. It was, and remains today, the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in the history of the world.

The population of Halifax at that time was 50,000. The immediate death toll reached 1,600 men, women and children, with over 9,000 injured. Hundreds of people were permanently blinded.

To compound the disaster, Halifax was later hit with the worst blizzard seen in years. The first relief arrived on a train from Boston, where many expatriate Maritimers helped lead relief efforts by sending blankets, medical supplies and medical personnel to the devastated city. To this day, Nova Scotia sends annually a 50-foot Christmas tree, which is lit on the Boston Common every December, as a thank you for their generosity at that terrible time.

The Halifax explosion reminds all of us that in times of war, unexpected sacrifices can be imposed upon people, sometimes many thousands of miles from any battlefield. It is also a testament to the human spirit and illustrates how people will pull together during times of great adversity.

Honourable senators, I ask you to join me in remembering the events that transpired 95 years ago today and reflect on the sacrifices of all those who came before us and helped to build this great country.