No Christmas for Halifax
By Les Pringle
In Spring this year, I traveled across Canada as part of the Ambulance Today team researching our Summer ‘Let’s Go Canadian’ edition. When I discovered Halifax, Nova Scotia was on the itinerary I was particularly pleased – and not least because of the city’s long standing maritime ties with the port of Liverpool, England (by coincidence the home base of Ambulance Today). Additionally, Halifax is host to the highly-regarded ‘Museum of the Atlantic’ and, as I’ve always had a keen interest in naval history, I knew I had to make time to pay it a visit. The opportunity presented itself when my colleagues were engrossed in planning the following day’s ambulance itinerary. I suppose I should have felt a pang of guilt as I slipped away to the docks and the museum, but I didn’t. It was worth it; the museum really is a fascinating place. I wandered happily amongst the various exhibits many of which reinforced the vital importance of the transatlantic link between Novia Scotia and Liverpool over the past couple of hundred years, in peacetime and war. Then, quite unexpectedly, I came across an exhibit that stopped me in my tracks. At first, I couldn’t quite believe the story unfolding before me. I suspect you won’t either.
By coincidence, the feature report below is coming to you a century after the described event took place. So, I respectfully request that you screw on your ‘ambulance head’ tightly, particularly in light of the spate of major terrorist attacks which have occurred across Europe in recent years, not to mention the awful Las Vegas massacre a couple of months ago. In recent months earthquakes have wrought death and destruction in South America and Italy. Terrible as the aftermath of these events are, we have to remind ourselves just how fortunate we 21st-century ambulance folk are. After all, in 2017 we have access to amazing search-and-rescue technology, the most robust mechanical resources, highly-skilled clinical workers and volunteers, hi-tech planning protocols and, last but not least, the most sophisticated communications systems there has ever been. Put it all together and we have the ability to coordinate amazing EMS responses to the worst of disasters. With that in mind, read on and perhaps pause a moment to marvel at the fortitude shown by a generation of men and women now lost to history.
On the morning of 6th December 1917, at a quayside not a mile from where the museum now stands, an ammunition ship blew up with such ferocity that it tore Halifax apart claiming two thousand lives and maiming nine thousand. At the time Halifax was regarded as one of the safest harbours in the world stretching far inland and offering protection not only from Atlantic storms but marauding U Boats.
This, coupled with its strategic location on the North Western coast, made Halifax the perfect staging point for trans-Atlantic convoys supplying large quantities of material to war torn Europe. Allied merchant ships and their military escorts had been gathering in the harbour for several days when on that fateful morning the Mont Blanc, a 3,000-ton armed French merchant ship, collided with an on-coming vessel while making her way through the narrows towards her anchorage. Only Mont Blanc’s captain and crew knew her hold was packed with a vast quantity of highly explosive munitions – 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid (with an explosive power far greater than TNT), 10 tons of gun cotton, 200 tons of TNT and 35 tons of high-octane gasoline. The bulk of this gasoline was stored in drums lashed to the deck. The collision caused some of the drums to rupture and when sparks from the grinding metal showered down on the deck, they ignited. In a matter of minutes the fire became an inferno so intense that the crew had no choice but to abandon ship leaving the vessel drifting towards pier six which in turn was quickly set ablaze. The burning ship was a spectacular sight. Spectators, oblivious of the nature of the cargo many of them children, gathered at a safe distance on the waterfront to watch the drama play out. Others took up position at the windows of the many dock-side buildings. At 9.06 am, it happened; Mont Blanc blew apart in a micro second causing the most powerful man- made explosion in history until the nuclear age.
The shock-wave, travelling at many times the speed of sound, tore upwards, outwards and downwards causing a momentary vacuum and splitting open the harbour floor. Dockland cranes were ripped from their mountings and carried away like so much matchwood. Concrete buildings were torn from their foundations while the wooden structures became a lethal maelstrom of splinters and nails mixed with a million shards of glass. The expelled sea water rushed back in to fill the void creating a tsunami with the energy to lift 11,000-tonne ships like corks and snap their moorings. The wave fanned out from the docks and washed up as high as eighteen metres above the harbour’s high-water mark before quickly receding to cause havoc further down the harbour. The ferocity of the blast was such that one of Mont Blanc’s guns was found more than three miles (5.5 Km) away while windows were shattered 50 miles away. Then the heavens rained more death and destruction. All that had been blasted into the sky, including 3,000 tonnes of white hot fragmented metal that was once the Mont Blanc, fell back to earth, one of its boilers landing on the naval college in the city. It was reported that ground tremors caused church bells to sway a hundred miles away. Officers on the bridge of the steam ship Acadian fifteen miles out to sea described seeing a flash brighter than the sun and their sextant readings calculated the resulting smoke plume to have reached fifteen thousand feet (over 3,000 metres).
Workmen gathered on roofs to watch the cluster of boats fighting the fire on Mont Blanc were blown far into the city while those on the wharf, or watching from office and factory windows, were scythed into pieces. More than 1,600 were killed instantly with the death toll quickly rising to 2,000. A significant number of the nine thousand injured suffered mutilation and permanent disablement. At least 50 survivors lost both eyes while 250 lost a single eye with hundreds more left partially sighted as a result of being peppered by a hail of glass. Every building within a 1.6- mile radius (2.6-kilometres),was destroyed or badly damaged (over 12,000 in total). The devastation covered 325 acres of the Richmond area of the city and the docks. On the eastern side of the harbour, the smaller settlement of Dartmouth was severely damaged. The fire chief and his deputy had been killed in the blast and with little water in the mains unchecked fires spread rapidly. Some damaged buildings were consumed before rescuers could extricate the trapped survivors. Those who could be easily dragged clear of the advancing flames survived but many burned to death in plain sight.
One rescuer said afterwards: “My one regret was that I did not have my revolver with me. At least then I could have spared them further pain and suffering.”
Fireman, Billy Wells, whose clothes were torn from his body in the explosion, described the scene rescuers faced: “The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”
Billy was the only member of his eight- man crew to survive. On a human level, the scale of the tragedy is almost beyond comprehension. 200 children and staff perished in an orphanage on Campbell Road, many consumed by flames. A congregation of 400 died together in an Anglican church and 300 met the same fate in a Catholic chapel. Three of the schools in the Richmond district were destroyed just minutes after the morning register was taken. Many fortunate enough to have been well away from the epicentre were not spared the injuries inflicted by flying debris, nails and glass. And things would have been even worse if the surrounding terrain hadn’t, in some parts, diverted the shock wave upwards.
So, there we have it; a civil disaster of epic proportions. After years working in the ambulance service I suppose it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to those trying to help the injured and dying. How did they cope without a functioning transport network and when the only form of communication left was the telegraph?
The initial rescue work was carried out by the citizens themselves tearing at the rubble and guiding the injured to the Victoria General Hospital in down-town Halifax.
They did what they could to quell the fires, but the task was beyond them. Lorries, private cars and horse-drawn carts were requisitioned to transport the seriously wounded leaving the dead and dying to their fate. Confusion reigned. One witness described seeing an unattended horse wandering through the rubble dragging a cart piled with corpses. Another, a woman, told of hiding from a blinded man groping his way out of a shattered building. His hair and scalp had been burned away, his lower jaw was gone and only bloody sockets marked where his eyes had been. He was a wounded animal and she, in her terror, hid from him and carried the scar for the rest of her life. Within half an hour of the explosion rescue parties were put ashore from the various military vessels in the harbour. Ships surgeons and medical orderlies began what was to become a marathon rescue operation shuttling severely injured patients to improvised hospital ships in the harbour. Within hours the down-town hospitals were overwhelmed, the Victoria General using corridors and offices for the serious cases while church halls, cinemas and other public buildings became first-aid and triage centres. The new military hospital, Camp Hill, admitted approximately 1,400 victims on the first day. There were 49 doctors registered in Halifax with the figure rising to eighty-six when military surgeons were included. His small band and their assistants worked heroically for the first 24 hours. But it must be remembered that the people themselves responded magnificently. It was an age when social responsibilities were not as institutionalised as they are today. Self-reliance was a way of life. Medical supplies were soon exhausted and citizens formed the Halifax Relief Commission at around noon the day after the explosion. The committee organised medical relief for both Halifax and Dartmouth while also supplying transportation, food and shelter (the commission would continue until 1976). The first relief train left Truro at around 10am that day carrying medical personnel and supplies, arriving in Halifax by noon and returned to Truro with the wounded and homeless by 3pm. By nightfall, a dozen trains had reached Halifax. All the while the temperature was dropping.
In the early hours of 8th December, a blizzard, described as the worst in decades, swept over the city bringing rescue work to a halt when visibility fell to less than two metres. Gale force winds caused battered ships in the harbour to drag their anchors and drove sixteen inches (41cm) of snow- fall into deep drifts on land. Telegraph lines that had been hastily repaired following the explosion were again put out of action. Halifax was cut off. Trains en route from other parts of Canada and from the United States simply couldn’t get through. Nature had conspired with man to seal the fate of many still alive under collapsed buildings. 36 hours later a new gale swept in. This time it came from the south bringing heavy rain and a rise in temperature resulting in a rapid thaw. Slush and water was knee deep in many streets and then, as if enough wasn’t enough, the passing of the storm saw temperatures plunge causing everything to freeze solid. The military units garrisoned in Halifax performed heroically in the days following the disaster. Apart from helping the police maintain law and order, they undertook hazardous rescue work while also supplying food and pitching tents. When the blizzard broke over the city they vacated their barracks and turned them over to the homeless and went under canvas.
It is recorded that the 63rd Halifax Rifles worked as a rescue party all day and then mounted guard all night in Arctic conditions for 72 hours without rest. The stresses and strains placed on the medics were equally arduous. Dr C. Puttner, who was in overall charge of medical strategy suffered a heart-attack early on and became a patient himself while around him conditions were something akin to a battlefield clearing station. Surgeons worked on an endless stream of seriously injured people; amputating shattered limbs, removing eyes and setting broken bones while often sharing instruments with colleagues working alongside. When supplies were exhausted they resorted to stitching incisions with ordinary cotton and thread. The harrowing nature of the work took its toll. In an extreme case, Doctor Shacknove, one of the first on the scene, was so affected that he hanged himself in his room. Temporary mortuaries sprang across the city with the Chebucto Road School in Halifax’s west end becoming the central mortuary. A company of the Royal Canadian Engineers repaired and converted the basement to serve as a morgue while classrooms became offices for the Halifax coroner. Trucks and wagons soon arrived with corpses. Coroner Arthur S. Barnstead implemented a procedure numbering and carefully describing the bodies and their clothing; it was based on the system developed by his father, John Henry Barnstead, to identify the Titanic victims in 1912.
The external response to the disaster was fast and generous. Relief trains were dispatched from Canadian cities but the United States pulled out all the stops. Perhaps the experience gained a few years earlier in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake guided their efforts but, for whatever the reason, the supplies and equipment sent by train and ship from the US were not only plentiful but appropriate. Three days after the explosion a train left Boston laden with medical supplies to be followed the next day by another containing the full equipment for a 500-bed hospital.
In addition came 25 doctors, 68 nurses and eight orderlies. On the same day a train left New York with 500 cots, 18,000 garments, 10,000 blankets, 20 cases of disinfectants, 60 cases of surgical supplies, abundant food supplies and yet more doctors. Massachusetts, unbidden, not only supplied large quantities of glass and putty, but 25 skilled glaziers to install it. They also gifted ten brand new trucks, gasoline and the drivers to maintain them. The list is long but it should also be mentioned that millions of dollars were donated by governments and cities around the world.
It struck me while researching this tragedy that it was as much about the resilience of the human spirit as anything else. It’s a story of neighbour helping neighbour, city helping city; of self-sacrifice, self-reliance, generosity and courage. Certainly, it shows us human nature at its best. Sadly, on the other side of the Atlantic, as World War I raged on, no such thing could be said. ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ was all too evident amidst the barbarism of the trenches.
So now you’ve heard the story of the Halifax Explosion do you, like me, wonder if we don’t sometimes take all our 21st century EMS resources for granted? I wonder how we would have coped if we found ourselves in the same situation and with exactly the same scant resources at our disposal. But I don’t have to ask that question, do I? While reading this you will doubtless have asked it of yourself, I know I did.
Tell Les what you think of this article by emailing him at: [email protected]