The Halifax Explosion

While not the deadliest or most widely remembered ship disaster, the Halifax Explosion is definitively one of the most dramatic ship disasters of all time. The Halifax Explosion – named after the city the explosion destroyed, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – occurred when the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with explosives, collided with SS Imo, a Norwegian vessel. The Halifax Explosion, which is sometimes called the Halifax Disaster, is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, and to this day it is the largest accidental explosion of conventional weapons ever. The dimensions of the explosion are almost unthinkable. Below is a brief overview of the Halifax Explosion, which took place in the context of World War One (WWI).

[NOTE: Why is there this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship, on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]

The Halifax Explosion occurred because of a series of events that shouldn’t have happened. The Imo should have left the Bedford Basin (where it was being refueled) the night before the disaster took place, and the same can be said of the Mont-Blanc. The ships were held up for the same reason, namely, the nets designed to keep out German submarines were raised in the harbor, which prevented ships from leaving or entering the port. The Mont-Blanc was technically not even supposed to be in the harbor at all because it was loaded with explosives, but the threat of German submarines forced this regulation to be enforced loosely.

Both ships stayed in the harbor for the night and left the next morning. To leave the harbor, the ships had to sail through “the Narrows,” which basically operated like a road out of town, with boats having to stay on the right side of the waterway to pass oncoming boats. Trouble began when the Mont-Blanc saw the Imo rapidly approaching the ship (Mont-Blanc) from behind. The Mont-Blanc tried to indicate that it had the right of way, but the Imo could not yield its position because it had been forced into the wrong lane as it passed a tugboat. The harbor pilot on the Mont-Blanc ordered the ship’s engines to be halted, and the Imo had likewise cut its engines. However, the Imo was carried forward by momentum. The two ships almost avoided a collision, but, alas, this did not occur. The Imo ended up cutting about nine feet into the Mont-Blanc, starting the chain of events that would twenty minutes later result in the enormous explosion.

Somewhat ironically, it was only when the Imo tried to disengage with the Mont-Blanc by reversing that the catastrophe was set off. The reversing action created sparks, which in turn started a raging fire on board the Mont-Blanc because of the abundance of flammable materials on the ship. Anticipating an explosion, the captain of the Mont-Blanc ordered the crew to abandon ship. Shortly thereafter, the ship exploded in spectacular fashion.

The explosion utterly destroyed the ship, rocketing what remained of its hull nearly 1,000 feet (about 300 meters) into the air. Materials from the ship rained down upon Halifax and Dartmouth, the two towns near the abandoned ship. Immediately following the explosion, the harbor floor was exposed because all the water in the area was vaporized. The water that filled in the empty area created a tsunami that was about 60 feet (18 meters) taller than the high water mark of the harbor. An area of over 400 acres was destroyed, and every building within a 16-mile was obliterated. Over 1,500 people were instantly killed by the explosion and another 9,000 were injured. At the end of the event, when the debris had returned to earth, fires had been put out, and buildings had stopped collapsing, about 2,000 people had been killed.

That is, in brief outline, what occurred during the Halifax explosion. It was an absolutely devastating disaster, one as destructive as it was deadly.

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