At 9:05 a.m., December 6th, 1917, two ships collided in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour. One was a munitions ship, which caught fire, blew up (disintegrated, in fact), sent a mushroom cloud a mile into the air, caused a tsunami, killed about 2000 people and injured about 9000. Of those who weren’t killed in the blast or frozen to death under the wreckage before they could be rescued (a heavy snowstorm hit that night), many were seriously injured by flying glass and debris. The North End, the working-class area of the city, was decimated. Windows broke in towns 50 miles from Halifax (the blast was heard over a hundred miles away), and the 1100-pound anchor shaft of the munitions ship was found in the woods over two miles from the Harbour.
My great-grandmother had just turned twenty and was working as a nurse’s aide at the Halifax Infirmary. On that morning, beneath a skylight, she was giving an old lady a sponge bath, talking to her about Christmas. When the explosion hit, the skylight collapsed. She blacked out, and when she came to some time later, she was heavily bandaged, and heard people screaming in agony as emergency surgery was being performed around her. By that time, the anesthetic had long since run out, and many people who had been blinded as they looked out their windows at the fire in the harbour, were having eyes removed. She passed out again, but eventually recovered enough to help. She never asked about the old lady, and her colleagues discreetly failed to tell her. After that ordeal she did not, after all, become a nurse, but married and lived to be nearly 85. Well into the 1930s, a welt would occasionally appear on her neck, back or shoulder, and a small shard of glass would work its way out.
Her younger brother, then 16, was on his way to work at the Waterfront. Judging by the time, he was probably late. A good thing too, for his only injuries were the cuts and bruises he sustained from being thrown in the air and landing hard on the sidewalk. He picked himself up and ran to the boarding house in the North End, where he was staying. He came home to an empty basement and what looked to be a huge pile of shingles. His landlady did not survive.
Their cousin was also twenty, and training to be an accountant. He and another young clerk had just gone down into the basement of their office building on Barrington Street where the files were kept. The blast knocked them over, and they narrowly missed being crushed by the falling file cabinets. They thought the Germans had invaded (it was during World War I, and many people believed the same thing when they heard the blast). They stood on chairs and looked out the small, street-level window, and saw the brick building across the street collapse. Then they heard the office bulding next to them do the same thing. They were sure they were doomed. As it turned out, the building is still standing, 89 years later.
Physicists the world over studied the damage (or lack of it) caused by the pressure waves of the Halifax Explosion: it was, after all, the greatest man-made explosion up to that time. The physicists who eventually gathered at Los Alamos, New Mexico, were all well aware of it. Surely, that accident was their template, except next time, it would be no accident. Their research and experiments, as the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to find out, helped ensure that Halifax would not hold the unfortunate record for long. Now the event is barely a footnote, except for the handful who still remember it, and those like me who heard the firsthand accounts, and can still put faces and names to the cold statistics.