Halifax explosion 90 years on – have we learned?

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Dec 062007

ou might wonder whether a 90 year old disaster can have much to teach today’s seafarers. Yes it can. Today is the 90th anniversary of the Halifax explosion that followed the collision of a munitions ship and a relief ship in the habour of Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing more than 1,600 people, laying waste the town over a two kilometre area radius, and creating a blast that was not to be exceeded until the the explosion of the atomic bomb at Alamagordo almost 30 years later.There are more details on CBC Canada’s website here so we’ll just cover a little of the background.

A war was on, the 1914-1918 conflict, and the French cargo ship Mont Blanc was loaded in New York with almost 230 tonnes of TNT, 1,600 tonnes of wet picric acid – a corrosive yellow explosive kept wet to prevent it exploding plus 544 tonnes of dry picric acid, both used in bombs and explosive shells, 56 tonnes of guncotton, n explosive material use in cannons and field guns, and 223 tonnes of benzol, an additive to extend fuel for military aircraft. Her master,Aimé Le Médec, set sail for Halifax that night.

Halifax was a bustling harbour under a confusion of control that included the Royal Navy and the Canadian Navy. It’s pilots were independent and, although regulations insisted they maintained communication about their movement they seems to have studiously ignored them.

Mont Blanc picked up the pilot, Frances Mackey, at 4pm but submarine nets had been strung across the harbour entrance and the ship had to wait until the next morning.

On the other side of the net was the Imo, a Belgian relief ship, bound for New York in ballast. Her master was Captain Haakon From. Her coal had been delivered latem so now she would be delayed by a day. So when the submarine net went down she was in a hurry, with a pilot aboard.

To cut to the chase, both ships tried to occupy the same space at the same time. Poor communications and lack of adherence to collision regulations resulted in a collision and fire at 8.40. Many Halifax rubber neckers went to the shore to see the spectacle of fire and small explosions, then, 20 minutes later the Mont Blanc’s entire cargo exploded.

Everything within two kilometres of the harbour’s edge was flattened. The Mont Blanc’s anchor was found three kilometres away, part of a gun was found five kilometres away. A ‘tsunami 18 metres high swept the shore. More than 1,600 were dead or dying, many to remain nameless. It was burned into the memories of those who survive to this day.
Much of Halifax looked like this. Film of the time looks remarkably like Hiroshima.

So, overlapping, confused authority, lack of communications, speed taking precedence over safe navigation and that old favourite: contraventions of colregs for the sake of convenience.

Perhaps the question isn’t ‘what lessons can we learn’ but ‘when will we start learning?’