Halifax Explosion Pt 2: Nineteen and a Half Minutes to Disaster

by JoHarrington

Could the Canadian port of Halifax have been saved, if more had been done in those desperate last minutes before the catastrophic explosion of 1917?

When the SS Imo crashed into a munitions ship in Halifax Harbour, it took nearly twenty minutes before the world's biggest pre-Atomic blast destroyed the city.

The SS Mont-Blanc suffered just a small blaze on board its decks, as the Norwegian ship pulled away. Could that fire have been extinguished before it disastrously ignited the explosives in the hold?

Halifax's Richmond District was largely obliterated because SS Mont-Blanc was allowed to drift on the current straight into Pier 6. Could the blast site have been contained, if the crew had stayed on board to scuttle their ailing vessel?

And if communication had been better, could the SS Mont-Blanc have been sailed, or towed, safely out to sea after the crew abandoned ship?

Historians have debated these points for a century. Let's see what you think.

Hindsight is Great for Avoiding Catastrophes

Unfortunately, those with the ability to avoid disaster are the last people devoid of any hindsight at all.

Image: SS Mont-Blanc drifting into HalifaxIt's difficult for any of us to know for certain what we would do in an emergency.

We like to think that we would keep calm. That we would do whatever was needful in order to contain the crisis and save lives.

But human emotions don't work like that. Faced with such catastrophe, the obvious reaction is panic.

Perhaps we also dream that we would be heroes. That given a choice between our own lives, and the deaths of thousands, we would sacrifice ourselves for the greater good.

But the will to survive often over-rides all other considerations.

It's too easy in hindsight to examine the facts of the Halifax Explosion and high-light what should have been done. We were not there. We were not born. Our grandparents were probably only babies, or not yet on the scene. We cannot know what we would have done for sure.

We have so many more facts at our fingertips. Histories and scientific analyses which spell out precisely what occurred. We have the luxury of time to pour over them too.

Those being asked to react had none of this. They had a ship on fire and no telling what would happen next. Those who were aware that there were munitions on board knew that it would blow. They could not have known when.

We know that it was nineteen minutes and thirty-five seconds. Captain Le Medec only knew that it would erupt, and that could be at any second. 

Then there were those who saw no urgency at all. They had no notion of the TNT and other explosives in that hold. They acted quickly, but their priorities were fixed around all that they could see, not what they couldn't even imagine.

Beware these points when you judge what should have happened. You were not there. They were most horrifically at ground zero.

Did you miss part one of the Halifax Disaster? It's here:
1600 dead. Over 9000 injured. 400 permanently blinded. One of the greatest single day disasters of the First World War didn't happen on the front line, but in Canada.

Studies about how Humans React During a Major Disaster

The Halifax Explosion was one of the biggest man-made disasters in the world. The people who were there had to make fast decisions with potentially dire consequences.

Could the Crew of the SS Mont-Blanc have Saved Halifax?

Afterwards Captain Aimé Le Medec and those on board the SS Mont-Blanc were blamed for the disaster. The reality might not be so simple.

Image: The SS Mont-BlancWhen any ship is ablaze, the priority is to stifle the flames. When it's a munitions ship, that becomes even more urgent.

There were perhaps three or four minutes wherein the fire on the deck of the SS Mont-Blanc might have been tackled. Sparks caused by the withdrawing SS Imo leapt into spilled picric acid, then from there onto pools of benzol, formed from barrels toppled in the crash.

Putting out this fire would have prevented the Halifax Disaster, but that is easier than it sounds.

First valuable seconds had to pass before the flames were even discovered. Then the crew couldn't just throw water onto it. This was a chemical fire, not wood or coal.

Picric Acid requires a thin spray of coarse water to cover it (not buckets of sea water). It also gives off fumes laced with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which are toxic. Today, no fire fighter would go near it without breathing apparatus. In addition, picric acid fires explode, as Halifax knows only too well.

Also explosive, and also requiring breathing apparatus to tackle, are benzol fires. More commonly known today as benzene, this is highly flammable and even small fires will quickly become uncontrollable.

Water cannot be used to extinguish them. You need a proper chemical foam.

Those on board the SS Mont-Blanc, as well as witnesses further out in the harbor, testified that within five minutes the whole deck was utterly ablaze. The fire was out of control. Both the picric acid and the benzol could explode at any moment, and that would have disastrous consequences for the tons of explosives in the hold.

Captain Le Medec understandably gave the order to abandon ship.

However, this would not have been easily heard by the rest of the crew. Halifax Harbour was generally a noisy location. Those on board the SS Mont-Blanc also had to contend with the sound of a large fire in close proximity.

While this was going on, Pilot Francis Mackey was leaning over the side of the ship, trying to communicate with the captain of the Stella Maris. The tugboat had all of the equipment necessary to tow SS Mont-Blanc out to sea.

But the noise was so dense, that Captain Horatio Brannen couldn't make out a word he said. It barely mattered. By now, the fire was so big, there was no way of throwing a line to the Stella Maris.

An Animated Recreation of the Halifax Disaster Crash

This accurately shows what happened immediately prior to the Halifiax Explosion, though the time is sped up. Instead of a minute, this sequence took about half an hour.

Survivors of the Halifax Explosion furiously blamed the captain, pilot and crew of the SS Mont-Blanc for the disaster. Given that it was the ship that blew up, it's an understandable reaction.

Nor has popular opinion treated Captain Le Medec any better in the interim. That has mostly been formed from dramatizations, like Shattered City, which portray the French captain as an inexperienced sailor and a coward.

For the citizens of Halifax, those on board SS Mont-Blanc committed the inexcusable error of surviving - all except twenty year old gunner Yves Quequiner, but he's never counted - while nearly two thousand civilians died.

Yet a Halifax courtroom ruled that there was no evidence of misconduct, nor negligence, on the part of Le Medec nor Harbour Pilot Mackey. The former returned to France, where he went on to win a military medal for bravery.  The latter continued to work as a pilot, in Halifax Harbour, for the rest of his working career.

Far from being a panicking, gun-wielding incompetent, Captain Le Medec was actually the last to leave SS Mont-Blanc. He personally ensured that every member of his crew, and Pilot Mackey, had received the message to abandon ship. The Captain checked they were all in the life-boat before he entered the vessel himself.

As the lifeboat was rowed towards the Dartmouth side of the harbor, all crew members constantly shouted warnings about the imminent explosion to crews on passing boats. To their frustration, the noise meant that they weren't heard by any of them. They had to watch impotently, as potential rescuers and fire-fighters sailed straight into danger.

Yves Quequiner was killed when debris from the SS Mont-Blanc flew through the air. A large section of metal pierced him where he stood on Dartmouth docks.

Not quite what you'd expect from the impression given in the movies, is it?

The Halifax Explosion Dramatized in Movies and Books

A disaster on this scale naturally gave rise to fictional accounts of the Halifax Disaster. Historical novels and TV films can sometimes help grasp its enormity.

Could the SS Mont-Blanc Fire Have Been Extinguished?

Those on board abandoned ship once they'd ascertained that the situation was futile. But they weren't the only ones there to fight fires.

Image: West Street Fire Brigade with PatriciaThere's been a sneaking suspicion over the years that the crew of the SS Mont-Blanc just didn't try hard enough to put out its deck fire. That with a bit more effort, and a lot less cowardice, the Halifax Explosion could have been averted.

But a whole team of professionals did try and failed.

From the instant that flames were spotted on board, the 'Box 83' bell sounded in the docks. This was the signal for Halifax's fire fighters to drop what they were doing and prepare to respond to the emergency.

In 1917, being a member of the fire brigade was not a full time occupation. Trained volunteers left their ordinary workplaces and waited in pre-arranged places to leap onto Patricia, as she passed. Patricia was something special for Halifax. She was Canada's first fire engine and she served their city.

Painter and fire fighter Albert Brunt was humiliated that morning. He'd abandoned his trolley, laden with brushes and paint, at the first urgent peal of the Box 83 bell. Waiting on the corner of Gottingen Street, he'd stood poised as Patricia screamed down the street. He leapt, and missed. His colleagues were all jeering at him, as the fire engine went on without him.

He was not nearly as embarrassed as the unnamed fire fighter who, suffering from flu, had been throwing up in the West Street Station's toilet when the alarm sounded. He'd not been able to extract himself in time to climb onto Patricia while she was stationary.

Once on Pier 6, the ten strong Halifax Fire Department were joined by another brigade from Brunswick Street, who arrived in Chief Edward Condon's Buick. He took one look at the blaze and rang the dockyard bell again. More local fire fighters arrived, including retired Johnny Spruin, a respected veteran who brought his own water pump on a horse drawn carriage.

Overlooking them all was Constant Upham, the owner of the North End General Store. He was one of the few people in Halifax with a telephone and, discerning that this wasn't your average ship fire, he took it upon himself to call every fire station in the city.

Those too far away to have heard the bell now sounded their own. Fire personnel poured in from all four local brigades. They faced a blaze so intense that they couldn't even look directly at it. Nevertheless their hoses remained firmly trained on the raging inferno. It made no difference. The ship's fire could not be extinguished, even drenched consistently by the city's most powerful hoses.

All but Patricia's driver Billy Wells were killed when the SS Mont-Blanc exploded. The horses too.

Afterwards, there were only thirty trained fire-fighters left in the whole of Halifax, including Albert Brunt and his ill colleague. They were confronted by thousands of fires springing up throughout the ruined city and no chief left to lead them. Their ranks were swollen by 120 survivor volunteers, and they did their best.

Historic Print of Halifax Harbour in 1917

This view of the harbor is looking down from the vantage point of the citadel across buildings that would be damaged or destroyed in the explosion.

Could the SS Mont-Blanc Have been Towed to Safety in Time?

The French munitions ship was notably not the only vessel in Halifax Harbour. Other captains and crews rushed to assist.

Image: The Halifax Explosion mapThere was no saving the SS Mont-Blanc before she exploded. But the sheer scale of the catastrophe was dictated by where the blast occurred.

If the abandoned ship could have been taken in time back out to sea, then the explosion would have been just as powerful, but not in the immediate vicinity of a heavily populated city.

The SS Mont-Blanc was carried on the current, and the momentum of inertia, until she lodged up against Pier 6. Located at the foot of Richmond Street, this was right at the edge of a large residential area. It was one of the busiest parts of Halifax, with warehouses, businesses and the main train station all close by.

Moreover, this was a heavily used watercourse. Any vessel sailing in from the open sea towards Bedford Basin had to pass through The Narrows. For many, this pier was their destination, here to unload or take on goods.

Their captains and crew-men may not have been able to hear the warnings yelled from those abandoning this ship, but they had eyes in their heads. They could see the fire raging on the deck.

Even in their ignorance about the munitions in the hold, it was obvious that a burning vessel was not the ideal thing to be drifting against the dockland. From ships to row-boats, maritime rescuers came. But did they ever have a hope of preventing the Halifax Disaster?

Image: Halifax Harbour circa 1917
Image: Halifax Harbour circa 1917

Halifax Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey was interviewed in 1967 for a CBS radio station. He denied that there was any chance of fighting the fire on board the SS Mont-Blanc. "No one was throwing water on her," he stated. It was out of control too quickly, and a hopeless task to even try.

But he hesitated over the suggestion that the stricken ship might have been towed away. Could a tugboat have been able to save Halifax?

"Well, it would," Mackey agreed. "Was just a question of..." He paused, picking over once more in memory something that he must have contemplated in painful self-analysis a million times since. "You wouldn't have been in time to take her in tow and take her anywhere."

That was his expert opinion, drawn from his unique perspective as an eye-witness on the SS Mont-Blanc, and from twenty-four years' experience as a harbor pilot prior to the disaster. By 1967, he'd also had decades more insight from doing the job.

This was a decision that he'd had to make on the spot. His analysis now could owe something to him attempting to justify the choices he made. But Mackey was also a local man. His family, friends, neighbors and work colleagues were all in that city. His whole working career focused around ensuring the safe passage of vessels through that harbor.

It seems incredible that he would have given up, if there was a chance that the SS Mont-Blanc could have been towed away in time.

Yet two vessels did try to do just that.

Image: HMCS Niobe
Image: HMCS Niobe
Image: The Stella Maris
Image: The Stella Maris

Captain Horatio Brennan, on board the Stella Maris, might not have heard Pilot Mackey's initial desperate attempt to gain his attention, but Brennan saw the ship burning shortly afterwards.

The tugboat had already had a part to play in the run up to the collision. The speeding SS Imo had been brought into its path, after illegally passing another ship on the starboard side. It was to avoid crashing with the Stella Maris, that caused the Norwegian vessel to sail further east into the channel of the on-coming SS Mont-Blanc.

Close enough to have witnessed everything, Captain Brennan knew nothing about munitions, nor the imminent explosion. But his boat had everything needed to tow the French ship away from the pier. In fact, the Stella Maris already had two stows in tow. It only had to release them, in order to be ready to hook up anew.

Captain Brennan immediately steered his tugboat towards the burning vessel, where he attempted to get a line onto its bow.

Meanwhile, Acting Commander P. F. Newcombe RN, on the Canadian Navy cruiser HMCS Niobe, also responded to the unfolding crisis. He sent a steam pinnacle from his ship to the scene. Headed by Albert Mattison, half a dozen naval personnel quickly scrambled to access the SS Mont-Blanc, in order to find somewhere to fix a tow-line.

Members of the Stella Maris's crew were dispatched into their own hold, to retrieve a massive roll of ten-inch hawser. It was going to take rope of that thickness to tow it.

They were engaged in these activities when the explosion occurred. Captain Brennan and nineteen of his crew were killed, as were the six men serving on the Niobe's steam pinnacle. Their bodies were never recovered, presumed utterly disintegrated in the blast's fearsome power.

Mackey was right. There wasn't time to tow the SS Mont-Blanc away. There wasn't even time to successfully attach the necessary cable. Halifax could never have been saved in this way.

The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy

Discover more about the role that the navy played immediately before, during and in the aftermath of the Halifax Disaster of 1917.

Could the City have been Evacuated Before the Halifax Disaster?

Nineteen and a half minutes is a very short time period in which to move a population of 65,000 to safety.

Image: Halifax in Canada 1917If it was inevitable that the inextinguishable SS Mont-Blanc would explode, and it could not be towed away in time, then the obvious third solution would be to clear the blast site. That is a lot easier said than done.

There were people in Halifax who knew that the ship was filled with munitions. But they weren't necessarily the eye-witnesses.

Rubberneckers had crowded around the docks and piers since horn blasts first signaled an imminent collision. Their numbers grew as the crash occurred and flames were spotted on the French ship. There was no sense of urgency there.

In a port as busy as Halifax, such things were not uncommon, despite the best endeavors of the harbor pilots. If they weren't, then there would be no need for regulations or shipping codes of conduct.

Timing was also against the city. The two ships crashed at 8.40am. That was twenty minutes before the working day began for most people. Most clerks and reporting officers were not at their desks. Many were either still at home or on their daily commute.

Evacuation on such a scale necessary would task even those primed with information and ready to act. It could well be impossible even with today's high level of instant communication. But this was 1917 and there was a war on.

It took a lot longer to join the dots necessary to even know that an evacuation was needful. There simply wasn't the time to actually organize it.

So what was the reaction from those charged with the safety of Halifax and its port? 

Social Histories of Halifax

Enjoy these photographs, stories and studies, which describe the community cloistered close to Halifax Harbour around the time of the disaster.

The Dockyard Superintendent in the Halifax Disaster

In 1917, management of Halifax Harbour fell to the Royal Canadian Navy. Its Captain-in-Charge of the Dockyard was responsible for safety during the disaster.

Image: Fred PascoDockyard Superintendent Captain Edward Harrington Martin was away in England at the time of the Halifax Disaster.

His deputy Captain Fred Pasco (pictured) was enjoying his breakfast when the telephone rang. It was a message from HMCS Niobe, routed via HMS Highflyer, to say that there had been a collision and one ship was on fire.

The names of the vessels weren't mentioned, hence no cause for alarm was triggered.

Acting Superintendent Pasco instead reacted with impeccable practicality. He assumed that the damaged boat might sink and therefore wanted to get the harbor's fire-fighting naval boat there as soon as possible. The W.H.Lee was a nifty craft fitted with water pumps and salvage equipment. But first Pasco had to raise the person responsible for ordering it into action.

That was the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR), but Acting Commander Graham Holloway's telephone line was busy for the next twenty minutes. Pasco stood on tip-toe in an upstairs bedroom window, peering out over the harbor, while he tried to reach Holloway. From that distance and vantage point, it seemed that the flaming ship was heading into Bedford Basin, where it had plenty of room to drift.

He never once thought to ascertain the name of the ship, nor to contact the Royal Canadian Navy's Examination Service to see what was in its hold.

Fires like this happened all of the time. They were generally not cause for much alarm. It's only the aftermath which made this one any different. Plus Pasco had not been warned that a munitions ship was entering the harbor that day.

The slow turning cogs of bureaucracy - coupled with the wartime need for every scrap of paper to be cleared by relevant officials first - meant that the documentation arrived on his work desk at 8.30am. Pasco wasn't there. He wasn't due in until 9am.

Just after 9am, Pasco finally got through to the RNR, and ordered three salvage vessels to attend to the unknown ship's fire. It looked a bit bigger now than previously supposed. The SS Mont-Blanc exploded seconds after he hung up the phone.

Books about the Royal Canadian Navy during Two World Wars

Based 3000 miles away from the European theater of war, Canada's navy still had vital roles to perform at home and across the Atlantic.

RCN Examination Officer During the Halifax Explosion

Every ship traveling into or out of North American waters had to check into the port in Halifax for an inspection. There was an office to deal with that.

Image: Warning NoticeMate Terrence Freeman RNCVR was aware that there were explosives on board the blazing munitions ship. But he wasn't at his desk, nor even on dry land.

As part of his duties as a RCN examining officer, Freeman was out on a boat at the mouth of Halifax Harbor. It was his signal that had allowed the SS Mont-Blanc to sail into the port.

Even if Pasco had been able to contact him, Freeman would not have been able to inject too much sense of urgency into the situation.

His inspection, conducted the night before, relied too heavily on cargo documentation prepared for the SS Mont-Blanc in New York.

The Americans - fearing intelligence leaks and safe-guarding against potential sabotage - hadn't listed the majority of the munitions hidden in the hold.

The main cargo stated was 2,300 tons of picric acid, plus other explosives. Freeman had seen the barrels of benzol for himself. He assumed that constituted the 'other', and Captain Le Medec didn't contradict him.

Pasco could not have learned about the 250 tons of TNT, nor the 61.2 tons of gun cotton. Those things were neither shown nor mentioned to his officer.

Also missing from the record were any of the health and safety regulations, which had been strictly enforced during loading. This had gone so far as to force the dockers of Brooklyn's Gravesend Bay to wear rubber-soled boots, or else cover their footwear in canvas. Random sparks caused by the friction of hob-nails on stone walkways were thus prevented.

The inclusion of such directives in the official documentation would have immediately raised questions. It would have certainly led prying eyes to deduce that there was something on board more explosive than picric acid and benzol.

Hence the SS Mont-Blanc had sailed into Halifax Harbor without any special procedures requested and outlined in advance, nor even flying the red munitions flag in warning. Both were in breach of wartime harbor regulations.

However, it was only there to meet its convoy. The Canadians weren't supposed to be anywhere near the hold. Its officials weren't in the 'need to know' cohort. All safety considerations could be conveyed by Captain Le Medec, and would have been when the ship reached its destination in France.

Unfortunately, Captain Le Medec was in a life-boat with his crew on the opposite side of the harbor. He wasn't in a position to pass on that vital information.

Learn about the Home Front War Effort in North America

Thousands of miles away from the battlefields, the World Wars still touched so many lives on the Home Front in Canada and the USA.

Commander Frederick Wyatt During the Halifax Explosion

Only one other person in Halifax knew in advance what was packed into the hold of the SS Mont-Blanc. His name became infamous after the Halifax Disaster.

Image: Commander Frederick WyattFreeman's overall superior was RCN Commander Frederick Evan Wyatt.

Born in Southsea, England, Wyatt's adult life had first been spent as a harbor pilot, then as the captain of various mail and passenger steamships. He also served as a member of the British Royal Naval Reserve, before relocating to Halifax.

When the Great War was declared, Wyatt enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy. His credentials and experience afforded him immediate promotion to the ranks of senior officer.

It's this which causes many commentators some confusion. The assumption is that Wyatt was still part of the British Navy at the time of the Halifax Explosion. Ergo the disaster was probably caused by Britons meddling with the age old, tried and tested ways of the Canadian port.

It gives rise to the pervasive myth that the British Navy was trying to cut corners, speeding up harbor traffic at the cost of health and safety measures. Wyatt himself has been accused of relaxing regulations, in order to hurry ships through the harbor and back into the war.

In reality, there had been a great deal of tension since the Royal Canadian Navy took over the running of Halifax Harbour. War had placed a great many new restrictions upon the harbor's use, and that wasn't always welcomed by civilians.

The British Ministry of Defence had ordered that all ships in North America had to be inspected in Halifax - which made the port a lot busier than usual - but that was where its influence began and ended.

Wyatt was performing his duties within Canada's navy, as he imposed new regulations and codes of practice in Halifax Harbor. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't relax the rules, he tightened them and came down hard on transgressors. Which is why harbor pilots resented him so much in the years prior to the Halifax Explosion.

'Scapegoat' author Joel Zemel discusses Commander Fred Wyatt, and the legacy endured as Halifax people needed someone to blame.

As the Canadian Naval Officer-in-Charge of the Examination Service (CXO in Halifax), Wyatt was responsible for ensuring that every vessel entering the harbor was verified, and all those leaving had received clearance.

His duties also included all anti-submarine defenses, maintaining the sea gates and overseeing safe movement within the harbor.

On the morning of December 6th 1917, Commander Fred Wyatt was on his way to work, when the SS Imo and SS Mont-Blanc collided. He was heading across the railway tracks towards the recently acquired old Acadia Sugar Refinery. Its huge space and wharf was in the process of becoming the headquarters of his department.

Part way up the hill, Wyatt's assistant caught up with him to deliver the news that two ships had crashed in the harbor.  This worried Wyatt as, three days before, he'd received a telegraph warning him that a munitions ship was due today.

He'd been warned solely because it was his job to arrange the naval convoy to escort SS Mont-Blanc across the Atlantic. Plus alerting him ahead of time would speed up his department's clearance for the munitions ship to leave the harbor again.

But 'munitions ship' was all the message had said. There were no special procedures mentioned, nor was Wyatt aware about the TNT and gun cotton. He'd not yet seen Mate Freeman's examination report. Wyatt's staff knew to contact him if anything was untoward, but there had been nothing in the inspection to concern them.

The second of Joel Zemel's three part talk about Commander F. Evan Wyatt.

The popular perception of what happened next - repeated ad tedium in novels, movies and word of mouth legend - is that Commander Wyatt ran away.

He supposedly sussed immediately what was in the SS Mont-Blanc's hold, and anticipated the scale of the ensuing carnage. He didn't attempt to warn anybody, but instead fled (probably in some vehicle) to a safe enough distance that he would survive.

It's usually coupled with the fable that he'd personally instructed Captain Le Medec to enter the harbor full speed ahead. This is despite the fact that the heavily laden French ship was actually crawling along. That it couldn't get out of the way fast enough was part of the reason that it crashed.

In reality, Commander Wyatt immediately ran to the coal wharf, just south of HMCS Niobe's usual dock, in Halifax Harbor. That was where the W.H.Lee motor boat was supposed to be moored. This was the same specially commissioned naval fire-fighting, rescue and salvage boat that Captain Pasco had sought to engage.

Wyatt found that the boat was missing. It had been docked on the other side of the slip instead.

Once that was finally ascertained, he gave the order to have it brought around to him at the Dockyard Coaling Wharf. He was going to use it to sail out to the blazing ship and conduct a personal investigation, despite strongly suspecting that this vessel contained some explosives.

From his north-east position, he couldn't see that the SS Mont-Blanc had drifted into Pier 6. Commander Wyatt was still waiting for the motor boat to arrive, when the munitions ship exploded.

Had the W.H.Lee been docked where it was supposed to be, Wyatt would have been amongst those killed and disintegrated in the blast.

Final part of Joel Zemel's 'Scapegoat' lecture about Commander Frederick Wyatt.

Vince Coleman: Telegraph Hero of the Halifax Explosion

After so many tales of futility in the face of disaster, it seems only fitting to finish with an endeavor that did work. One man's self-sacrifice saved hundreds in the Halifax Disaster.

Image: Vince Coleman Halifax Disaster heroAt the foot of Richmond Street, in the rail master's yard, sat the telegraph dispatch office of the Canadian Government Railway. The tiny wooden shack was surrounded by freight storage space and tracks. It afforded the two men inside a clear view of the harbor.

They couldn't miss the fact that the burning SS Mont-Blanc had docked herself on Pier 6. The mighty inferno was just 750 feet away.

With such an early warning of impeding disaster, there was probably time for Vince Coleman and his boss, Chief Clerk William Lovett, to get away. But why would they?

The fire was fierce, but the fire brigades were there.

Neither dispatcher could have possibly known about the munitions on board, unless one of them received the telegraph that informed Commander Wyatt a few days before. But no history has ever claimed that, and it seems remarkable if the Canadian navy didn't have their own telegraph dispatchers.

This is a story often told about the Halifax Explosion. Each time it reads a little differently, embellishments and flourishes here and there. Extra bits added for dramatic effect. It doesn't need any of that. It's heroic enough all on its own.

In one version commonly told, the naval captain of HMCS Hilford - which had been waiting to lead SS Mont-Blanc's escort convoy across the Atlantic - navigated his tugboat alongside the nearby wharf. Lieutenant-Commander James Anderson Murray knew very well what was in that hold. Anticipating the disaster to come, he put a sailor ashore to warn the people of Halifax to flee. The naval messenger rushed first across the tracks to alert those in the telegraph office, before hurtling off towards the crowds around Pier 6.

It's a great story, but one without any collaborating eye-witness testimonies.

Murray indeed did know about the munitions, but he was hurrying towards his own offices on Pier 9. If he'd made it, his alarm bell would have warned many more people than a lone sailor screaming at a crowd. It would be strange if he'd detoured for such a drop off, in those circumstances. As it was, Murray was halfway across his yard when the explosion occurred.

Image: Pier 6 Halifax Harbour, disaster ground zero, close to where Vince Coleman worked.
Image: Pier 6 Halifax Harbour, disaster ground zero, close to where Vince Coleman worked.

Another version of the story seems to suggest that Chief Clerk William Lovett had some kind of presentiment, or a life-time spent watching ships in the harbor allowed him to work it out.

Either way, Bill Lovett became increasingly nervous about the SS Mont-Blanc fire. We'll never know precisely what he said to Vince Coleman, but we can say for certain that Lovett phoned a colleague and friend. He told Henry Dustan - CGR terminal agent based at the North Street Station - that he 'feared an explosion' and therefore they were leaving the office.

There was no mention of a sailor's warning in that call, nor anything so certain.

Lovett was true to his word. He fled across the Barrington Street tracks and caught a streetcar heading out of the harbor's North Gate. His body was found in its mangled wreckage after his fear came true.

Vince Coleman hadn't followed him. He'd thought of something equally scary. But if he acted quickly, he might just avert an even greater disaster.

Image: Pier 6 after the Halifax Explosion
Image: Pier 6 after the Halifax Explosion

There were trains due to be arriving in Halifax. In particular, there was the No.10 from New Brunswick due in at 8.55am. It would be stopping at North Street Station, right alongside that inferno on Pier 6, with 300 passengers on board.

Vince tapped out his message to the Rockingham Station further along the line, 'Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.'

When it confirmed that the message was received and the train would be stopped, Vince still didn't run. He continued to send the same, or similar, telegraphs to railway stations ever further afield, with the final one as far away as Truro.

The No. 10 didn't arrive. It had been held back by Rockingham. Irate passengers were embarking on the long walk along the tracks, when the Halifax Explosion rocked the Earth beneath their feet. But they were still far enough away to be safe, while the pier that they were headed towards was utterly obliterated.

Vince Coleman had done more than save those 300 people though. Relay operators were passing along his messages from the moment they he first sent them. Throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, frantic emergency preparations were underway practically before the ship exploded.

Relief trains, packed with medical and fire-fighting personnel, as well as supplies, were making their way to Halifax within the hour. They proceeded cautiously, well aware that the tracks could be warped or wrecked. If he'd not warned them, it could have been passenger trains that were derailed.

It was one of Vince's relayed telegraphs that first broke the news in Ottawa, and throughout the rest of Canada. The emergency response came much more quickly than it otherwise may have done. All over Halifax telephone wires and telegraph cables were felled in the blast. But Vince had ensured that help was already coming.

Vince Coleman was killed at 9.04am, on December 17th 1917, sitting at his desk sending Morse Code telegrams until the last.

The Halifax Disaster was a blast of apocalyptic proportions. At 2.9 kilotons, it was the largest explosion in the world before the advent of nuclear weapons.

Factual Accounts of the Halifax Explosion Disaster of 1917

Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
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Joel Zemel on 11/11/2016

I just happened to revisit this web page after 2 years. I certainly did not mean to sound high-handed regarding the errors in your posts. However, as the author of this page, the onus is on you to present viable sources other than simply showing the books and websites that your information may have come from. By now, you may have read my book Scapegoat, the extraordinary legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion. My extensive notes and bibliography address many of the detailed primary sources for the majority of my comments you questioned in your rebuttal. In addition to those pointed out, there still exists no definitive evidence that the Vince Coleman story occurred as you describe. As a matter of fact, the evidence from the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry as well as eye witness accounts of people on the train itself and at Rockingham Station puts into question much of the story surrounding the myth. Being willing to examine details to the nth degree is what any good research is all about. It is also important not to let a good story stand in the way of the facts.

JoHarrington on 03/31/2014


I do hope you'll forgive my rebuttal. It would be so much easier - and desirable - for me to simply make any amendments. I do wish to have the most accurate historical record that I can produce, otherwise what's the point? But I have no guarantee that you're even the author that you claim to be.

I've written an article based on a week long survey of primary and secondary sources, and - with all due respect - you're someone who's merely written a comment without citing any sources. Naturally I'm going to double-check anything before incorporating it.

I do thank you for correcting the date on the Mackey interview though. I'd read a transcript, where someone had scribbled 1967 on top. You're quite right, it was 1958.

JoHarrington on 03/31/2014

I'm happy to have included your YouTube lecture. I found it interesting when I watched it as part of my research for this series. I do hope you will list your book 'Scapegoat' on Amazon though, so I can add it to the book module here.

Despite your rather high-handed denunciation of my work as having 'too many errors to mention', I was still grateful for your corrections. (I count an accurate rendering of events for my readers above my pride.) Until I came to make the amendments. Then I found myself quite flabbergasted.

The majority of what you've written is either stated already in the narrative, or contradicts the historical/scientific record elsewhere.

For example, I've written that Wyatt 'served as a member of the British Royal Naval Reserve, before relocating to Halifax. When the Great War was declared, Wyatt enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy.' You claim that's in error, as he was a retired RNR officer, who was assigned to the RCN in 1917. The only difference is that you've used acronyms, and I've spelled it out.

Another example, I've stated that Mackey tried but failed to communicate with Stella Maris. The noise was too loud for him to be heard by Captain Brennan. You've listed that as being in error, as Mackey had no verbal communication with the tugboat's captain. Can you see my confusion on what precisely you're calling me out on here?

Then again, you've said that we can't be certain of the time-frame. It was approximately 20 minutes. But we can be quite approximate. We know from harbor records that the ships collided at 8.45am. Geophysicists have determined the precise time that the explosion occurred: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories...

At best, you are quibbling over 25 seconds. Had it been a few seconds either way, it would not affect the series of events.


Joel Zemel on 03/29/2014

I appreciate being mentioned on your website but I would be remiss if I were not to point out a few of the historical errors in your essay the least of which is the date of Francis Mackey's CBC interview. It took place in1958 not 1967. Mackey died in 1961.

There are too many errors to mention but some of the stand-outs are as follows: Acting Commander F. Evan Wyatt was a retired R. N. R. officer assigned to the RCN. Le Medec and Mackay were arrested and charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence following the inquiry. Le Medec did not return to France until after the preliminary hearing. He and Mackey were released on a writ habeas corpus. Wyatt went to trial but was acquitted. The accepted timeframe between the collision and the explosion was not definite - approximately 20 minutes. Francis Mackey never had any vocal communication with the Stella Maris. The tug had no fire-fighting equipment to speak of and had no intention of towing Mont Blanc to sea or anywhere else. They just wanted to move the ship's burning stern away from Pier 6. Henry Dustan's office was not at the North Street Station. Wyatt did not simply suspect there were explosives aboard Mont Blanc - he knew of the TNT though not the picric acid or guncotton. There was never any preposterous perception or suggestion by anyone - ever - that Commander Wyatt ran away from anything. Lieutenant James Anderson Murray was on the telephone with Acting Captain James Turnbull at the Port Convoy Office at the time of the explosion. Murray died in his office. It was not Commander Wyatt's job to arrange for convoys.

JoHarrington on 03/17/2014

Ah! I noticed that earlier, then got side-tracked before doing something about it. I'm on the case now.

Guest on 03/17/2014

Yippee. something to keep me going through another day of cut-paste-proofread. Can you please delete that first comment of mine, by the way? I appear to have double double posted posted.

JoHarrington on 03/17/2014

That Dockyard Super looks quite like my cousin too. I didn't think much of it, when i first saw his name, as Harrington isn't that rare. But that likeness upped the stakes a little more.

I started part 3 today, but didn't finish it. It should be along tomorrow. :)

Guest on 03/17/2014

You should check the family tree. That Dockyard Super could be related to you. And hurry up with part 3 already! I'm hooked...

JoHarrington on 03/16/2014

You're welcome. A Canadian friend mentioned it to me a few weeks ago and I was stunned that I hadn't heard about it before. You'd think that something like this would be on world-wide history curricula.

I don't think I know anyone from Halifax, but I can certainly vouch for people further west in Canada. :)

BrookeVanBeek on 03/16/2014

Hey Jo, thanks for writing about this. The Halifax Explosion is a painful part of Canadian history--the destruction, the death, on a scale that no Maritimer could ever imagine. The people of Halifax are gentle, easy-going folk and deeply mourn this event.

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