On the morning of 6 December 1917, a ship detonated in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, unleashing a blast equivalent to about 3,000 tonnes of TNT.
The resulting shockwave instantly killed more than 1,000 people, threw a cargo ship like a bath toy and created a 50-foot-tall tidal wave.
This is the incredible and horrifying story of the Halifax Explosion: the largest human-made, non-nuclear blast in history.
By December 1917, World War I had been raging for three years.
Halifax, located on Canada’s east coast, served as an important port for shipping troops and supplies to Europe.
On 6 December, a Norwegian cargo ship, the SS IMO, was departing Halifax on its way to New York.
The ship was en route from the Netherlands to ferry supplies back to a war-ravaged Belgium.
At the same time, the SS Mont Blanc was bound to return to France carrying a host of highly explosive materials: 2,367 tonnes of picric acid, 62 tonnes of guncotton, 250 tonnes of TNT and 246 tonnes of benzol in barrels below decks.
To exit the Bedford Basin, where the ships were docked, they had to pass through a slim channel.
The Imo — behind schedule and on the wrong side of the channel — refused to give way and crashed into the Mont Blanc.
Although the collision occurred at low speed, the benzol spilled and sparks ignited the entire stockpile of fuel.
The Mont Blanc exploded with the force of 2,989 tonnes of TNT — about 270 times more powerful than a ‘Mother of All Bombs’ blast.
The shock wave from the blast covered 325 acres of ground and leveled the neighborhood of Richmond.
The temperature of the explosion exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 5,000 degrees Celsius), vaporizing water around the Mont Blanc — and pushing a 52-foot-tall tidal wave three blocks into town.
The force of the explosion lifted the Imo out of the water and threw it onto the shore.
The Mont Blanc was ripped apart and completely destroyed. Almost no part of the ship survived the explosion.
Only two parts of the Mont Blanc have ever been located: a 1,140-lb piece of its anchor, found buried more than two miles away, and a barrel from one of the ship’s guns, which flew 2.35 miles from the blast site.
Much of Halifax was leveled, with 12,000 buildings destroyed or made uninhabitable, leaving a huge portion of the city’s population without shelter from the frigid December weather.
Almost every window in the city shattered — some reportedly 50 miles away.
Even the buildings left standing were severely damaged.
About 1,600 people died instantly in the blast, and 350 later succumbed to injuries.
An estimated 9,000 people were injured in the accident, making 22% of the city’s population a casualty.
Losses would have been even worse had a railway dispatcher, Vincent Coleman, not halted a train carrying 300 people towards the train station directly in front of the burning ship.
Coleman’s final action was sending a telegraph warning up the tracks: “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.”
The force of the Halifax explosion was so large that it remained the largest human-made explosion ever until the United States developed atomic weaponry in 1945.
*This article was originally published at www.thejournal.ie