Any historical fiction writer worth her salt spends a great deal of time doing research. I was specifically looking for tunnel fires for a plot line I was envisioning. I found a great deal on the Mont Blanc tunnel fire in March 1999, but that was too modern. However, what caught my eye was a different tragedy with “Mont Blanc,” and I am not speaking of mountain climbing.
This tragedy occurred on 6 December 1917 in Nova Scotia, specifically in the harbor of Halifax. This was pre-atomic days, but the devastation was still quite unbelievable.
Halifax was a bustling port during WWI. Ships carrying troops, supplies and munitions often left the harbor for the European continent. On this particular day, the Norwegian vessel Imo set out for New York City. About the same time, the French freighter Mont Blanc also set out. The Mont Blanc‘s cargo included 5000 pounds of explosives, specifically 2300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tones of gun cotton. The Mont Blanc was to join a military convoy in the Atlantic.
The tragedy began with a navigation error combined with large crowds gathered along the shore, who gathered to watch what they thought was a mere shipwreck.
The two ships collided about 8:45 A.M. According to History.com, “The Mont Blanc was propelled toward the shore by its collision with the Imo, and the crew rapidly abandoned the ship, attempting without success to alert the harbor of the peril of the burning ship. Spectators gathered along the waterfront to witness the spectacle of the blazing ship, and minutes later it brushed by a harbor pier, setting it ablaze. The Halifax Fire Department responded quickly and was positioning its engine next to the nearest hydrant when the Mont Blanc exploded at 9:05 a.m. in a blinding white flash.” The French ship caught fire after several drums of benzol—a highly combustible motor fuel derived from coke-oven gases—tipped over on the deck, spilling their contents, which ignited, and the vessel drifted into the pier.
The Mont Blanc exploded, sending a giant mushroom cloud over the town. More than 1800 were instantly killed. Thousands more were injured. The entire northern part of the city was destroyed, including 1600 homes. Many people were blinded from the glass and shrapnel that rained down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. Schools, homes, factories, and churches were set ablaze, and many more were flattened by the shock wave.
A large portion of the waterfront was swept away by a 30-foot tidal wave. Initial survivors were drowned and the other ships in the harbor were swept away. Pieces of the Mont Blanc were later discovered as far removed as 3 miles. A tugboat in the harbor ended up on the Dartmouth shore. The shock wave shattered glass windows in Charlottetown some 120 miles away, and the explosion could be heard hundreds of miles away.
The shock wave washed away the settlement of an indigenous tribe called the Mimac.
The man-made explosion was not eclipsed until the devastation of the atomic bomb was finally acknowledged.
“Military and naval personnel worked with civilians in the relief effort. Nearby cities like Truro took in the homeless. Eaton stores donated furniture. The Canadian and British governments donated millions for reconstruction, while the United States organized a relief train filled with supplies, doctors, and nurses, some of whom were on the scene and working before shocked Canadian officials had fully recovered. More than 90 years later, the province of Nova Scotia each year still sends a Christmas tree to the city of Boston, Massachusetts as a token of friendship for the aid Bostonians rendered in December 1917.” (War Museum)
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