It's still considered the largest man-made accidental explosion in history.
Even during World War I, the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia was one of Canada's busiest ports. As the terminus of the St. Lawrence Seaway, its location made it the third largest port in the British Empire and a natural base of operations for Canada's navy. Thousands of tons of munitions passed through the port regularly with little thought of the potential danger involved. Until...
On December 6, 1917, a French ship, the SS. Mont-Blanc was carrying a heavy load of explosives from New York to Halifax. As the ship was proceeding into the harbour, a Norwegian ship, the S.S. Imo crossed into its path (it was carrying relief supplies). Though both crews attempted to avoid a collision, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc on its starboard (right) bow.Attempts to disengage the two ships started a fire that the Mont-Blanc's crew was unable to get under control and they quickly abandoned ship under the captain's orders. Although the French-speaking crew attempted to warn authorities of the terrible danger, they were not understood as the burning ship drifted toward shore.
At 9:04:45 AM, the SS Mont-Blanc exploded. Its cargo, including 450,000 pounds of TNT, 2300 tons of picric acid, and 35 tons of benzol, exploded with a force of 3 kilotons of TNT. The Mont-Blanc was instantly destroyed and the resulting fireball rose 1.9 kilometers into the air. Hot metal rained down on the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth and the tsunami triggered by the blast sent the water rising 18 meters above the harbour's high-water mark. The force of the explosion also triggered fires throughout Halifax's North End and entire neighbourhoods were set on fire. The damage from the explosion affected buildings as far as 16 kilometers from the blast epicenter. An estimated 2000 people were killed in the explosion and resulting firestorm and over 9000 people were injured. Only the heroic actions of numerous emergency personnel and support workers kept the death toll from rising even higher (many of them were killed in the process). All told, more Nova Scotians died in the explosion than were killed in World War I.
To make matters worse, a massive blizzard struck the Halifax area on the day after the explosion, interfering with rescue efforts. Many of the survivors still trapped in wreckage were forced to deal with the severe cold and Halifax emergency crews were swamped trying to build shelters for all those left homeless. With more than 1630 homes being completely destroyed and an additional 12000 being seriously damaged, providing adequate housing was a critical necessity throughout the harsh winter.
Immediately after the disaster, medical relief trains began arriving from across Canada and the United States. The city of Boston provided a relief train that arrived within a day of the explosion (the city of Halifax still provides an annual Christmas tree to Boston in gratitude). Medical facilities were swamped with injured and even first-year medical students were drafted to treat patients.
Though the reconstruction would take decades, the Halifax Explosion represented one of the first modern disasters to be studied from a sociological and psychological perspective. Several years after the explosion, Samuel Henry Prince completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University. His thesis, titled Catastrophe and Social Change: Based on a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster, represented the first systematic study of relief efforts following a major disaster. As a scholar, pastor, and social activist, Prince's own experience dealing with disaster was considerable. Not only was he part of the rescue effort following the Titanic sinking five years earlier, but he narrowly escaped being injured in the Halifax explosion himself (despite the risk of flying glass, he arrived on the scene just minutes after the blast to help with rescue efforts). After the explosion, Prince helped mobilize international relief efforts and continued to work on behalf of survivors and their families for years afterward.
In his book, Prince described the "shock and disintegration" that followed the explosion as well as the massive relief effort needed and the complex social issues that were linked to aiding survivors. He also emphasized the long-term consequences of the tragedy by stating: "The Halifax Disaster will leave a permanent mark upon the city because so many of the living have been blinded or maimed for life. But it is possible that the disaster may leave a mark of another sort, for it is confidently believed by those who took part in the relief work during the first few weeks that Halifax will gain as well as lose. The sturdy quality of its citizens will bring "beauty out of ashes"". Prince also stressed the role that disasters can play in bringing about meaningful social change to prevent future loss of life.
Although there had certainly been previous disasters and major relief efforts, Catastrophe and Social Change represents one of the first attempts at studying disasters from a social science perspective and is still considered a classic in the field. While emergency management would eventually become a well-researched topic after World War II, the lessons learned from the Halifax Explosion continue to be applied in rescue efforts around the world.