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Mont Blanc and Imo and the Halifax Explosion of 1917

The MONT BLANC was a French munitions ship (owned by Cie. France-Amerique Line), out of Marseilles, which had arrived from Gravesend Bay, New York. It had been sent to Halifax by the British, because it was too slow for the American convoys. (about 7.5 knots, there was some doubt whether it would even qualify for a 'slow' convoy). It was a 3000 ton ship, carrying 2,300 tons of wet and dry Pitric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton, and 35 tons of Benzol, all bound for the French military. It also had fore and aft guns, with 300 rounds of ammunition on deck.

The IMO was a former Norwegian vessel, (neutral ship) on it's way to New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium.

After the collision the disabled MONT BLANC drifted toward pier 6 (Richmond area) and the ensuing explosion at approx. 9.05am flattened Richmond, and sent the 1,140lb. anchor shaft 2.35 miles! The devastation covered 325 acres, and killed 1,600 people instantly and wounded over 9,000 others.

The people of Halifax received an outpouring of relief from all over the world, but none is remembered with as much love and gratitude as is the aid provided by the people of Boston and the State of Massachucetts. As an ongoing act of gratitude, the people of Halifax and the Province of Nova Scotia, search for the _most_ perfect, and huge Christmas tree, which is presented to the city of Boston each Christmas.

This below was from a Mariners Post by cheney@mail.utexas.edu (Victoria Cheney)

Another harbor disaster was the 1917 HALIFAX EXPLOSION, during World War I.

Among the vessels destroyed are said to be the CURACA, the COLON, the MUSQUASH, the DOUGLAS THOMAS, the PICTON -- and the principal vessel involved: the MONT BLANC (French).

The causes of the HALIFAX EXPLOSION are described at http://www.region.halifax.ns.ca/community/explode.html , and are condensed below.

EXPLOSION OF THE MONT BLANC

Halifax, Nova Scotia December 6, 1917

During the first World War, the Harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia was a busy port for shipping soldiers and military cargo across the Atlantic.

On December 6, 1917, a Belgian ship named IMO left Halifax and headed southward down the Harbour's channel, on its way to the open sea. Meanwhile a much smaller French ship, the MONT BLANC, was headed north into Halifax Harbour. The MONT BLANC was loaded with explosives, and was to wait at Halifax for the rest of a convoy that would cross the Atlantic.

One of the first errors: the MONT BLANC did not fly a red flag, which would have indicated that she carried a hazardous cargo. Yet she had on board "a full cargo of explosives. Stored in the holds, or stacked on deck, were 35 tons of benzol, 300 rounds of ammunition, 10 tons of gun cotton, 2,300 tons of picric acid (used in explosives), and 400,000 pounds of TNT."

The channel into to Halifax Harbour has a narrow section, called the Narrows. The IMO and MONT BLANC were supposed to pass each other in the Narrows, "port to port," that is, each captain staying to his right, as the left sides of their ships went by each other.

The MONT BLANC saw the IMO was bearing down fast, and too far east, encroaching into the MONT BLANC's channel. The situation threatened to force the MONT BLANC dangerously close to the shore on her right (starboard).

The MONT BLANC signalled that she was in her correct channel. However, the IMO signalled that she intended to bear even farther to port -- that is, even farther into the MONT BLANC's channel.

The MONT BLANC, which had dropped her speed to "dead slow" because of the danger, saw only one choice: to swing to port (its left) towards Halifax, across the bow of the IMO, so the ships could pass starboard to starboard (right sides of the ships going by each other.)

The MONT BLANC could possibly have made it past the IMO. However, the IMO signalled "full speed astern" at the same time as the MONT BLANC did.

IMO's bow struck the MONT BLANC, cutting into her side. The impact missed the TNT, but sent sparks into the picric acid, which was beneath the drums of highly volatile benzol on deck.

The MONT BLANC's crew, fully realizing the danger, "immediately took to lifeboats, screaming warnings that no one heeded. They rowed for Dartmouth [eastern shore], leaving the furiously burning ship to drift towards Halifax, propelled in that direction by the IMO's impact."

The burning ship was a spectacular sight. In the next 20 minutes, spectators gathered at the waterfront, many of them children. Others watched from their windows.

Like a drifting torch, the MONT BLANC brushed by a pier, setting it ablaze. Members of the Halifax Fire Department were responding; they had brought their engine to a hydrant when a brilliant flash engulfed the entire city. The MONT BLANC's cargo exploded at 9:05 a.m. in what has been called "the largest man-made explosion before the nuclear age."

The entire north end of Halifax was destroyed, 325 acres. The number of dead and seriously wounded topped 11,000. More than 1,600 were killed instantly; which later rose to 2,000. Many of the injured were permanently disabled. Of those watching from windows, flying glass took the eyesight of 200. Fires consumed the buildings that had not already been leveled by the explosion.

Another measure of the severity of the explosion: "As for the MONT BLANC, all 3,000 tons of her were blasted in little pieces far and wide. The barrel of one of her cannons landed 3-1/2 miles away. Part of her anchor shank, weighing over half a ton, flew two miles in the opposite direction. Windows shattered 50 miles away. The shock wave was felt in Cape Breton, 270 miles to the northeast."

[omitted a section on the rescue and recovery efforts]

All those who perished or suffered in the tragedy are commemorated in Halifax each December 6th, at 9 a.m., when the Memorial Bells ring a service in their honour.

-------------
Source:
Tourism Halifax/Metro Guide; text at http://www.region.halifax.ns.ca/community/explode.html A moving first-person story of a survivor is at: http://www.herald.ns.ca/aboutus/explosion4.html (however, it has no maritime perspective). Suggested Reading: M.J. Bird, _The Town that Died_ (1962); G. Metson, _The Halifax Explosion_ (1978); Hugh MacLennan, _Barometer Rising_ (1941).

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