Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December 6, 1917 at 9:04 a.m.

It's early in the morning of December 6, 1917 and a lot of your older friends are on the way to school and some are already there.  You're six years old and  you can see the Halifax Harbour from the big bay window in your dining room and wow, look at that -- two ships just hit each other and one is on fire !  Your mom and brother come to look out the window with you.  

This is exciting !

You put on your coat and run down the hill toward your friend's house so you can go watch the fire together.

Suddenly there is a BOOM !  You are soaked and tossed down and up and the next thing you know you are flying through the air.

You are Barbara Orr.   And you just survived the Halifax Explosion.

A panel from Laurie Swim's Halifax Explosion memorial quilt depicting Barbara tossed into the air.

What people rushing to windows to watch the burning ships did not realize, was that one of them was loaded with war time munitions.  At 9:04 that morning the Mont Blanc exploded with a man-made power only surpassed by the 1945 atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

A clock stopped at 9:04

The fireball height was 1.2 miles. The shock wave travelled across the land at 756 mph.  The tsunami radius was one to three miles. The iron hull of the 6,880,627 pound Mont Blanc was hurled 1,000 feet into the air !  A carbon saturated "black rain" fell for 10 minutes after the explosion. 

The force of the explosion created a shock wave followed by a tsunami that emptied the harbour of water.  The tidal wave enveloped bystanders sucking them back into the harbour.  

More than 2.5 sq km of the town was levelled either by the shock wave, the tsunami, or the structure fires caused when wooden buildings collapsed on lanterns, stoves and furnaces.

Out of a population of over 60,000 nearly 2,000 people died, 9,000 were maimed or blinded and more than 25,000 left without adequate shelter.  

Many children were killed on their walk to school that morning or blinded by flying glass. Many of those that survived stumbled home only to find their homes shattered and their parents dead or injured in the wreckage.

Many pregnant women went into premature labour.

The city was devastated and needed help.

The first rescue train left Truro (about 90 km away) around 10 am carrying medical personnel and supplies, and arrived in Halifax by noon and returned to Truro with wounded and homeless by 3 pm !

The first relief trains to arrive came from across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ottawa and Montreal in Canada.  From the United States help arrived from Maine, Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts bringing doctors, nurses and medical supplies as well as engineers, repairmen and equipment of all kinds, blankets, clothes and food.

Generous donations came in to meet the urgent need.

                                                             1917 dollars                      2008 dollars
Canadian Government$8,000,000$129.4 million
Great Britain$5,000,000$80.9 million
United States (Congress)$5,000,000$80.9 million
Australia$250,000$4.1 million
New Zealand$50,000$0.8 million

Did you know that the City of Halifax sends an enormous Christmas tree to the City of Boston every year.  It is done in thanks for the generous help of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief committee that opened a warehouse where displaced families could find free household goods.  The relief committee worked with Halifax until 1924 to help survivors and improve health conditions in the city.
  • Canadian postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the explosion.

The day after the explosion brought tragedy to the City of Halifax, an unpredicted  nor' easter winter storm with blizzard conditions compounded the survivors misery.

It's hard to imagine what it was like for those people 100 years ago who rushed to windows to watch two ships burning in the harbour below and whose lives were forever changed at 9:04 am on December 6.


Follow the link to  learn more about the Halifax Explosion memorial quilt created by Laurie Swim

Read more about Barbara's story, "I was there" here   


  1. The Toronto Star published a three page spread on the Halifax Explosion and the aftermath. I sent several of my Halifax area relatives the Canada Post first day cover for their special commemorative stamp.

    Thanks for your post.

    1. The only thing I knew of it back when I lived in Ontario was thanks to those "Heritage Moments" and the famous story of Vince Coleman, the telegraph operator who warned a train not to enter the city.

  2. What a horrific day it must have been for all involved. This weekend, I saw a W5 special on youtube about the explosion. The suffering must have been beyond imagination for both the injured and the helpers. Didn't know about the tidal wave pulling people into the water. Good grief. Thanks for the timely post.

    1. Apparently the bottom of the harbour was briefly visible. I never knew about it or the speed of the shock wave ... the disaster led to great strides forward in treating eye injuries and also the formation of the CNIB

  3. Great post -- wow, those horrific details of the blast . . . .

    1. Apparently J.Robert Oppenheimer did some calculations and determined the blast to be 1/5 to 1/3 the strength of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima !

  4. Replies
    1. An amazing tale of tragedy and survival eh ?

  5. Oh my word, that must have been absolutely terrifying. I had never heard of the Halifax explosion before.

  6. Thanks for sharing such an important story that we need to remember.


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