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Curse of The Narrows: The Halifax Disaster of 1917

by Laura M. Mac Donald

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4442156,965 (4.08)133
December 6, 1917. Halifax, Nova Scotia. A munitions ship collided with another vessel in the Narrows of the harbor, triggering a catastrophic explosion that destroyed much of the city. Within minutes a tsunami engulfed parts of the waterfront. That evening a blizzard buried Halifax, isolating it from the world.… (more)
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    Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan (mysterymax)
    mysterymax: A very readable non-fiction account of the explosion that gives real background to Barometer Rising

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On the morning of December 6, 1917, after exchanging a number of warning whistles, the Imo collided with the Mont Blanc in the narrows of the Halifax, Nova Scotia harbor. Unfortunately for the residents of Halifax, the Mont Blanc was fully loaded with munitions destined for the war in Europe. The Mont Blanc caught fire after the collision and when the crew determined that the fire was not controllable, they abandoned ship and rowed to the shore opposite from Halifax. Unmanned, the Mont Blanc ran into Halifax's Pier 6 twenty minutes after the collision and then detonated in the largest man-made explosion of the time. The explosion leveled much of Halifax on the western shore of the harbor, and some of Richmond on the eastern shore, killing over 2000 people, wounding over 6000 people, and leaving 9000 people homeless. That night a blizzard arrived further complicating rescue efforts, and cutting off Halifax from the rest of the world.

[a:Laura M. MacDonald|215652|Laura M. MacDonald|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1391549220p2/215652.jpg] has done an exemplary job of researching and chronicling the disaster, and the recovery from the explosion. She vividly brings to life both the people suffering from the disaster, and the medical and other responders working non-stop to rescue the injured, save their lives, and to provide shelter and support for the survivors. This is a fascinating book that acknowledges the tremendous spirit and resilience of both the people of Halifax and the many volunteers working with them overcome all of the obstacles that the explosion and subsequent weather threw at them. I highly recommend this great read for all. ( )
  lpg3d | Nov 12, 2022 |
A detailed telling of the great Halifax explosions of 1917 told through the sailors, victims, survivors, first responders and doctors. An almost unbelievable calamity that flattened much of the port of Halifax. A bit long with too many details for most readers. I skimmed through some of the details about the recovery efforts without missing out of the essence of the story. ( )
  ghefferon | Oct 14, 2019 |
The description of the time right before the impact and explosion was poignant because it appeared to happen in slow motion. The crews on ships and the local population had so little warning, so little expectation of what was possible that a number of people stood watching as the biggest conflagration in history transpired. The devastation was compounded by the blizzard that followed. The chapter on the nature of explosions was the most interesting as it described why and how the blast and chain of events happened as they did. Some may prefer the more literary Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan, but this is without doubt an superb account of the horrific event that was mind-boggling in its scope. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Mar 6, 2018 |
On December 6, 1917, a collision between two ships in Halifax Harbour resulted in the largest non-atomic human-made explosion in history. The entire north end of Halifax was destroyed. Thousands were killed, and thousands more were injured. Relief efforts were enormous, and the question of who was to blame consumed public discourse for months afterward.

MacDonald’s book meticulously details the events leading up to, during, and following the explosion. Of particular note is Chapter 4, which talks about explosions themselves and brings home to the reader just why the explosion was so devastating. The discussion of the trial of pilot Francis Mackey includes transcripts of the court proceedings that vividly illustrate the confusion arising from the language barrier and the varying behaviour of English and French ships. The book contains a map, pictures, and appendices that flesh out the story.

This is a great book for those who want a comprehensive overview of the disaster. The bibliography at the back may give you ideas for further reading. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Jan 21, 2018 |
From the disaster response list. Halifax harbor (that’s “harbour” in Canadian) is shaped a little like a dumbbell; there’s a broad outer harbor, a narrow strait (not surprisingly called “the Narrows” by locals) and another broad inner harbor. On December 6th, 1917, the neutral (Norwegian) steamship Imo started out of the inner harbor, on its way to New York to pick up Belgian relief supplies. At about the same time, the French Mont Blanc started in from the outer harbor, where it had been waiting for the submarine nets to open. The Imo was in ballast and high in the water; the Mont Blanc was carrying 2300 tons of picric acid, 10 tons of guncotton, 200 tons of TNT, and 30 tons of benzenes and chlorobenzene. You can probably already see where this is going to end up.

Both ships were under the control of experienced harbor pilots. Standard procedure called for ships to pass port to port. However, another ship had preceded Mont Blanc into the inner harbor, and signaled and received permission from Imo to pass on the wrong side. That left Imo poorly “set up”, on the north side of the channel, and on a head-on collision course with Mont Blanc . Neither the captain nor the pilot of the Imo survived, but apparently they wanted to hold their course and also pass Mont Blanc on the wrong side. Various signals were exchanged but either they weren’t understood or both pilots were obstinate. With only fifty yards separating the ships, and Imo holding her course, Mont Blanc finally turned to port.

Unfortunately I’m still a little confused about what happened next. As near as I can tell from author Laura Mac Donald’s account, both ships were almost stopped and parallel courses; in other words, Mont Blanc’s last minute maneuver was successful and if nothing else had happened the two ships would have passed safely, albeit so close that the crews could have exchanged unpleasantries. However, Imo threw her engines into full reverse, and she was so high in the water that she was uncontrollable. Mont Blanc also threw her engines into reverse as soon as she saw what Imo was doing, but I was too late; Imo’s bow swung toward Mont Blanc and her anchor fluke punched through Mont Blanc’s plating and ripped a gash as the Imo finally gathered sternway.

The CBC has an interactive reconstruction that appears to show things a little differently, with Mont Blanc making her turn a little too late and Imo ramming her while still moving forward. I suppose it doesn’t matter any more, but I’d still like to know exactly what happened.

The Mont Blanc caught fire almost instantly, and her crew abandoned ship, rowing frantically toward the north shore after dragging the captain (who wanted to go down, or in this case, up, with his ship) into a lifeboat. The Mont Blanc drifted south until running gently into one of the Halifax docks. She burned for about 20 minutes, setting fire to the docks and attracting spectators astonished by the sight of benzene drums blowing high into the air as the contents BLEVEd. Then the 3000 tons of high explosive on board the Mont Blanc detonated.

What happened next is sadly typical of explosions. One of a group of friends discussing the fire found herself alone and untouched while her companions just vanished. Bits and pieces of the Mont Blanc , including her anchor and stern gun, ended up miles away. A ferry boat captain who had been crossing the harbor found himself alone and naked on a hillside. The only motorized fire company in Halifax was just arriving at the docks when the ship went up; the only survivor was the driver, who found himself still clutching a piece of the steering wheel. A wave swept over the just flattened city and dragged bits and pieces of town and populace back into the sea as it receded. The entire crew of the Mont Blanc made it to safety, but one Haligonian in thirty died.

As you might expect, things were a little confused thereafter. Most of the survivors, even those who actually saw Mont Blanc explode, thought it was a German bombing attack. Every telephone and telegraph line was gone. However, two American warships coming off convoy duty heard the blast from 50 miles out to sea and turned toward Halifax, radioing Washington as details became available.

Aid started in from all over, getting as close to the city as possible before the stopping on blocked railroad tracks. Then a storm blew in and dumped 16 inches of snow on the ruins. By the time everything got sorted out, one doctor had done so much surgery that his scalpel wouldn’t cut any more. A whole trainload of doctors, nurses and supplies from Boston eventually made it through the snow and set to work; Halifax still sends Boston a Christmas tree every year in gratitude. American sailors patrolled the streets for the exhausted and depleted Halifax police force. And as is usual, too much of the wrong things turned up; another train of doctors from Rhode Island arrived and found themselves without much to do.

Rehabilitation eventually got under way; the bodies and body parts were buried (ironically, in the same cemetery that held Titanic victims from five years earlier). Many of the survivors were blind; they were watching the fire and the supersonic detonation wave scoured out their eyes before they even had a chance to blink. Others had little bits of glass, brick and miscellaneous debris periodically emerge from their bodies for years. The pilot and captain of the Mont Blanc were tried and acquitted. As of the publication date of this book (2005), there were still survivors receiving pensions from the Canadian government.

I was struck by the number of similarities between this disaster and the Texas City explosion of 1947. Both involved French ships; in both cases responders didn’t understand the dangers involved and were wiped out (by the rules at the time, a ship carrying explosive cargo like the Mont Blanc was supposed to fly a red warning flag, but that had been suspended during the war because it attracted undue attention from U-boats). In both cases, the surviving authorities seemed to pay undue attention to recovering bodies and not enough to recovering survivors. In both cases, rumors spread rapidly and interfered with recovery operations. Even the amount of explosive involved was roughly the same; I expect the reasons for the greater death count at Halifax than Texas City were the power of the explosives involved, the inclement weather that set in, and the more primitive medical technology of 1917 compared to 1947.

I found this well-written and useful. Although the author isn’t a disaster professional (she’s a television producer) she did her homework well; there’s even a whole chapter on explosives theory and the difference between deflagration and detonation. (The main flaw I find is that Mac Donald consistently refers to benzol and chlorobenzol rather then benzene and chlorobenzene; even that’s forgivable because those were the terms in use at the time – however, it might create confusion for somebody using a modern reference to look up chemical properties).

There’s no finger pointing, either; there’s some slight hints that Mac Donald, unlike the people of 1917, puts the fault on the Imo rather than the Mont Blanc, but there’s no journalistic sobbing of the kind that was so annoying in City on Fire. I also liked the follow up work; Mac Donald goes into some depth on long-term rehabilitation efforts, something that’s lacking in a lot of disaster books. Recommended. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 6, 2017 |
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Each December the peoploe of Boston gather to witness the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. Some of them probably do not know why the people of Halifax send a tree every year or even that it is a gift from Nova Scotia. No one needs to know the story behind the tree to admire its beauty. But the people of Halifax know where it comes from and they remember the story.
For my mother, Dolly
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When I was a child growing up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, my father used to tell me the legend of an ancient Mi'kmaq Indian curse.
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December 6, 1917. Halifax, Nova Scotia. A munitions ship collided with another vessel in the Narrows of the harbor, triggering a catastrophic explosion that destroyed much of the city. Within minutes a tsunami engulfed parts of the waterfront. That evening a blizzard buried Halifax, isolating it from the world.

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Set against the vivid backdrop of WWI, Curse of the Narrows chronicles on of the most dramatic events in North American history: the catastrophic explosion that shattered Halifax. It is filled with unforgettable human stories: Charles Duggan, who was thrown to the seabed, stripped of his clothes, and left stranded on the opposite shore by the tsunami; Duggan's nine-year-old niece, Helena, who pulled her mother and siblings out of the rubble and led them to safety; Dr. George Cox, an eye surgeon who operated for more than three straight days; pioneering surgeon W.E. Ladd, whose experiences treating children in Halifax would lead to the first pediatric surgery ward in North America; the Boston relief train which literally dug its way through the snowdrifts to bring desperately needed supplies, doctors, and relief workers; and the Boston Christmas Tree, to this day given by the citizens of Halifax in remembrance of its sister city's heroic efforts.
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