Today in History: Ships explode in Canadian port, killing thousands

Today in History: Ships explode in Canadian port, killing thousands
Today in History: Ships explode in Canadian port, killing thousands

On this day in 1917, a Belgian steamer and a French freighter, both loaded with ammunition, exploded in the Canadian port of Halifax, leveling part of the city and killing thousands of people.

The ships were assembled at Halifax, the meeting point for convoys to begin the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, during which they were threatened by the deadly and stealthy German U-boat submarines. HMS High Flyer was assigned to lead the convoy. The freighter from France, the Mont Blanc, had picked up a full load of TNT in New York and entered port on a foggy morning.

Due to the poor conditions, it collided with the Imo, a Belgian steamer, which also transported ammunition. A fire broke out and both ships were immediately abandoned.

A British ship, the Pictou, was moored at a pier in the harbour and was also loaded with ammunition. The crew of the Pictou immediately fled and freed the ship when they witnessed the collision.

The High Flyer was the only ship to take any action to stop the disaster; it sent 23 men to the collision to try to sink the ships. They were too late; a huge explosion occurred just as they reached the ships.

The explosion spread burning debris throughout Halifax. It also caused a large wave to form which pushed the ships on the pier straight out of the harbour.

A Canadian army officer stationed in Halifax described the result: “All that could be seen for a large area were burning buildings, great piles of iron and brick in the streets and corpses.” A 4 km radius was completely destroyed and the explosion was felt 201 km away. The wave of water hit a Navy ammunition factory located near the coast, possibly saving it from fire.

Most other places nearby were not so lucky. The train station collapsed in the blast, crushing dozens of people inside. About 100 others died in a sugar factory near the water.

Of the 500 students living in nearby schools, fewer than 10 survived. In total, the death toll was somewhere between 1,200 and 4,000, but no one knows for sure because much of the city was completely wiped out. Many more would have died if a snowstorm had not extinguished the flames later that day.

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