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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Reviewed: March 15, 2010
By: Curse Of The NarrowsLaura M. MacDonald
Publisher: Harper Perennial Canada
368 pages, $21.95

My Grandmother was in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, on December 6, 1917. She must have been visiting some family there for in those days it was quite a journey from White Rock to Falmouth. It was even farther to Halifax, which was a drive of an hour and fifteen minutes when I was young, and still takes at least 40 minutes now.

She remembers hearing a loud clap of thunder.

That was the munitions ship, Mont Blanc, blowing up in Halifax Harbour. The explosion leveled most of the city and there would be no single human caused explosion to equal it in impact until the dropping of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

It has its own mushroom cloud and is recorded as having been heard north as far as Prince Edward Island (215 km) and east to the northern tip of Cape Breton (360 km).

For reasons which are never quite clear, the Norwegian freighter Imo rammed into the French munitions vessel in the narrows of Halifax Harbour. It’s pretty clear that there was not one single element of the disaster or of the decisions taken by the harbour pilots and ship captains that morning that created this disaster.

Little things add up. It appears that not everyone understood exactly what the “rules of the road” were supposed to be in the harbour in wartime and when they did attempt to avoid each other, they were unable to.

The collision of the Imo and the Mont Blanc might have been a minor issue except for the latter’s cargo. It was not so much that the Mont Blanc was carrying munitions. It was also loaded with TNT and a highly unstable explosive substance called picric acid. It was that substance which combusted under the impact, and had been stored in the ship in such a way that it superheated the hull and set off everything else.

The 2,925 tons worth of explosives killed 2000 people and injured upwards of 9000 more. All the buildings within a 2 square kilometre radius of the blast were obliterated. The explosion caused an eighteen metre tsunami within the harbour and a pressure wave that snapped off trees like the mightiest of hurricanes.

It may be that more people died because the explosion didn’t happen for more than half an hour after the collision. Crowds had gathered to watch on both the Halifax and Dartmouth sides of the harbor.

Pieces of the Mont Blanc were carried for kilometres and some remain as monuments in the city today. 1,630 homes were destroyed and 12,000 more damaged. 6,000 people were left homeless and 25,000 without adequate housing. 600 people suffered eye injuries from flying glass.

The first 107 pages of Laura MacDonald’s account of this event set the scene, giving some history and leading us into the events of the day. As with recent events in Haiti and Chile (which, I must admit, inspired me to pluck this book from my shelves) what happens after the inciting event is probably more important than the event itself and may have consequences which reach farther.

A lot of this book is about how the disaster was managed during the month that followed the explosion; how relief came from all over the Maritimes provinces and, especially, from the New England states, which have a long history of positive associations with the Maritimes. Trains were loaded with supplies and medical professionals and headed off to Halifax as fast as they could get there, travelling in the teeth of the blizzard that hit the region the day after the explosion and complicated matters considerably.

This is the origin of that huge Christmas Tree that gets shipped off to Boston from Halifax every year in memory of those days.

There are other longer term outcomes. Because so many peoples’ eyes were damaged (many were watching the fire from behind windows when the blast shattered them), advances were made in the treatment of eye injuries. Because there were so many children injured, the American doctor who headed up their care became a specialist in pediatrics and his experiences helped him become an expert in fluid and electrolyte balances in children during operations. He literally wrote the book on that subject.

Lessons learned during the Halifax relief effort became part of the standard practices of the Red Cross and other disaster relief agencies. The relief and reconstruction funding that came to Halifax was one of the first national efforts of its kind. The Halifax Relief Commission Fund continued paying out pensions until 2002 and the Canadian government picked up the tab for the remaining survivors after that. There were still three people in 2004 when this book was being written.

While much of the book is taken up with large scale impacts, MacDonald gives the event a human scale by following the fortunes of some of the relief workers and medical people as well as several families, in particular the Duggans, the Frasers, and the Galloways. While they suffered greatly as families, there were some survivors in each case and their stories offer some perspective on events.

This is a fascinating look at the sort of disaster that has been far too common already this year.

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