The Halifax Explosion

"The course of our lives is not determined by great, awesome decisions. Our direction is set by the little day-to-day choices which chart the track on which we run." -- Gordon B. Hinckley

The date: Thursday, December 6, 1917. The place: Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The event: The collision of the French cargo ship S.S. Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian S.S. Imo. Here is that story.

Because Halifax has one of the deepest, ice-free natural harbors in the world, in 1910 it became the command center of the Royal Canadian Navy. Halifax thrived during times of war and was even more prominent during World War I.

On December 3, 1917 the Norwegian ship S.S. Imo had stopped in Halifax on its way from Holland to New York to take on relief supplies for Belgium. While there the Imo had a neutral inspection and waited two days for refueling. Waiting for the anti-submarine nets to be raised, the Imo had to wait one more day.

The French cargo ship S.S. Mont-Blanc, fully loaded with munitions (TNT, picric acid, Benzol and guncotton) arrived from New York the same evening.

Crossing from the outer harbor into the basin required passage through a section known as "The Narrows," which allowed traffic in both directions simultaneously. The rules for shipping traffic were similar to land-based traffic -- ships were expected to keep to the starboard (right) side of the Narrows as they passed oncoming traffic. The Imo was granted clearance to leave the basin at 7:30 a.m. on the morning of December 6 but due to traffic, entered the Narrows on the port (left) side. The Imo had to stay on that side to pass a tug boat which was also in the Narrows.

Meanwhile the Mont-Blanc was cleared at 7:00 a.m. to make its way to the basin. She stopped briefly for ferry traffic to pass before resuming passage down the Narrows. She then spotted the Imo approaching her lane at a high rate of speed. In spite of blasts from both ships and emergency maneuvers, the collision occurred at 8:45 a.m. pushing the Imo nine feet into the Mont-Blanc hull. Sparks caused an uncontrollable fire and at 9:04:35 a.m. the cargo of the Mont-Blanc exploded with more force than any manmade explosion before it.

The force released was equivalent to roughly three kilotons of TNT destroying the ship and launching the remains of her hull nearly 1,000 feet into the air. White-hot shards of iron rained down on Halifax and neighboring Dartmouth. The barrel of one of Mont-Blanc's guns landed 3.5 miles to the north while part of her anchor landed 2.0 miles to the south.

A cloud of smoke rose 20,000 feet in the air while over 400 acres was completely destroyed by the explosion. A tsunami rose 60 feet above the harbor's high-water mark, carrying the Imo onto the shore at Dartmouth.

Nearly 2,000 people were killed while 9,000 were injured. Every building within a 16 mile radius (over 12,000) was destroyed or badly damaged. Hundreds of people who had been watching the fire from their homes were blinded when the blast wave shattered the windows in front of them. The disaster damaged buildings and shattered windows 10 miles away and was felt and heard as far away as Prime Edward Island approximately 130 miles north and North Cape Breton approximately 220 miles east.

In 1994 a team of scientists and historians compared a total of 130 major non-nuclear explosions and they included, "Halifax harbor remains unchallenged in overall magnitude as long as five criteria are considered together: number of casualties, force of the blast, radius of devastation, quantity of explosive material, and total value of property destroyed."

No one wanted that awful explosion to take place. A multitude of minor decisions could have avoided it entirely. How easy it is to put all of our attention only on the biggest decisions. As Kerri Russell said, "Sometimes, it's the smallest decisions that change your life forever."

Think about it.