There was a time when I was unable to shed a tear. I was a man frozen inside. No longer. Sometimes the emotion of other people’s losses overwhelms me. In a public place like the Museum of Maritime History in Halifax, it took all my energy to suppress the racking sobs that want to heave my body in sorrow.
The scene was devastating. It was 8:45am on Thursday, December 6th, 1917. The Norwegian freighter Imo and the French munitions ship Mont Blanc were navigating the narrowest part of the Halifax harbour, the second largest such body of water in the world. In one of those stark, fateful moments, they were suddenly on course to collide. The Mont Blanc veered unsuccessfully. A fire started immediately. The ship was full to the brim with benzol, oil and explosives, loaded up in New York with a final destination of France in support of the war effort.
The crowds on shore, busily loading and unloading, became mesmerized by the fire and the smoke. Little did they know that they had only 20 minutes in which to run for their lives. They would need to run more than a mile if they were to be safe. Few did in their unawareness of the ship’s cargo. Word must have spread anyway because telegraph operator Vincent Colman sent this message moments before the explosion: “Hold up the train. Munitions ship on fire and making for Pier 6. Goodbye boys.”
The explosion leveled one square mile of the heart of Halifax. A one thousand pound anchor was found three kilometers ( 2 miles) from its origin. Barbara Orr felt a powerful whoosh of air and awoke half a kilometer away, blackened but alive. She staggered back to her aunt’s house. “Where are your parents and five siblings?” her aunt asked. “All gone.” she replied. One survivor interviewed on tape recalled the size of the loss in her extended family – twenty-five. One can barely grasp her reality. “What can you do,” she asked rhetorically. “You have to go on living. You have no other choice.”
The devastation is mind-boggling, even by today’s standards. It is on a comparable scale to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on 9-11-2001. 1,650 instantly killed. 9000 injured. 6000 homeless. 12,000 buildings damaged including 1630 completely leveled. 3 schools. 4 churches. Countless factories and businesses. Houses burned and glass shattered for miles from the concussive force. The blast could be felt for nearly 500 km/300 miles. It actually caused a tsunami in the harbour and wiped out a native community on the opposite shore.
In a cruel twist of fate, on Friday the 7th, the temperature plummeted and 16 inches of snow fell. Bodies were frozen and hard to find. Perhaps that was a kindness. Thanks to Vincent Colman, the word to get help spread fast. Help poured in from New Brunswick, PEI and Massachusetts. One doctor described working 48 hours straight with no thought of eating or sleeping. A photo in the film we watched showed a man’s legs burned from ankle to hip. Having been severely burned myself at age 18, I know his chances of survival were nearly zero in that day and circumstance.
A Presbyterian pastor was stunned by the blast, his house burning. He spotted his eldest daughter and carried her out to safety. Rushing back, he saw his entire house engulfed. In it were his wife and four other children. “I took comfort that there were no screams. All was silent,” he said. Later, he was quoted as saying, “If I believed God did this, I would rip this collar off right now.”
My tears flowed readily as I read, heard and saw the many tales of sacrifice and selfless giving. People took in people, providing food and shelter. Apartments were built as fast as humanly possible, sometimes at the rate of one per hour. The state of Massachusetts was particularly generous, providing construction funds of $750,000. $23 million was raised in total, pouring in from all around the world. This was the largest explosion in history, only surpassed nearly 30 years later by Hiroshima.
How does one make sense of God in the face of such calamity? We have free will and we make mistakes. I believe that those who survived and got involved would have been given many opportunities in which to love and be loved. Either they found inner peace in that or they lived bitter lives. My hope is that many, in faith, found the former.
Perhaps this is why I felt such pain and loss myself. As English poet and pastor John Donne wrote in the 16th century, “Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”