Alden Graves: December 6, 1917: A day to remember

To anyone familiar with my frequent referrals to the disaster, it will come as no surprise that my knowledge concerning Halifax, Nova Scotia was pretty much confined to its part in the Titanic saga. But five years after the White Star liner hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic with a loss of over 1,500 lives, an even greater disaster was to occur in this Canadian port.

It was never the subject of a big Hollywood movie featuring doomed lovers and state-of-the-art effects. No one ever stood in the ruins on an MGM back lot and sang hopefully about the future the way Jeanette MacDonald did in "San Francisco." As a matter of fact, very few people even know what happened on that sunny day in the early winter of 1917. If Titanic historian Walter Lord immortalized April 14-15, 1912 as "a night to remember," December 6, 1917 has become a day largely — and oddly — forgotten.

Halifax had become a major departure port for troops destined for the battlefields in Europe. The Olympic, Titanic's nearly identical sister ship, which had been converted to a transport during the war years, was anchored not far from the vortex of the catastrophe.

The grim and frequently grisly job of recovering Titanic's victims was assigned to ships whose homeport was Halifax. The Mackay-Bennett, designed to lay and repair underwater cables, departed on April 17 with one chaplain and enough embalming fluid, canvas bags, and coffins to accommodate 100 bodies. There were enough weights to consign 70 more to rest at the bottom of the sea.

Officials had underestimated what the Mackay-Bennett would encounter. Four days later, 800 miles out of Halifax, it came upon the scene of the disaster. Bodies bobbed on the surface amidst a field of debris from the great liner that extended "as far as the eye could see." The ship would recover a total of 306 victims from the freezing water, some of them damaged by their fall from the upper decks of the sinking Titanic and others gruesomely mutilated by sea birds and fish.

I have never been certain as to how it was determined that a deteriorated corpse belonged to a first class passenger given the fact that fish aren't generally very selective. But those who were so designated were embalmed and placed in coffins. Second class victims were inserted into the bags and stored in a forward hold. The chaplain said the appropriate words over the remains of all third class victims (as well as crew members, I presume) and they were weighted and delivered back to the sea.

Such is traditionally the fate of the less fortunate among us, but then the Titanic story has always served as a vivid example of the heartlessness of a rigidly class-regimented society.

By 1917, two of the three White Star superliners were gone. The largest of the fabled trio, Britannic, serving as a hospital ship, sank in 55 minutes after hitting a mine in the Aegean Sea in 1916, never having carried a single passenger across the Atlantic. Olympic, dazzle painted in geometric patterns to confuse enemy submarines as to her direction, was often berthed in the harbor at Halifax.

Halifax Harbour is recognized as one of the best saltwater ports in the world. Its shape is similar to that of a wine bottle with an apple poised on top. On the morning of December 6, two ships were making their way through the neck of the bottle, a section appropriately called the Narrows.

Francis Mackey, an experienced pilot, was guiding the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc into Bedford Basin, at the upper part of the harbor. The SS Imo, of Norwegian registry, was headed out towards the Atlantic, traveling at an excessive speed because of a late start. Mackey became concerned when he realized that the Imo wasn't going to allow the two vessels a starboard-to-starboard pass. Last-minute maneuvering resulted in the Imo's slamming into the Mont-Blanc's forward hold, causing minor physical damage, but igniting drums full of benzol that had been carelessly stored on the deck.

Captain Aime Le Medec on the Mont-Blanc ordered his crew to abandon the ship as the fire intensified, while other vessels in the harbor rushed to lend aid. Mont-Blanc finally drifted to a stop at Pier 6 in the Richmond section of Halifax. Children on their way to school gathered with other Haligonians to watch the spectacular pyrotechnics. Because of the sloping contour of the land leading down to the water, hundreds more watched the conflagration through windows in homes and businesses.

From lifeboats out in the harbor, trying to be heard above the din, Mont-Blanc's crew was franticly attempting to warn people that the ship was going to explode.

At 9:04, approximately 15 minutes after the collision, it did.

The detonation of six million pounds of TNT was the largest man-made explosion in history. The remains of a 90 mm gun, one of the few identifiable fragments of the Mont-Blanc, was found over three miles from the harbor. Shock waves were felt 129 miles away at Cape Breton. The explosion generated temperatures that reached over 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. White-hot debris rained down on the city, incinerating those trapped in wooden ruins.

An estimated 1,600 people died instantly and 300 more would succumb to their terrible injuries. Hundreds were blinded by flying shards of glass.

The word "hero" is bandied about rather carelessly today, but if you want to read about true heroism in the aftermath of this horrific catastrophe, I suggest John U. Bacon's "The Great Halifax Explosion," published by William Morrow. It could very well have been subtitled "A Day to Remember."


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