Friday 6 December 2013

Halifax Harbour Remembers the Halifax Explosion

On December 6, our Museum participated in an evocative tribute to the Halifax Explosion, the disaster that struck Halifax in 1917 when the ammunition ship Mont-Blanc blew up and killed nearly 2,000 people. Haligonian Fred Honsberger worked with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Waterfront Development Corporation to have ships sound their horns all around the harbour at 9:05 am, the moment of the explosion.

Randal Tomada, of our Visitor Service Staff, captured the sight and sounds in this evocative pan of the wharves around the museum beside our 100-year-old steamship CSS Acadia.You can hear Acadia's original ship's bell tolling away as the chorus builds.

(You can also watch Randal's video and visitor comments on the Museum's Facebook page.) 

The sounds from the ships could be heard across downtown Halifax where they blended with church bells. The sound-scape was preceded by the boom of the signal cannon at the Halifax Citadel. From the waterfront, the cacophonous fugue underscored an eerie scene. The harbour was cloaked in mist, reminiscent of the smoke that shrouded the port immediately after the explosion. Even the black steel masts of the harbour tour schooner Silva reminded us of the masts of SS Imo which loomed over the shattered shoreline after the blast.

The Harbour after the explosion in a detail from a panoramic photograph by Maclaughlin with SS Imo to left and HMS Highflyer to right. MMA, MP207.1.184/1b
The flags that you can see flying from Acadia in the video have a special meaning. Acadia was in Halifax Harbour on the morning of the Halifax Explosion. Normally a research ship, wartime needs had drafted her into the Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Acadia. That day, she was serving as the Bedford Basin guard ship with the job of controlling the movement of neutral ships like SS Imo. The Navy informed Acadia that Imo was cleared to leave, so Acadia hoisted a fateful message at 7:30 am which spelled out, in the International Code of Signals, this message:

 J      The signal flag call sign for 
G             "Steamship Imo"
T      The signal flag shorthand for:
X  "You may proceed to sea when ready"

We know these were the exact flags flown by Acadia on that morning because the Inquiry into the collision grilled Acadia's officer on duty about exactly what flags he used. Although Acadia was blameless for the departure that had been approved by the Navy, circumstance put her in the centre of the tragic movements leading to the disaster. Minutes after she steamed past Acadia, the outgoing Imo collided with the incoming Mont-Blanc in the narrowest part of the harbour, triggering the deadly explosion. Shielded by a ridge of land, Acadia received only minor damage but the blast and tidal wave leveled the north end of Halifax and Dartmouth on a day that the city will never forget.

Imo on the blasted Dartmouth side of the harbour after the explosion. MMA,MP207.1.184/270

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