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from Paul Hashagen,
There are many instances of tragedy in the history of the fire service. One that stands alone is the tragedy that befell the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia
(Canada), and its fire department in 1917. In their
honor, their story alone will be told this month.
December 6, 1917: Halifax, Nova Scotia: The city of
Halifax lies on the southern coast of the island of Nova
Scotia, a province of Canada. Noted for its excellent
harbor, the city was an assembly and departure point for
transatlantic convoys of supplies and soldiers bound for
the war in Europe. Tragedy would befall the city on an
otherwise quiet morning when two ships, the French
ship Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian ship Imo, collided
in the tight waterway known as the Narrows.
The Mont-Blanc was carrying 2,300 tons of wet and
dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton,
and 35 tons of benzol (a highly explosive mixture). The
Imo made a series of poorly judged maneuvers, then
crashed into the Mont-Blanc on the bow. Barrels of benzol were loosened and spilled the flammable liquid across
the decks. Sparks ignited a fire and the panicked crew
fled the ship. The blazing ship drifted for 20 minutes
before coming to rest against Pier 6, in Richmond, the
industrial north end of Halifax. The fire department
was notified and responded with its 1912 American
LaFrance type- 12 pumper it had named “Patricia.” One
firefighter, Albert Blunt, tried to grab the speeding rig as
it raced by but could not hold on and ended up rolling
in the street and ending up with scraped hands and
knees. Missing the rig would save his life.
The column of thick smoke drew a large crowd of spectators. Pressing in close, they watched the firefighters begin
their battle against the wall of extreme heat at Pier 6. Realizing he needed additional help, Chief Edward Condon
pulled Box 83 for a second time. A well-respected retired
member named John Spruin volunteered his services
and joined the working firefighters pulling hose as the
pumper’s driver, Billy Wells, positioned the rig.
Onboard the ship, unseen from shore, the flames
reached the volatile cargo. With a blinding flash and a
deafening roar, the tons of stored explosives detonated.
It was 9:04 a.m.
Billy Wells was torn from the driver’s seat, the dam-
aged steering wheel still clutched in his hands, and was
hurled through the air. Other people working or watch-
ing near the pier were not quite so lucky. Chief Condon
and the remainder of his men working on the pier were
killed instantly. The energy released by the explosion
produced a supersonic overpressurization shockwave
that blew through the narrow streets, splintering win-
dows, smashing walls and doors, and toppling buildings
with the occupants still inside.
A fireball followed, simultaneously igniting the damaged
structures like kindling. Razor-sharp glass shards sliced
through the air, tearing apart people and objects in their
path. The blast vaporized sections of the ship and cargo
into a huge ball of fire above the pier. Molten fragments
of the damaged ship rained down on the city, igniting
additional fires and injuring still more people. The Mont
Blanc’s 1,140-pound anchor was hurled 2. 35 miles.
Seriously injured, Billy Wells landed a long distance
from the pier, suffering a badly damaged right arm and
eye. Moments later, he was lifted by a tidal wave caused
by the explosion and carried farther from shore. He nearly
drowned when he landed in a tangle of telephone wires.
The 30 remaining firefighters, joined by volunteers,
began battling the fires raging around them. The news
of the explosion traveled quickly and help descended
on the ravaged city. Responding fire companies had dif-
ficulty matching couplings with each other, furthering
the difficulties faced in fighting the growing fires.
Department members killed in the line of duty that
morning included Chief Edward P. Condon; Deputy
Chief William P. Brunt; Captains William T. Broderick
and Michael Maltus; and Hosemen John Spruin, Walter
Hennessy, Frank Killeen, Frank Leahy, and John Duggan.
It was believed to have been the largest manmade
explosion before the nuclear age. The number of those
killed or injured by the explosion was staggering: 1,952
people were killed, and 9,000 were injured. Three
hundred people were blinded or partially blinded by
flying glass. More than 1,500 buildings were destroyed
and 12,000 damaged. Six thousand people were left
homeless and more than 25,000 lacked proper shelter.
To make matters worse, a blizzard hit Halifax the day
after the explosion.
Paul Hashagen is a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He retired from
the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) after 25 years of service, with
20 of those years in Rescue Company 1. Hashagen is a former chief
of the Freeport (NY) Fire Department and is still a member of Truck
Company 1. He has written several books and numerous stories on
the history of the fire service, including his new book Stories of Fire;
and One Hundred Years of Valor: Rescue Company 1 New York City
Fire Department Rescue 1915-2015, both of which are available at
paulhashagen.com. Visit his Facebook page at Paul Hashagen-author.
December 1917 Fires
A look at fires that made history