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What was the largest man-made explosion prior to the Atomic Bomb being unleashed on Hiroshima?

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During the Great War, on 6 December 1917, the day started like most in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with school children laughing as they made their way to school and the harbour bustling with wartime activity. By day's end, she lay in ruins with more than a thousand people dead, and a thousand more would succumb to their injuries in the following days. One third of the victims were under the age of 15. Another nine thousand people were seriously injured, but had survive the largest man-made, non-atomic explosion the world has ever seen, with a force equivalent to roughly 2,600 tonnes of TNT. The record of magnitude remained in place for a period of 27 years, 8 months, that is until the atomic bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima, Japan, on 6 August 1945.

The 1917 catastrophic detonation resulted from the collision of two ships in the 'narrows' of Halifax Harbour. At 9:04:35 a.m. the French munitions ship, S.S. Mont-Blanc, blew-up after having struck a Belgian Relief Ship, S.S. Imo, 20 minutes earlier, causing a deck fire that eventually ignited her deadly cargo of TNT, wet & dry picric acid, guncotton and benzol - a near perfect receipt for disaster. Her hull was torn apart and a torrent of molten-hot, twisted metal shards and huge pieces of steel rained down on Halifax and its twin city - Dartmouth. As shown in the photograph, so powerful was the blast, that a large section of the Mont Blanc's anchor shaft was hurled more than 2.35 miles. The smoke plum rose 20,000 feet into the air and the blast was heard in Prince Edward Island, some 200 miles away. The supersonic shock wave and shrapnel blew through Halifax in the blink of an eye, toppling structures, ships and rail cars that stood in its path, slamming into humans and flinging them into lamp posts and walls. It snapped huge trees like twigs, twisted metal bars, bent irons rails, displaced and sunk ships with widespread damage and carnage. Virtually every window in the twin cities was blown out. Even windows in Truro, some 62 miles away, were shattered. Over 300 people were left fully or partially blind by the hail of glass shards when the windows they were looking through imploded. Many were crushed by falling buildings and of those who managed to survive the initial blast, many more were trap in the resulting rubble and succumbed to the many fires that resulted from the fireball which shot out over a four mile area, igniting homes and buildings that had been reduced to kindling. Still others, who were still trapped, succumbed to the deadly cold and blizzard that followed overnight and the next day. Some were literally blown sky high. For example, Charles Mayers aboard the S.S. Middleham Castle, was picked up and dropped over a half mile away, coming to rest atop Fort Needham Hill - "I had no clothes on when I came to, except my boots" - Mayers later described. The tsunami created by the blast wiped out the Mi'kmaq First Nations settlement of Turtle Grove, and the resultant tidal wave is reputed to have circled the globe several times.

Mercifully, relief efforts were swift and sure. War-time Halifax had many well-seasoned military and civilian doctors who brought order and discipline out of the chaos. The disaster was front page news around the world including in Germany, where many were sympathetic to Halifax's plight. Trainloads of medical supplies, cloths, food, doctors, nurses and building supplies started pouring in from across Canada and the 'Boston States', where many 'Bluenosers' (i.e. Nova Scotians) had emigrated. The immediate and on-going assistance provided by the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee, was extraordinarily generous.

There are many markers, plaques, embedded wreckage, and graves throughout Halifax that commemorate the disaster. The Richmond area of north Halifax that was levelled was reconstructed with a special cinderblock called Hydrostone from which the row-houses and rebuilt neighbourhood take their name. They stand as daily reminder of the disaster and the courage of those who survived. Next to the Hydrostone area is Fort Needham Park, a slopping grassy knoll topped with a large concrete interpretive memorial where every year on the anniversary, citizens come together to hear the memorial bells sound in remembrance, at exactly 9:04:35 a.m. Perhaps the most moving reminder of the tragedy and the relief efforts, is that every year since 1971, Nova Scotia sends a 50-foot Christmas tree to the people of Boston in gratitude for their assistance and support.

On this day, 6 December 2021, we commemorate the 104th anniversary of the Halifax explosion, the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb being unleashed on Hiroshima, and we continue to remember all those who died and suffered throughout this disaster and thank those communities who provided relief during a time of need.

Kevin A. MacDonald / André M. Levesque

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