December 1917 Fires

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 damaged steering wheel still clutched in his hands, and was hurled through the air. Other people working or watching 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 windows, 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 difficulty 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.

Pennwell